Left: The Chairman’s owner Danny Yip Right: The Chairman’s Head Chef Kwok Keung Tung
Low-key in profile but highly respected in gastronomic prominence, The Chairman’s owner Danny Yip has spent his career dedicated to delivering nothing but perfection. Hailing from Hong Kong, his forte for all things food wasn’t something he inherited from his family. In fact, cooking was by no means their strongest suit, admits Danny: “My Mom was a bad cook, unfortunately.” Instead, he built his culinary path paved by passion, in which he was initially, and still continues to be, inspired by the artistry behind food preparation.
“I still remember the amazing texture and flavours of the slow-cooked ocean trout by chef Tetsuya Wakuda that I tried at Tetsuya restaurant in 1990. His food was clean, pure and tasty. Then I realised that cooking could be an art. I was deeply inspired and determined to open my own restaurant the same year.”
Before he opened his inaugural dining venue in Australia, he worked as a kitchen hand and apprentice chef in Canberra in the 1980s while completing his university degree. He spent time in all sorts of kitchens, from traditional Chinese to Western, Italian, Lebanese, Malaysian, Chinese and bistro-style restaurants. “The original idea was to get close to food production to feed my ever-hungry stomach. I ended up finding cooking very interesting and realising it could be a career,” says Danny.
After graduating in 1989, he banded together with seven of his college friends and opened his first restaurant in Canberra. Their repertoire quickly expanded, increasing to six restaurants by 1997. “One thing I found out was that if a restaurateur wanted to be creative and not worry about the market too much, he either had an affluent investor, or he himself was financially comfortable,” says Danny about his dining ventures down under.
Then, with almost a decade of restaurant ownership and management under his belt, he decided to sell his shares and return to Hong Kong to “earn money”, as he puts it. He founded an internet company in 1998, and just nine years later, he had it listed and sold, giving him the capital he needed to open The Chairman in 2009. Now, thirteen years later, The Chairman stands as one of the most prized Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong.
Although Danny Yip is a culinary connoisseur in his own right, he hasn’t been the only formidable force behind The Chairman’s success. Adept Head Chef Kwok Keung Tung has played a fundamental role in the restaurant attaining the stellar reputation it bears today. Unlike Danny Yip, though, China-born Kwok Keung Tung does come from a family of fervent foodies.
“Both mom and grandma were great cooks,” recalls Kwok Keung Tung. “They often cooked for the village functions and events, and I was the helper. I started cooking for my family at age 12, and then I started working as an apprentice chef in Hong Kong at age 17.”
Following time spent gaining professional experience in and around Hong Kong, Kwok Keung Tung was approached by Danny Yip to join The Chairman’s team in 2008. After being promised complete autonomy in the kitchen, Kwok Keung Tung agreed, and the rest is history! Together, the duo have achieved great triumph at The Chairman, laying the foundations for traditional Cantonese cuisine reinterpreted for the modern world. Some of the restaurant’s accolades include a Michelin star and the titles of The Best Restaurant in Hong Kong 2022 and The Best Restaurant in China 2022 according to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. In 2021, The Chairman also took the No. 1 spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, becoming the first Hong Kong restaurant to win the honour of The Best Restaurant in Asia.
With this much praise, it’s natural to wonder what it is about The Chairman that makes its food so swoon-worthy? First up, the restaurant makes all of its dishes from self-developed recipes, which are always, first and foremost, guided by produce. Using classics as a starting point to guide their culinary offering, the chefs spend months, sometimes years, developing their cuisine. It’s all about research and knowledge and then attempting to attain their version of perfection, which includes the use of meticulously sourced ingredients and the most befitting skills.
“Our dishes are ingredient-orientated,” says Danny Yip. “We work out the flavour profile of the ingredients and figure out how to enhance their natural taste. After concept development, I will discuss the execution processes with Head Chef Kwok Keung Tung. Then we will try a few options with the kitchen team. Dish development is a long process, and some dishes we work on for over a year before we can put them on the menu.”
An enormous effort is put into finding the raw materials for their creations, with Kwok Keung Tung and Danny Yip actively involved in the procuring process. Whether they come from the restaurant’s own small farm at Sheung Shui, where they make pickles and cure meat, or the local fish market, where they acquire the best catch of the day, everything is as fresh and seasonal as possible.
“Cantonese cuisine has a history of two thousand years,” explains Kwok Keung Tung. “Today, it has evolved to become the most popular and widely influential cuisine among the ‘eight culinary classical styles’ of China. The reason for its success boils down to one keyword: ‘freshness’.
“The Chairman’s aspiration is to continue this legacy. That is why, as much as possible, we use locally sourced ingredients, products from local condiment stores and seafood from local fishermen. We try to source as many ingredients from local Hong Kong farms as possible, including vegetables, pork and chicken. We have even employed two ex-fishermen brothers for the past thirteen years to go to the seafood market each morning at five a.m. to hand-pick local catches of the day. Live swimming seafood is our favourite! There’s nothing better than getting fresh catches of the day from local fishing boats in the morning and then placing them onto the plates in the evening. Pure, clean freshness is the essence of Cantonese cooking.”
Although sourcing locally is vital to the chefs, they also venture a little further to discover overlooked, lost or unknown ingredients to add to their pantry. “Good ingredients inspire us. We often go into villages in South China and look for interesting, forgotten ingredients. The vast land of China is like a treasure box with unlimited surprises,” says Kwok Keung Tung.
“As Julia Child said: ‘You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces — just good food from fresh ingredients.’ We believe in good ingredients and natural flavours. Cooking is to enhance the natural flavours of the ingredients, not to mask them.
“Our cooking style is fundamentally built on tradition. We aim to bring out the original flavours of the ingredients rather than showing off or overplaying. We believe that as long as the ingredients are fresh and the sauces are outstanding, simple cooking will rule. Poultry and seafood all taste exactly as they should, and this is what Cantonese cuisine is all about.”
“We always believe that the most simple food demands the highest level of culinary skills, thus requiring even more of our thought,” continues Kwok Keung Tung. “Most Chinese chefs follow recipes that have been passed down from one generation to another. We like to create our own. Comforting, delicate Chinese food with enough emotional linkages and yet, that offers surprises,” adds Danny Yip. “For example, The Chairman’s razor clams steamed with aged lemon and mixed herbs is fragrantly garnished with lemon that’s aged for over ten years. The smoked baby pigeon with Longjing tea and chrysanthemum is prepared in a traditional way with young, only twenty-day-old pigeons and cooked until tender. The Chairman soy sauce chicken uses herbs that are even more expensive than the chicken. We believe in creativity and thinking outside the box. Nothing is more rewarding than being able to create a good dish and seeing customers’ smiling faces,” shares Kwok Keung Tung.
The Chairman’s signature flowery crab dish is one such creation that brings this undeniable, grin-filled delight to customers. Kwok Keung Tung describes the marvel as: “Super umami, smooth and silky. A ‘less is more’ dish that we have to try and adjust each day to achieve a good balance.”
Famous worldwide and loved by first-timers and regulars alike, it comprises a fresh-sourced flowery crab steamed with just three ingredients: fifteen-year-old Chinese wine, clam juice and chicken fat. It’s then served whole, with fragrant chicken oil and flat rice noodles. Although it may sound simple, it’s actually one of the most challenging dishes to get right, as each crab that arrives is a different size, meaning varying cooking times are required. Plus, every batch of the aged wine is unique, too, adding to the cooking complexity.
But this dish isn’t the only one that takes careful preparation and balancing of flavours; this same effort is required with the sauces they make in-house. Driven by passion, curiosity and a pure focus on cooking, The Chairman is never afraid of going the extra mile to produce perfection in the kitchen.
“For those sauces that we can prepare on our own, we create them in our own kitchen. Shrimp oil, spicy oil, chicken oil, green onion oil and lemongrass oil are perfect for bringing out authentic tastes, and they are all produced through slow cooking. We also have a small farm of our own in Sheung Shui which is used as the venue for curing preserved meat and making different kinds of pickles. It may sound incredible, but we even cure our own salted eggs,” says Kwok Keung Tung.
What’s more, is that this resolution is also backed by the most beautiful yet straightforward motive: Danny Yip just wants diners to “feel like they have visited an affectionate Cantonese home and been treated with some wonderful, exotic Chinese food that they have never tried before. Food that they can remember the taste of for a long period of time.”
This notion is echoed in the restaurant’s décor, which is equally as humble and unassuming as its ethos. Located in a quiet cul-de-sac just off Queen’s Road in Hong Kong’s Central district, it boasts all-white interiors with minimal embellishments so that the focus remains on the food, just as Danny Yip and Kwok Keung Tung intend.