There’s something quite humbling about an incredibly talented chef whose culinary career sprouted from pure selflessness, seeing an initial innate desire to help blossom into a fruitful gastronomic journey. For Daniel Calvert, head chef of BELON in Hong Kong, this is exactly how his career in the food industry began.
“My mum hated cooking, and never had time for it. After my parents separated, she worked at her first job from 8am to 5pm, then came home and went straight out to her second at half six. It wasn’t every day, but probably happened three or four times a week. I started cooking to alleviate the pressure from her and to take care of feeding my two sisters, my brother and me – I enjoyed helping out.”
“It was just things like frozen pizzas at that point, but I soon discovered the enjoyment of doing something independent as a child, and the happiness I derive from providing nourishment to the people I care about. I wanted to take that to the next level, to learn something new and better myself, and my self-education stemmed from this.”
It was at the age of 14 that Daniel knew he wanted to be a chef, and instead of pitying himself because his parents’ financial situation prevented him from finishing school, he immersed himself in the culinary industry, working five days a week in the kitchen at The Ivy in London from the age of 16.
As he grew out of his teenage years and into his twenties, Daniel kept his head down, pushed on and learnt as much as he could in the notoriously cutthroat hospitality industry.
“I was the youngest in each of my workplaces up until my mid-20s. This is the time of your life when you expect someone to feel sorry for you, but no one takes much notice, so you just get on with it. You grow a lot faster this way, too, by surrounding yourself with people older and more educated than you.”
It was this drive, dedication and focus that initially shaped Daniel’s cooking style. In his mind, there is no space for pretense, indecision or ostentation when it comes to cooking, or life in general, for that matter.
“I’ve always admired a certain aesthetic: very minimal and very focused. This sums up my perspective in general, from food to art to designers. This streamlined, focused style has come to define my personal taste. I’ve always known what I don’t like, and I strongly believe that, for everyone, knowing this is at the root of discovering what really makes you happy.”
Daniel’s cooking inspiration has evolved over the years, but only minimally. It’s more a question of streamlining one’s focus than of change according to the chef, “I think, if anything, the things you prioritize as important become more important over time. There are fewer distractions.”
For Daniel, cooking is what is important, it is his priority – and one that he works at constantly. Thus, BELON undergoes continuous evolution. However, the restaurant’s evolution is organic, and even with its growth over the last two years, the restaurant has stayed true to its values of finding exceptional produce and blending it with excellent cooking to yield extraordinary products. The experience at BELON is more refined than ever, and according to Daniel, “Everything is exactly the same, except better.”
“The food we were doing two years ago was good. Now, though, we’re taking it to another level of refinement, a level that is only achieved by looking at something a thousand times. There’s very rarely a lightbulb moment.”
“Our sourdough, for example, is tinkered with ever so slightly every single day; things like the temperature of the room or the amount of water it’s spritzed with. The puff pastry recipe is constantly tweaked, incrementally, to see how we can make it better. We’ll add a drop of cream to a sauce or serve another a few degrees hotter. Tiny, tiny things. It all comes from repetition.”
The discipline that Daniel ingrained in himself in his youth is a trait which he has passed onto his kitchen team at BELON, ensuring that even though gastronomy is a creative environment, discipline in the craft is what makes the creativity feasible.
“Ours is a creative environment. But with no discipline, you’ll never go past a good idea. My team wake up every single day and make the sauces taste exactly the same as the night before. Absolute consistency – for something to be exactly the same – is one of the hardest things to achieve.”
Every dish at BELON has been carefully thought out, with the ingredients guiding the dish’s size and flavor profile. For Daniel’s food, the devil is in the detail.
“Each dish is a specific size according to the ingredient. One scallop, for instance, is the perfect amount – two is too many. Dover sole is always better cooked whole, not in portions. This philosophy is the only way to build a menu, otherwise you’re manipulating ingredients to the size you want, rather than presenting them in their best light.”
“I designed the menu around the way I like to eat and cook: it all goes back to lineage. Everything is subject to the law of diminishing returns, which is why we cook in a restrained and focused way. The scallop ravioli is precisely the way it is because doing it any other way would make it arbitrary.”
The creative journey of the dishes on the menu occurs in one of two ways. Either the process is natural, or it stems from inspirations gained whilst travelling: “I could start with an amazing product, or an accidental spark of inspiration from something I see. There might be a technique I want to try, or a guest might bring me a bottle of whisky and I might decide to make a sauce or dish with it.”
The dishes are not always product driven, however, as if the product is not good enough, Daniel won’t do the dish. Instead, he will use technique to drive the dish: “I might have seen an architectural quirk or a way something is designed or layered, and that could trigger an idea. From there, I work backwards.”
All in all, Daniel admits that his ideas only materialize after continuous probing: “These things often only come from looking at something a thousand times. It might be the thousand-and-first time I look at something that I see something different about it.”
Each conceptualization of a dish stays true to Daniel’s culinary philosophy, which is threefold. Firstly, each dish on the menu is something Daniel wants to eat. In his eyes, sincerity is evident in the food one cooks. Secondly, less is always more on the plate, and thirdly, taste is king – serve dishes the way they taste best and steer away from unnecessary manicuring.
Daniel’s stripped-back attitude on BELON’s food is mirrored in the restaurant’s interior. The dining space is restrained, elegant and focused, creating a homogenous experience between the style of décor, service and food. Even the music’s volume is controlled – all to create an atmosphere having the perfect balance of exclusivity and familiarity.
“We’re on the ground floor in SoHo, a fairly gritty, brash part of Hong Kong, but once you step inside BELON, you get a respite from this. I would like people to be able to walk through the door and feel like they’re going to be taken care of. To feel that what they’re about to receive is going to be of the highest quality.”
“From a distance, everything could look very casual, everyday even. But our plates are made from beautiful French porcelain. The wine list is biodynamic-focused. The butter we serve is from the Channel Islands’ best dairy. Our sourdough is homemade. When you notice the details, like the hand-laminated puff pastry, you realize nothing is skimped on. It’s a high-end casual experience, and we focus on the details because details add up to the big picture.”
“We want guests to feel like they can come back. A great restaurant is not somewhere you want to go to once, rather, one you return to two or three times a week. We want there to be familiarity because, without this, it’s not a great restaurant.”
There aren’t many dishes that guests can keep coming back for, however as the majority of the menu at BELON is seasonal. This seasonality thus negates the idea of signature dishes, but Daniel does admit that the oyster tartare is the dish which best showcases all that BELON stands for. In this dish, the fresh oysters are topped with an oyster cream – which is made just prior to service – and then the oysters are seasoned ever so lightly to complete this exceptional dish.
Rather than a signature dish, Daniel prefers to think of BELON as having a signature technique, which is their sauce-work: “It’s a huge area of pride for us and is the crux of every single recipe.”
Daniel is equally as passionate about local sourcing as he is about seasonality. He might be cooking traditionally French food, but he uses ingredients sourced in Hong-Kong, which creates the twist on classical French fare that Daniel has become renowned for at BELON.
“Whatever you think you might be able to do, wherever you’re from, you’ve got to embrace where you are. We’re not a French restaurant in Hong Kong, we’re a Hong Kong restaurant that serves French food. Therefore, we are influenced by what’s local to us. You have to play to the strengths of where you are and what you have around you.”
“Local chicken is of far greater quality than frozen chicken from, say, France, and it’s something Hong Kong people are used to – the size, the fat content, the flavor. We use a couple of organic farms in the New Territories. Chicken from Bresse is something completely new for a lot of people. You’ve got to understand who you’re cooking for.”
With BELON placing at no. 40 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2018, Daniel clearly understands what his diners want to eat. For the rest of the year ahead, Daniel’s focus remains on improving what the restaurant has done previously – looking at seasonal ingredients used last year, seeing how they can be used differently and showcased in an even better light.
As for the future of fine-dining, Daniel believes that diners are more knowledgeable than ever, and that they are losing interest in frivolities.
“I think there’ll always be a place for fine dining, but diners are more educated now. They’re more impressed by the quality of the product and the cooking rather than the peripherals of the dining experience.”
Daniel’s dedication to food and its inherent beauty is remarkable. Even in his free time he heads to casual restaurants that hero local produce, spending evenings with friends drinking wine and enjoying each other’s company.
In Daniel’s eyes, Hong Kong’s culinary scene is too focused on luxury ingredients, nice views, brand names and imports as opposed to the pure essence of local produce and how it can be enhanced. More so than ever before, Daniel believes chefs need to use ingredients in an original way that is authentic to the chef’s philosophies, without compromising the produce’s true substance, if they want to be noticed in this fine-dining era.
“There are a few chefs doing a really great job and I think fine dining is becoming more interesting, with great restaurants becoming individual and unique. If you look around the world now, many high-end restaurants are very similar in what they’re doing, but people stand out when they do things in a way that’s distinctly theirs – not in a way they think they should, but in a way they want to. When chefs are liberated from the cookie cutter, copy-paste approach where they are just ticking boxes, creativity can thrive.”
Images © BELON