Interview With Chef Jowett Yu Of Hong Kong’s Modern Ho Lee Fook Restaurant

29 May 2015

Meet the young Taiwanese-born chef who’s taking Hong Kong by storm with his casually hip Hong Kong establishment, Ho Lee Fook. Serving Chinese flavours best enjoyed with an open mind and strong appetite, Chef Jowett Yu takes his inspiration for Ho Lee Fook from the spirit of late-night Chinatown hangouts in New York, circa 1960s.

We sit down with Jowett (before indulging in a dinner tasting menu at Ho Lee Fook)  to talk about what he loves about Hong Kong, what he misses about Australia (Yu previously worked at Ms Gs and Mr Wong in Sydney), what makes a good chef, and why cooking and family is so important.

We arrive at Jowett Yu’s restaurant in Soho, Hong Kong before they open for dinner service and find the chefs and wait staff chatting and eating together, a communal feast before ‘show time’.

What were you guys eating just now for dinner?

We had some rice with a stir-fry of beef and broccoli and garlic, chives and dried shrimp, and soup of winter melon (Chinese vegetable) and pork belly.

 Mom's mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork dumplings by chef Jowett Yu. Image: Luke Wheatley

It’s nice you eat together before the shift starts...

Yeah, it’s our family dinner. Because we don’t get to have dinner at home with our family, we can have it with our restaurant family.

What is your favourite dish to cook here at Ho Lee Fook?

At the moment, I really like cooking the twice-cooked green beans, sweet pickled turnips and olive leaf chilli and garlic. It’s a ‘meaty’ vegetarian dish.

What does Ho Lee Fook mean?

“Good fortune for your mouth.”

What’s the most popular dish ordered here?

A lot of people get the roast wagyu short ribs with the roasted jalapeño puree and green shallot kimchi. The short ribs are twice cooked, we sous-vide then fry them.

 SoHo street scene outside Ho Lee Fook. Image: Luke Wheatley

I heard that you’re inspired by Asian-American chef David Chang and his modern approach to Asian cooking. Have you ever met him?

Yeah, I’ve met him a few times.

What did you guys talk about?

Well, we in 2010, David and I did an event, a dinner at what is now Lotus in Potts Point in Sydney. From that point onwards; I had an epiphany that really defined my style today. I thought why I am cooking European food, when all I eat and cook myself is Asian food? In a way, David inspired me to shift back to my Asian culinary roots.

 Chef Jowett Yu. Image: Luke Wheatley

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When you’re at home, what would you cook for yourself?

I cook really simple stuff at home, one pot wonders. Pasta or something. I eat a lot of vegetables; I’ll go to the wet market and buy a big bunch of spinach or something.

When you’re in Hong Kong, where else do you eat, besides Ho Lee Fook?

I like eating Chinese food. I’ll eat at lots of different Chinese restaurants, from street side dai pai dongs (street food carts) for noodle soup, or visiting roast meat shops, to finer dining.

What would you say is the most exciting food trend in Hong Kong?

Burgers. There are a lot of gourmet burger shops opening.

 Interior feature at Ho Lee Fook. Image: Luke Wheatley

What do you think is the key to being a successful chef?

I think have an open mind and never stop learning. You’ll never learn how to cook everything. Going somewhere, or cooking in a different kitchen – you can always learn something from people around you.

Is this your first time living in Hong Kong, why did you choose to open a restaurant in Hong Kong?

Because Chinese food is awesome.

 Jowett's prawn toast. Image: Luke Wheatley

Do you miss Australia?

Yeah I miss Australia a lot. The produce is excellent. I love the chilled vibe.

I read an interview you about how to would spend summers as a kid cooking with your grandma in Taiwan and making dumplings with your mum instead of playing video games. If you ever have a family one day, will you encourage your kids to do the same, not grow up attached to their iPad?

Of course. I think it’s a conundrum of modern life. You go out to lunch or dinner and you see families leave their kids with an iPad and let them tune out. They’re a part of the family; they should be a part of the conversation. I think growing up in the city, you miss out. I once had an apprentice who didn’t know how to shuck a corn, all the corn she’d ever eaten came out of tin. Cooking with family helps to develop that important link with what comes from nature and ends up on your plate.

What’s one thing about Hong Kong that only a local would know?

The cheapest way to get to TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) is by Star Ferry and probably the most scenic way as well.

Ho Lee Fook, G/F No. 1-5 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong

 Fan girl happy snap, Rachel and Jowett. Image: Luke Wheatley

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Rachel Surgeoner

A self-confessed 'food-tourist', I take hunting for the world's greatest sandwich very seriously, my quest has taken me from Berlin to Hoboken. Stopping off only for vintage shopping, craft beers and Mediterranean sunsets.