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Chef Peggy Chan on her new restaurant, Nectar: “To stay in a place of comfort is to refuse to grow”

by: Nik Addams
13 Aug 2019

Nectar Hong Kong Peggy Chan - featured image

Knowing when to let go of something can be a difficult undertaking. Knowing when to let go of something to which you’ve devoted every day of the best part of a decade would no doubt make the undertaking exponentially more difficult. Chef Peggy Chan, though, has a history of doing things on her own terms - it was on a school trip to Foshan at the age of 16, for example, that she decided to stop eating red meat.

"We were on the school bus driving past these farms," she recalls. "I remember looking at the cows, and they looked right back at me. I don’t feel comfortable acting on violence, hurting something that’s a living being. That’s just my own philosophy; I don’t try to push it or preach to anyone else."

Pushy or preachy she certainly is not. Like most boundary-pushing chefs, Chan prefers that her food do the talking, which is exactly what she’s done by plating up sustainable, creative and thought-provoking dishes at the meat-free restaurant formerly known as Grassroots Pantry for the past seven years. And while a recent brand evolution has seen the Hollywood Road dining room re-emerge as Nectar, which has just opened for service, this next step is just another in Chan’s ongoing journey - as she puts it, ‘I’ve been an avidly sustainable and conscious consumer for the past 17 years’.

We sat down with Chan to find out what diners can expect from her new venture, as well as her thoughts on the evolution of plant-based cuisine.

Read more: Lisa Odell of Plastic-Free HK: "The belief that living sustainably is more expensive is a myth"

Peggy Chan Nectar Hong Kong interview - dining room
Nectar picks up where Grassroots Pantry left off.

What first inspired you to explore plant-based cuisine? What about it continues to inspire you?
My journey started when I was 16, when I stopped eating red meat. Next year I cut out pork, and then a few years later it was chicken and all poultry, fish and seafood as well. It was a slow but steady transition, but I didn’t do it cold turkey, I did it within a six to seven year period. I ultimately stopped craving meat altogether. 

My [own] lifestyle motivates me to do better and continually expand my horizons every day. I try to create new recipes that are fun, delicious, interesting, and innovative. Nectar is my way of providing alternative food options that cater to different needs while also providing nutritional wellness, and hopefully inspiring the local community to follow in my footsteps.

What motivated you to evolve Grassroots Pantry into Nectar?
Nectar reflects my evolution as a chef. Grassroots Pantry was always at the forefront of plant-based cuisine in Hong Kong. Nectar provides us with an opportunity to further expand our menu and offer diners an elevated dining experience. With Nectar’s seasonal tasting menus, we have new opportunities to educate diners on the possibilities of locally sourced organic ingredients. 

Times have changed and diners’ demands and eating habits have evolved. To stay stagnant in a place of comfort is to refuse to grow. After having operated Grassroots Pantry for the last seven years, I feel that it’s time for us to leave the platform we have built – and allowed others to follow – to explore bigger ambitions. As a chef and restaurant owner, I am inclined to continuously create and evolve. It’s all a very natural progression.

Nectar Hong Kong asparagus
Nectar's asparagus terragon bearnaise.

How does Nectar differ from Grassroots Pantry? Can guests expect old favourites or a totally new experience?
Our customers are looking for new dining experiences and to explore the full potential of local, seasonal, diverse and organic produce. Nectar’s progressive, plant-based tasting experience is designed to satisfy our loyal customers’ appetite for ongoing innovation and creativity. Although the style of Nectar’s offerings may differ from Grassroots Pantry, and the dishes are more layered, complex and refined, our principles and ethos have not changed. Loyal guests can enjoy elevated versions of a couple old favourites, such as BBQ popcorn chicken and tomato tuna tartare. For the most part, though, our menu will change seasonally and allow guests to try new dishes with the freshest ingredients. 

What does Nectar bring to the table when it comes to raw and sustainable cuisine? Are there any ingredients or new techniques you're particularly excited about?
Every dish at Nectar begins with what is seasonal and available, which ultimately means it will contribute to the healing aspects of the dish because our bodies react better to what is grown locally and seasonally. By combining an array of ingredients rich in different sources and levels of nutrients and minerals, we aim to create a menu that is creative, healing and therapeutic at the same time. With Nectar’s ‘cheese board’, for example, we’re using nuts and seeds to replicate the taste, textures and essence of cheese.  

Nectar Hong Kong dish
At Nectar, Chan continues to push the boundaries of plant-based cuisine.

There's been much buzz of late around plant-based products like Beyond and Impossible, which specifically target meat-eaters. What are your thoughts on these types of products? 
These are definitely disruptors in the food industry. I welcome any product that weans diners off practices that are no longer sustainable. Beyond the cars and factories, meat consumption is a huge contributor to global warming. Just last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) released its research and concluded that one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the land, including food production, farming and deforestation for livestock. That just isn’t sustainable. 

Stay sustainable: Here are six zero-waste Hong Kong stores to visit on your next grocery run.

Nectar Hong Kong dish2
Nectar's teff crisps.

What misconceptions do you think exist around plant-based cuisine? What can be done to break these down?  

Some people think that cooking plant-based cuisine is simpler. However, the techniques, skills and combinations are often more refined and complex than what is offered in fine-dining restaurants. When you’re trying to recreate meat or dairy products using only plant-based ingredients, you need to use your imagination. 

Healthy cooking in Hong Kong can be costly - do you have tips for home cooks looking to go plant-based that don't break the bank?

That’s another misconception about plant-based cooking. Given that most food in Hong Kong is imported, it makes financial sense to support local farmers and buy locally-grown produce. Once people start to see the entire food process, they would [be inclined to] make more conscious decisions about the food they consume. I understand that organic goods are still expensive, but if the demand increases, prices will fall. 

Nectar, 108 Hollywood Road, Central, +852 2873 3353; nectarexperience.co.