All photos courtesy of Ho Lee Fook.

Chef Jowett Yu Won't Mess with Cantonese Barbecue

We spoke with the chef of Ho Lee Fook about how he fused his Taiwanese heritage with Hong Kong's Cantonese tastes.

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Apr 25 2017, 6:28pm

All photos courtesy of Ho Lee Fook.

It takes balls to open a splashy Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong, one of the cuisine's central hubs and one of the most finicky foodie cities on the planet, especially for an out-of-towner who isn't Cantonese. That didn't deter Taiwanese-born, Vancouver-raised, and Sydney-trained chef Jowett Yu, who went all-out when he launched his project in a subterranean space in SoHo that had already served as the graveyard for multiple other eateries. He named it Ho Lee Fook, ostensibly from the Chinese characters for "mouth," "tongue," and "luck" or "good fortune in your mouth"—not that that's what anyone who reads it phonetically is thinking.

Almost three years later, the gamble has paid off and the joint is slammed seven nights a week. When I stumble in late on a Sunday, 70s rock is blasting and the tables are packed with an international crowd taking shots and digging into shared platters of roast goose and soy-glazed Wagyu short ribs with kimchi. I sidle down the stairs past a wall of lucky cats, glinting golden and waving mutely in the dim light. The vibe is as much Chinatown as it is China, and if neither the menu nor the setting are quite by-the-book, no one seems to give a damn. And why should they? Plates come piled high with big, brash flavors as loud as the playlist—my Shanghai noodles with XO butter, clams, and nori have the umami cranked, while the Google-translated vegetable side "Slightly fires the emperor," with nuggets of chorizo and toasted cashews, is so bold it threatens to upstage the main.

Outside Ho Lee Fook in Hong Kong. All photos courtesy of Ho Lee Fook.

Before the madness kicks off again the next day, I sit down to talk with Yu about Taiwanese whiskey, the political history of beef noodle soup, and why you don't fuck with Cantonese barbecue.

MUNCHIES: What brought you to Hong Kong?
Jowett Yu: I was really interested in Chinese food. And I was like, Why not just set up shop in Hong Kong and make a living in the world's greatest city for Chinese food?

The food here is obviously very much the focus, but I noticed you have a serious drink list going on.
When we started, we had a pretty basic wine list and I hated it. It was just another SoHo restaurant and it sucked. That's the past, though. Now we're getting better wines, including natural ones, because I tend to drink a lot of them. We're catering to a different crowd these days. We have now a large percentage of customers coming from all over the world. To me, that's fascinating, because it's like, "Where do you come from and how do you know about this basement restaurant in SoHo?"

Chef Jowett Yu.

Plus there's a whole bunch of Taiwanese whiskeys and craft beers on there as well.
This whiskey distillery is actually from my dad's hometown in Yilan province on the eastern coast of Taiwan. It's a fantastic place because there's no pollution and no heavy industries, so you have really pure water. Right across the river from the distillery is where I spent a lot of time at my grandma's on the farm growing up.

Nostalgia element aside, it also introduces your clientele to something they may not have already tried.
I think there's some responsibility on the part of the restaurant to introduce new things. A lot of people have tried Scotch, they've tried bourbons, they've tried Japanese whiskies. But Taiwanese whiskey is different. We also have craft beer brewed on the outskirts of Taipei. This microbrewery doesn't have a big production, but they've got a big variety and they're always experimenting. For instance, we have an IPA on right now, but they're gonna be out soon. So I'll have to taste some different beers and see what goes with the food.

Sounds rough.
[Laughs] Oh, the struggle.

Mom's "mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork" dumplings.

Does your Taiwanese background creep into your cooking?
I cook with a lot of Taiwanese ingredients and techniques. It's the food I grew up with, so it's what I know. There's a cultural history that influenced the development of Taiwanese cuisine that has to do with politics and migration. The first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Taiwan starting in the 18th century and onwards. Then there's the colonial period with Japanese-occupied Taiwan before WWII, which brought a lot of Japanese influence to the cuisine. In 1949, the KMT [Kuomintang] retreated and set up a Taiwanese government. They had all these generals and officials bringing cooks with them from different parts of China. So even though Taiwan is such a small place, you can get such a rich variety of regional Chinese cuisines.

That being said, there are a few things that are distinctly Taiwanese.
My favorite example is Taiwanese beef noodle soup. It doesn't exist in Sichuan, but that's where it has its roots. Soldiers from the province used chile bean paste, noodles, beef, and different seasonings to create something new. So this dish didn't come from China, but it couldn't have happened without Taiwan's unique political history.

You could say something similar about a number of dishes around Asia. A lot of what we think of as Thai has Peranakan or Cantonese roots.
You can see the influence that Chinese immigrants had on different cuisines all over Southeast Asia. You go to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and there's a cultural affinity that has a lot to do with language, the food, and, to some extent, religion. If you go to Bangkok, for example, you can get Hainan chicken rice or roast duck noodles, but they're Thai-style. Once you start digging into the history of the Chinese diaspora, you can see its influence everywhere in the world. There's a big Caribbean-Chinese cuisine in Trinidad. There's Fijian-Chinese. There's Cuban-Chinese food. There's Indian-Chinese.

All of which are totally different.
Everywhere in the world that Chinese people go, they set up shop and come up with a Chinese cuisine based on what's available locally. That's the beautiful thing about growing up in different Chinatowns around the world, right? It's Chinese food. It's Cantonese-based, but there's always a slight variation. It's so dynamic. The origin always comes from one place, but wherever these immigrants go, they manage to root themselves down and manufacture a completely new cuisine.

Crispy skin chicken.

You seem pretty comfortable adapting dishes too, but you seem to have left the Cantonese barbecue pretty much intact.
Yeah, I don't fuck with that. That's as perfect as it can be, so I leave it alone. I think it's one of the best schools of barbecue in the world. It's so specific and regional, but you can get it almost anywhere in the world, at any Chinatown you're in.

How do you feel Ho Lee Fook has evolved and where could you see it going?
I can safely say every time I compose a menu, I'm not 100-percent happy with this. That's the best thing about cooking. Because you're never satisfied, it forces you to constantly evolve. Complacency comes when you look at a menu and say you're completely happy with this. That's when you should just call it a day, because that's when you stop being better than you were yesterday.

Thanks for speaking with me.