Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. Each week in 27 Questions, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims, aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration it takes to sit through a two-minute speed date.
In Hong Kong, the restaurant industry can often be a relentless, cynically operated type of machine: powered by equal amounts naked profiteering and half-baked armchair gourmands. It’s a world that David Lai is deeply familiar with; and one the acclaimed Hong Kong chef was eager to spend less time in when he founded his (now ironically accolade-laden) Neighborhood six years ago.
A lifelong professional chef, it’s apparent from a quick glance at Lai’s résumé that he’s had a long and varied career. He began culinary training right out of university: running the pass at beloved NorCal institutions such as Masa’s and The Ritz-Carlton San Francisco.
In the early 2000s he returned to Hong Kong in order to work more closely with Alain Ducasse, helping the latter to open Spoon at the InterContinental Hong Kong. Other projects such as Kushiyaki Beco, Jia Group’s Fish School and the much-beloved On Lot 10 followed — though none have come as close to encapsulating Lai’s philosophy toward cooking as succinctly as Neighborhood.
Tucked into a little alley halfway down Hollywood Road’s SoHo stretch, Neighborhood isn’t a restaurant so much as it is a dinner party that happens to do reservations. The relaxed, almost subterranean fixtures do a fantastic job of getting across what diners will also find on the plate: discrete yet detail-rich cooking that’s delicious, hard to pigeonhole, and (upon closer inspection) much cleverer than it first appears.
That’s so much the case that the restaurant has been a fixture of the ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant’ list since 2018, going on to snag the 18th spot earlier this year — none too shabby for a kitchen that’s half the size of your average flat in SoHo. As ever, we throw our signature 27-point questionnaire at Lai and get the contemplative chef’s thoughts on all manner of topics — including vino, must-see flicks and his abiding love for instant noodles.
1. What is your life motto?
“Life is short.”
2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
To this day, I still think a bowl of beef tendon noodles (soup on the side) makes for the perfect meal. At most, served alongside a plate of boiled gailan and maybe an extra bowl of wontons. Luckily, these are all easily attainable in Hong Kong. The former is a dish I probably eat more often than anything else.
3. Who is your role model?
He’s not someone who I necessarily copy but I have deep respect for Dominique Le Stanc — a fantastic chef who has a hole-in-the-wall bistro in Nice called La Merenda. He quit his role as Executive Chef at the extremely posh Chantecler (Hotel Negresco) to open his own humble restaurant. Day in, day out he stills rides his bike to a nearby farmers’ market for produce. Even though he’s fiercely dedicated to his craft, his cooking is without ego — not unlike the shoukunin (i.e. ‘craftsmen’) of Japan.
4. What was your first job?
Bussing tables at Panda Inn in Santa Monica (California), the summer before I started university. Everybody told me I should be focusing on my studies [laughs].
5. What is your drink of choice?
I like Romano Levi’s grappa from Neive, Piedmont. When the master was alive, he even hand-drew all of the labels.
6. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Morning by far. My mind is most active then: I think my ancestors must have been farmers.
7. Which phone app could you not live without?
Find My iPhone.
8. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Rice — provided I can choose anything to go with it. I’d really miss rice if I were never to have it again.
9. What is your biggest regret in life?
Probably not going to an industrial art school like ArtCenter College of Design, where I would have enjoyed myself and done reasonably well. Instead, I chose the vanity route and went to a name brand school (UC Berkeley), which sent me into the confusing wilderness of introspection that turned me into who I am today.
10. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?
The merciless gentrification — do we really need to put mom-and-pop stores out of business just to have 10 luxury watch boutiques on the same block?
11. How often do you prepare your own meals?
Oh all the time — but mainly instant noodles. Instant noodle shopping is one of life’s most gratifying experiences.
12. What is your greatest fear?
Having to say no to people.
13. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Shopping for snacks. In Hong Kong supermarkets, the snacks and instant noodles are often located in the same aisle — so much instant gratification at once!
14. What is one movie everyone should see?
For chefs, I’d recommend Tampopo (1985); it’s great fun. For something much edgier, I also love The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989).
15. What is your typical Sunday like?
Tennis in the morning, a yum cha lunch and, more often than not, another family-style meal for dinner.
16. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
If I had a second life, I’d love to live in Japan.
17. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?
I like to think we’re inclusive — there shouldn’t be a purity test.
18. If you could banish someone from Hong Kong forever, who would it be?
I think the impulse to banish is unnecessary, intolerant and runs counter to the city’s liberal ideals.
19. Where do you go when you want to be alone?
20. If you had to describe Hong Kong in one word, what would it be?
21. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?
22. Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Tell us about it.
Definitely. The first time I saw a 993 version of the Porsche Carrera.
23. How many pairs of shoes do you currently own? Which do you wear the most often?
Too many. The problem is that old sneakers can’t be worn too often — the glue is the first thing to go. When I’m not exercising, I mostly wear crocs because they’re convenient and don’t slip on wet or oily floors.
24. Would you rather never be alone for a single moment, or be alone for the rest of your life? Why?
I mean, one is always alone no?
25. When did you last ride the Star Ferry? What were you doing/where did you go?
I take it whenever I have to get to Ocean Terminal/Harbour City. I grew up going to the mall and, in my opinion, its still the best shopping complex in Hong Kong. Too bad the big Hong Kong Records that used to be there is gone though.
26. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had? What is one important lesson that they taught you?
My mentor Sylvain Portay — in his kitchen, I learned how to cook.
27. What is the last dream you remember waking up to?
I have this recurring nightmare of falling behind at university: not getting into the classes I want; not understanding the reading materials et cetera. That may have something to do with the fact that my education was a nightmare in general [laughs].