Poon’s 2.0: a lasting legacy

by Tom Shingler 27 January 2022

In the 1980s, chef Bill Poon’s eponymous restaurant changed the perceptions of Chinese food in the UK forever. Today, his daughter Amy has picked up the baton, ensuring a whole new generation can enjoy an array of sauces, wontons and more that showcase an often misunderstood cuisine in the way it deserves. She talks to Tom Shingler about resurrecting the Poon’s name and shares six of her favourite recipes.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

‘Trendy’ and ‘condiment’ aren’t two words you’d expect to find together. But in the sometimes fickle world of food trends, certain products can suddenly enjoy a surge in popularity – even if they’ve been around for centuries. In the past year or two, chilli oil – specifically the variety most associated with Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines which comes with an addictively delicious sediment of crispy crushed chillies, garlic and a whole host of other delicious ‘bits’ – has hit the mainstream, celebrated in both Asian cooking and beyond. The iconic brand Lao Gan Ma is often cited as a favourite store cupboard staple of British chefs, and Lee Kum Kee’s Chiu Chow chilli oil is now sold in most major supermarkets.

Amy Poon is a newcomer to the world of crispy chilli oil – but out of the many I’ve tried (and I’ve tried many!), hers is one of the best: bolstered by black beans that add to the xiān wèi (‘fresh taste’; the Chinese equivalent of Japan’s umami). Along with a top-quality soy sauce, a chilli vinegar dressing and a ‘WO’ sauce (Amy’s take on XO sauce), the chilli oil makes up a quartet of condiments that take the handmade, artisanal approach to food production but apply it to Chinese ingredients – something not really seen before.

While this is a new venture for Amy, the Poon’s name has long been associated with Chinese food in the UK thanks to her father, Bill Poon. His parents ran a famous restaurant in Macau and if you go back far enough, one of his many-great-grandfathers was the chef for a Chinese emperor. But it was when he arrived in the UK in the 1960s that Bill made a name for himself.

Amy's father Bill may not cook professionally anymore, but he still oversees the production of Poon's wind-dried meats…
…and his skills with a cleaver are unmatched, as he demonstrated by carving butterflies out of ginger!

At the time, Chinese food in the UK was a shadow of what it was back home – a hybrid of Cantonese dishes mixed with the limited ingredients available to the chefs working there, adapted for British tastes. This formed a sort of Anglo-Chinese cuisine in its own right, resulting in the dishes that many of us recognise on the menus of high street Chinese takeaways.

This sort of food shouldn’t be dismissed as inferior – it takes a great deal of skill to cook the dishes in a Chinese takeaway and they are popular for good reason – but for those looking for something more ‘authentic’ or truer to the food found in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and the rest of south-eastern China, there were very few (if any) restaurants serving it in the UK at that time. In order to remedy that, Bill decided to open his own restaurant with his wife Cecilia in 1973. After moving location in 1976, Poon’s of Covent Garden won a Michelin star in 1980 – the first Chinese restaurant in the world to receive one.

‘My father wanted to shatter the preconceptions British people had about Chinese food, so he built the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant surrounded by glass,’ says Amy. ‘That way people could actually see the food being cooked – back then people thought all sorts of terrible things about Chinese food and Chinese people in general; that we all ate dogs and cats and snakes and things. My father wanted to educate people as much as feed them, and allowing them to see the techniques in the kitchen was a key part of that.’

Open kitchens are ten-a-penny today, but it was a bold move back in the 1970s, where kitchens were often hidden behind doors, all but forgotten to keep the dining rooms as serene and calm as possible. Poon’s proved a huge hit, however, and soon the restaurant became a hot ticket for celebrities. ‘Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Sean Connery, Barbra Streisand – Frank Sinatra used to get takeout when he stayed at The Savoy. It really was where the great and the good went to eat.’

After opening a slew of other restaurants across London and an outpost in Geneva, Bill retired in 2006 – although he continues to produce Poon’s own wind-dried bacon and sausages to an old family recipe. It seemed Bill had done what he had set out to do – show the UK that there was so much more to the food of China. For the next twelve years the Poon’s name remained dormant, until his daughter Amy decided to revive it for a new generation back in 2018.

‘I always said I’d never end up in the restaurant business because I’d grown up in it – I knew how tough the life can be, with the unsocial gruelling hours,’ she says. ‘But there’s something that’s very satisfying about feeding people and seeing them enjoy themselves. I’m never going to be able to cure cancer or end world hunger, but if I can give somebody a little enjoyment for a few hours then I think that’s worth doing.’

While Amy doesn’t have a trained culinary background – she spent most of her career in PR and advertising abroad – she did of course grow up in a restaurant environment, subconsciously absorbing her family’s way of life. After encouragement from a friend, she decided to test the waters and opened a three-month pop-up in London, bringing back the famous Poon’s name. ‘The response was quite overwhelming,’ she recalls. ‘People still remembered the name and were so supportive. They told me so many stories about the times they spent at my father’s restaurant and how good it was to see the name again.’

This new iteration of Poon’s didn’t try to replicate exactly what Amy’s father was serving back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Instead, it took that same idea of creating ‘real’ Chinese flavours but with a style closer to that of home cooks. ‘We weren’t hiring classically trained Chinese chefs as they’re quite hard to find in the UK, so the food naturally became something a little more relaxed; something we could teach anyone to cook. There were also little nods to where I’ve spent my life – I worked in Singapore for twelve years, which is a wonderful melting pot of cuisines and Malaysian influences. But most of all I didn’t want to just try and do exactly what would have been served at the original Poon’s because it might cloud the fond memories people already had.’

The resounding success of the pop-up spurred Amy on to develop the plans for a whole new Poon’s business, incorporating a restaurant, branded products and even looking at the lifestyle industry – but as Amy was doing everything on her own, things took time. Then, of course, Covid happened, and slowed progress even further.

‘I think not having a restaurant actually helped in the long run,’ explains Amy. ‘When you’re working in a restaurant you don’t really have time to go to the loo, let alone develop a product range. So it gave me a bit of space to actually plan what I wanted to do properly.’

It wasn’t until 2021 that Poon’s resurfaced again at Stevie Parle’s ‘pandemic pop-up’ JOY at Portobello Dock – this time as a ‘Wontoneria’. Selling nothing but the dumplings and a sauce to dress them in, it gave Amy a platform to not only shift little clouds of chilli vinegar-doused deliciousness, but to also spread the world about her other products. When JOY closed down, Amy continued producing wontons for at-home meal kit business Big Night, where you can still order them today.

The reincarnation of Poon’s has evolved – through both choice and necessity – since Amy’s initial pop-up in 2018, but her head is still full of ideas on how to build upon the name that revolutionised Chinese food in the UK over forty years ago. ‘Plans for a permanent restaurant have been shelved for the time being, but I’d love to do more meal kits and generally make cooking Chinese food less scary for home cooks. I’d also like to see the sauces in a few supermarkets and give them a larger reach. There’s loads more in the back of my mind – I just wish there were more of me and more hours in the day.’

Despite the pandemic-based hiccup, the story and legacy of Poon’s lives on through a new generation. It may be packaged differently – in jars, bottles and boxes instead of restaurant bookings – but the essence of Chinese cooking done properly is still plain to see. Amy’s chilli oil has become a mainstay in my pantry and there’s certainly a bright future for all the products she releases under the Poon’s name, so while I wasn’t around when her father Bill was making waves in Covent Garden, I’m glad I can be a part of it now.

You can buy Poon’s sauces and condiments from Sous Chef and order Amy’s DIY wonton kits for nationwide delivery from Big Night.

poonslondon.com