Saturday, January 19, 2013

Joe Sent Me


On my last night in Hong Kong William held a dinner party at a peculiarly Hong Kong institution, a “private kitchen.” I had been charmed by the phrase when he first mentioned it; it conjured up a meal that was cooked in someone’s home with strangers paying to eat it.

“Can you choose what you want to eat and they will cook it for you?” I asked.

“No, you pay in advance and they cook what they choose.”

Now it sounded more like gustatory Russian roulette, or an abbreviated homestay.

“Do you go to somebody’s house?” I asked with a bit of trepidation, envisioning the hideously enforced coziness and false community of a B&B.

“Not usually. It can be in a very nice space or in a dive. They aren’t really restaurants and they aren’t clubs. In Hong Kong space for entrepreneurs is limited and expensive, so chefs find unconventional venues, set up a kitchen, and depend on word of mouth for their clientele. Some of them have become quite famous. The New York Times did an article about them not too long ago.”

Private kitchens are neither down-home amateur cooks trying out different dishes on paying guests nor are they in the Chungking Mansions mode, where unlicensed restaurants are tucked away in dark corners of the building, posing as clubs. Here touts line the ground floor around dinnertime every night, handing out “member cards” to passersby. The words “club” or “mess” are always part of the restaurant’s name and they are always in the darkest and dingiest hallways, surrounded by entrances to guesthouses. Inside they’re usually quite conventional, sometimes with a full bar. There is table service and menus and food that is without fail from the subcontinent. Hong Kong people come as a daring foray into what they regard as the underworld, where they eat food that they regard as good. It isn’t. It’s the experience that sharpens their appetite and blunts their tastebuds.

Private kitchens were a lot like speakeasies when they first sprang up in the 90’s. They often were unlicensed venues that appeared in apartments or were tucked away in an artist’s loft. Now the more famous have become elegant restaurants that are tucked away in residential or commercial buildings. Reservations are hard to come by and meals are usually the chef’s choice. Meals can be over one hundred US dollars per person, plus wine.

William chose a night and invited his guests, with a strict RSVP. He would be charged in advance per head, so acceptance meant mandatory attendance. He emailed an address, phone number and door code to a place called TBLS, that was on an upper floor of a building in Central, not too far from the Travelator.

It was extremely close to my friend Madeline’s bookshop and  I met her ahead of time so we could go to dinner together. The building we were looking for was in the middle of an over-crowded block. The doorway was narrow, gated, and locked. A keypad had been installed; TBLS was nowhere on the directory. We called the number we’d been given and a voice rather tersely gave us the code.

We entered the same sort of hallway that led to offices and warehouse space all over the city. There was a freight elevator; it let us out before another door which opened into a Gershwin fantasy of a Manhattan boite of the 1930’s.

There was a bar, a few candle-lit tables, soft jazz in the background and then a large terrace with more tables and a view of Hong Kong’s thick forest of buildings, glamorous and twinkling in the black night sky.

The space was intimate and spellbinding, in a way that a more conventional venue would have failed to achieve. Suddenly we were all the direct of descendants of Cole Porter, sipping good wine in an Eastside nightclub. I began to look for Mabel Mercer.

We were led to a long table, its white linen gleaming in the darkness. Our party was large yet none of us felt cramped. Already we were given one of Hong Kong’s rarest commodities, space.

A small glass canning jar was placed in front of each of us and a white-garbed man appeared at the head of the table and announced that the theme of our meal was pork. And so it was, from the dashing little amuse bouche in a humble kitchen jar, the tiny soup and sandwich, the delicate serving of meat and veg, the miniscule version of risotto—or was it a very creamy congee?—the velvet touch of a fish chowder heavily laced with chunks of cured pig. The performance ended with a salted caramel version of crème brulee and the world’s smallest ice cream sandwich made of a sliced macaroon.

It was all theatre, the courses presented with such fanfare that I can’t remember exactly what they were. But the content wasn’t the point; it was the medium, not the message. This was a meal designed to make the diners feel privileged, and surprised. It was food for jaded people who live in one of the best food cities in the world. To me, it was reliving the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—interesting but I wouldn’t do it again.

“She’s very divey,” William described me to one of his friends, and perhaps that’s true. Of the meals he’s taken me to, my favorites have been in steamy little diners and in the upper floors of food markets, where the surprises are equally dazzling but the food is designed to nourish. To my peasant way of thinking, that’s what food is for.



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