Chef Studio by Eddy – Undercover Passion

 

 

Among Hong Kong gourmets, private kitchens are all the rage. Located in private dwellings or on houseboats, some don't even have a liquor license – in which case the motto is “bring your own!” But one thing is certain: Wherever the location, an evening in an undercover kitchen is an unforgettable experience.

Private kitchens – “sue fon tsoi” in Cantonese – have been a feature of Hong Kong dining since the 1990s. Frequently, the exact location is only revealed after making a booking by phone or online. Without detailed instructions, some venues would be nearly impossible to find. Over the years, many of these private kitchens have become so popular as to be mainstream rather than word-of-mouth. Although that may seem like a shame, it has lead to a new trend featuring private kitchens that offer cuisine of the very finest quality in unusual and surprising settings.

Getting to the location is often already an adventure in itself; private kitchens in Hong Kong are often located off the beaten track. On houseboats, in featureless apartment buildings, or even on the top floors of office buildings only accessible by freight elevator. Eddy Leung's “Chef Studio by Eddy” is no exception to the rule. It is located on the four-lane Wong Chuk Hang Road at the heart of the industrial zone in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen district. The freight elevator is accessed through the parking facilities and, besides Chef Eddy’s private kitchen, the top floor also houses a logistics company, a mail-order business, an interior design studio – and currently three other private kitchens. Yet Eddy Leung (43) was here first. And not just here in this building – he has done groundbreaking work for undercover restaurants all over Hong Kong.

In order not to disturb the diners, we visit Chef Eddy during the early evening hours before the venue opens. Many of his guests belong to Hong Kong’s high society and value their privacy. Wooden tables are being set at the center of the establishment and, to one side, the wall is hung with framed photographs, medals, and birdcages with flowers in them. The open kitchen is located on the opposite side. Here Mr. Leung’s three-man team is busy with preparations for the evening meal which includes: White asparagus that has been peeled twice, perfectly sliced potatoes resting in baking pans, and salmon and breast of duck covered on metal cooking trays. Briefly, Mr. Leung tests the sound system with a modern chanson. Putting on a white smock, the celebrity chef will soon be launching the evening with his customary deftness and charm. His speciality is exquisite French cuisine – with a subtle Asian touch. And fresh herbs – naturellement. These he farms organically on the little balcony at the back. Another essential aspect to Mr. Leung’s concept is that guests should bring along their favorite wine and enjoy it free of charge. An unusual viewpoint in a city where many private kitchens have no liquor license and charge a “corkage fee” of between CHF 15 and 25 for every bottle the guests bring along to enjoy with their meal. Mr. Leung believes that a private kitchen should convey the greatest possible sense of privacy. “As if you were invited to a friend’s house for dinner.”

A private kitchen should convey the greatest possible sense of privacy. As if you were invited to a friend’s house for dinner.

Mr. Leung has been cooking for as long as he can remember. With both his parents working full time, from the age of seven onward he was in charge of switching on the rice cooker in which his mother had placed a few pieces of pork in the morning. Which tasted “okay,” as he recalls. Soon however he started creating his own wok dishes. After leaving school at 17, he was sent to Gaddi’s kitchen to learn the trade in the exclusive Peninsula Hotel, then one of the best French restaurants in all of Asia. Bingo! To begin with, Mr. Leung was only allowed to wash dishes and fetch ingredients from the cooling units. However, early in the mornings, before his shift started, he would already be in the kitchens learning how to prepare Eggs Benedict and other breakfast delicacies. He always carried a little spoon tucked in his uniform in order to try the Maître de Cuisine’s sauces. Or the different sorts of vinegars and mustards on the condiments tray. He kept his eyes and ears open at all times. The only thing that embarrassed him was his poor grasp of French and English, so he started taking language classes during his afternoon breaks.

Soon, the clever dishwasher started drawing attention. He was promoted and began working his way to the top, which culminated in the post of Chef de Cuisine in the Harbour Grand Hotel. In the same period, he also represented Hong Kong in international culinary championships during which he was awarded the many medals displayed on the walls of the venue. Yet, more and more he felt a strong urge to open his own restaurant. In those days, the Hong Kong dining scene was still pretty contained and there were only a few Cantonese backyard kitchens that would now be termed as private kitchens. There was, however, nothing remotely resembling the privately run, high-end restaurant he envisioned – complete with a chef who buys fresh produce at the market and cooks entirely new courses on a daily basis. In the year 2000, he was ready to launch his first establishment: Located high up in an office tenement that even featured a roof top terrace it was called “Poison Ivy” after Batman’s beautiful, yet lethal love interest.

This venue has become too well known for my liking. It can hardly be called underground anymore.

And, befitting its namesake’s duality, Chef Eddy's restaurant underwent a similar fate. Successful from the outset, it was frequently lauded as one of the best French restaurants in Asia – and fully booked every evening. “The ladies loved it,” he recalls with pride. But, after three years, he lost everything during the SARS epidemic. Hong Kong was one of the places most severely affected by the deadly and extremely contagious disease, and its citizens preferred to stay at home. The restaurant had to be closed down, and Mr. Leung, who had gone on to open three “normal” restaurants in the meantime, was left sitting on a mountain of debt. Reluctantly, he accepted a post as chef de cuisine in the Ritz Carlton to settle his financial obligations. Yet, as soon as possible, he tried again – here in Aberdeen, where rent is affordable. He restarted four years ago and opened one of the first private kitchens in the area. Mr. Leung views it as a compliment that so many other private kitchens have followed suit and opened for business in the exact same building. However, at the same time he’s also making a concentrated effort to locate new playing fields. This venue has become too well known for his liking. “It can hardly be called underground anymore.” And Hong Kong’s gourmets are an inquisitive bunch. “After five years, it’s time to move on,” he says. “High time! And the more undercover the new location, the better.”

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