Danny Yip of The Chairman: “The Cultural Revolution killed Chinese food”
05 Jul 2019
Among the headlines before and slew of post-mortems following The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019, unveiled at a star-studded last week in Singapore, one notable fact has slipped quietly under the radar: the entry of first Cantonese restaurant from Hong Kong on the list.
The rise of The Chairman to the global rankings has perhaps been a long time coming. Nestled at the end of Central cul-de-sac Kau U Fong, the Cantonese fine diner has showcased the best of the region through its seasonal, produce-driven menu since opening in 2009 and has been met with the consistent praise of international culinary tastemakers. It’s a stalwart of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, too, placing at number 11 on this year’s list.
The low-key nature with which last week’s news has been met is probably exactly how chef-owner Danny Yip would want it. The veteran restaurateur, who runs the pass alongside chef de cuisine Kwok Keung Tung, keeps a famously low profile, preferring that his impossibly fresh ingredients and dedication to Cantonese culinary traditions do the talking. This dedication more than just tokenism though – MSG is banned in the kitchen here, sauces are all made in-house, and Yip and Kwok work closely with a network of producers in South China to enable the use of as many local ingredients as possible. A former fisherman is also employed full-time who, Yip tells us ‘goes to the Aberdeen Seafood Market every morning at 6am to choose our seafood’.
A bigger challenge, but one that Yip remains committed to, is growing their own produce. The restaurant has its own farm in Sheung Shui, but Yip concedes that organic farming in Hong Kong is ‘terrible’, and the reasons for this, twofold: “There is a huge pest problem here, for starters. There is also professional skill shortage when it comes to organic farming here.”
Despite continuing perceptions of The World’s 50 Best being too Eurocentric (and this year’s list did arguably little to allay this lingering mood), it is quite surprising that it took nearly two decades for one of the world’s most loved cuisines to make its mark on the world stage in this way. Yip is philosophical about this point: “Chinese food is not easy to understand,” he muses. “Some, like Sichuan and Shanghainese, have very strong characteristics. We’re lucky being in Hong Kong, as we’re very easy to reach – and I think our contemporary approach to traditional Cantonese is approachable both for local and Western palates.”
But is it possible that the sheer popularity of Cantonese food has, perversely, caused its stagnation on the global rankings? Quite possibly, thinks Yip: “Cantonese food [is often equated with] overseas Chinatowns: it’s cheap, fast, low-quality and the menus are usually quite standard.” Yip also is keenly aware that cuisine is tied to its context, and that because of this, a game of catch-up is still perhaps playing out. “The Cultural Revolution killed Chinese food,” Yip asserts. “We lost 15 years.”
Times are changing though, as Yip notes, thanks to ‘more high-quality Chinese restaurants emerging in the past few years with brand-new concepts – this has helped a lot’. Yip also credits our increasingly shrinking world and the rise of the online gourmand with imbuing a sense of excitement and urgency into traditional Chinese cuisine: “More and more foodies are ready and willing to travel all the way to our side of the world to try authentic Chinese food,” he notes. “Seeing it on the internet will also bring more of them over.”
It’s not exactly news that the eyes of the world are on Hong Kong right now. While a subjective list of restaurant rankings might not be as important as the struggle for the future of the city taking place on our streets right now, Yip does consider the bigger picture. “More attention from outside Hong Kong is better,” he notes. “Hong Kong is a very special city – not just for finance, but also our food.” In one of the world’s great food cities, this is a point that should not be taken for granted.