Tong Chee Hwee’s cooking style can be defined as modern Chinese in as far as the chef seeks to reinvent the old with the new, taking ‘traditional dishes and authentic techniques’ and ‘adding [his own] imaginative twist to it with regards to both style and exquisite presentation.’ The chef draws inspiration from a variety of sources for the modern aspects of his cooking – ‘I’m inspired by all the restaurants I visit and cultures of countries which I travel to’ – while he cites both his beloved grandmother and his mentor Chef Cheng as instrumental in his understanding of traditional Chinese flavours and techniques.
Following the success of Hakkasan Hanway Place a sister restaurant, Yauatcha, opened in Soho in 2004 under Tong Chee Hwee’s watchful eye. Specialising in dim sum, tea and patisserie, Yauatcha’s reasonably priced range of small plates and specialist teas made the restaurant as popular as its predecessor, and it was awarded a Michelin star of its own in 2005. In 2010 Tong Chee Hwee became executive head chef for the entire Hakkasan group, overseeing the opening of Hakkasan Mayfair that same year. Popular with local and international glitterati alike, the restaurant offers a ‘Supreme’ menu to cater for its premium clientele with Lobster noodles and Peking duck with Qiandao caviar among the most sought after dishes.
HKK opened in 2012, a fine dining restaurant in a prime Shoreditch location which stands distinct from the rest of the Hakkasan restaurants. While the Hakkasan menus encourage shared eating – the Braised dried whole abalone with morels and sea cucumber on offer at Hakkasan Mayfair serves ten, for example – those coming for dinner at HKK are given the choice of a standard or vegetarian 12 course tasting menu. Dishes are served sequentially with an optional wine and sake flight to go with it, and the style of cooking extends beyond the predominantly Cantonese influenced plates on offer at the other Hakkasan restaurants to incorporate traditional flavours from all over China.
Despite the global expansion of the Hakkasan Group – there are now Hakkasan restaurants in Dubai, Miami, Mumbai, Shanghai and Doha to name but a few – Tong Chee Hwee still spends much of his time in the ‘state of the art’ kitchens within HKK. In part, this is due to the restaurant’s facilities, but also the willingness of the clientele to embrace ‘new, exciting dishes’. HKK’s tasting menu structure enables Tong Chee Hwee to experiment with new ideas, and any dishes which are particularly popular in HKK will be tweaked and introduced into the menus across the entire Hakkasan Group.
London itself is a further appeal of keeping HKK as a base, and the chef enjoys living and cooking in the UK. Despite the odd logistical problem – ‘it is sometimes difficult to source extremely traditional ingredients but we usually find a way!’ - it seems that Tong Chee Hwee has found a home in London. In turn, the capital has demonstrated it has an appetite for innovative, high end Chinese cuisine that shows no signs of waning.
If your kitchen was on fire, what would you save and why?
If you weren't a chef what would you be?
What’s your foodie guilty pleasure?
Goji berries and Wagyu beef. Not together.
Sweet or savoury?
What is your favourite food shop or market?
Most of the Chinatown shops are excellent, and I love the food markets in China, especially Shanghai. You find such interesting produce and spices. I also really like shopping at Spitalfields Market where they have lots of Japanese, Chinese and Thai food. It’s near HKK so I'll often pick up some Thai fried rice.
Where do you love to eat on a relaxed night out?
Koya udon bar in Soho. It's peaceful and they hand make their own noodles in the basement - you can really taste the difference.
And for a blow-out dinner?
HKK of course!
What would your death row meal be?
If you were a cocktail, which cocktail would you be?
I don't really drink but our Hakka cocktail is delicious and refreshing.
What’s your top cooking tip?
Don't cut costs when purchasing knives – these are a crucial part of the cooking process.
What is your favourite foodie destination in the UK?
London is the best foodie destination in the UK for sure. Londoners have a huge hunger for the restaurant scene at the moment and it’s great to see so many new restaurants launching on a weekly basis.
Back in China for regional cuisine.
What ingredients are really worth forking out for?
What is the weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
Which dish would you like to be remembered for?
My Merlot beef at Hakkasan and the Cherry wood roasted Peking duck at HKK.