Stepping into Hakkasan restaurant at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, guests are made to feel instantly special. Dimly lit, with illuminated bursts of neon blue and purple, a web of lattice walls and a moody soundtrack, the ambiance is distinctly glamorous. But for the culinary team behind Hakkasan, led by chef de cuisine, Lee Kok Hua in Abu Dhabi, the important thing is not the restaurant’s ambiance—though it is spot on—it’s the food and those killer cocktails. You see, as beautiful as the restaurant is, the contemporary Cantonese cuisine is at the very heart of all 12 Hakkasan venues around the world.
Lee has been with Hakkasan Abu Dhabi since its launch five years ago, leading the restaurant to win Restaurant Team of the Year and Head Chef of the Year at the 2013 Caterer Middle East Awards. Before Abu Dhabi, Lee was in London and trained under the group’s executive head chef Tong Chee Hwee and international executive chef Ho Chee Boon, who taught him the principles of Hakkasan’s philosophy, that dishes are “underpinned by authenticity rather than traditionalism.”
While the Hakkasan footprint might be echoed throughout all of the restaurants worldwide, including large sections of the menu, Lee says it’s also important for each restaurant to reflect its location. “This is why, in addition to many of Hakkasan’s classic signature dishes, you will also see a number of dishes on our menu which have been created especially for the Abu Dhabi customer, such as the Hakka steamed dim sum platter, served in Abu Dhabi with har gau, scallop shumai, prawn and chive and crystal dumplings.”
Other Hakkasan favourites also prove popular in Abu Dhabi, such as the Peking duck with caviar and the Jasmine tea-smoked Wagyu beef ribs. It’s clear that using the very best ingredients is at the core of Hakkasan’s success and Lee frequently reviews dishes and the overall menu to ensure the perfect balance of freshness and flavour. “You can see from all of our dishes that there is a strong emphasis on quality ingredients. We believe it is important to treat them with respect, in order to enhance the various flavours, colours and textures and allow them to shine on the plate,” he says.
An example of one of the tailored dishes is “the spicy and sour flavours of dishes such as the Assam seafood curry and Chinese buns”, which features mussel, squid, prawn, scallop and aubergine. Lee also points out the Atlantic scallop stuffed with prawn and mooli in mint sauce and wok-fried lamb rib eye with cumin and spicy sauce as unique editions to the new menu.
“The dishes are all focused around the taste of the Middle East and mostly include cumin, chili and a touch of sweetness,” he explains.
Starting his Hakkasan journey at the first restaurant to open in London, Lee joined the group in 2003 at Hanway Place. “[The restaurant] had been open for around two years and had already won a Michelin star under chef Tong [Chee Hwee], which it still maintains to this day,” he says.
Lee speaks fondly of his former mentor, who now also heads up HKK restaurant, also part of the Hakkasan group, in London. “Having the opportunity to work with such a formidable chef was an honour and I learnt so much from him. From presenting complex flavoured Cantonese dishes with a modern flair to bringing a freshness and vitality to Chinese food, he was crucial to my success.”
Lee continues: “[Tong’s] dedication to Chinese cuisine is inspirational and it was fascinating to see him work and watch him create such an impressive epicurean experience.”
Having gained experience at Hakkasan’s basecamp, from one of the world’s top Cantonese chefs, Lee moved to the Middle East to oversee the expansion of the brand into this new market in 2010.
“Hakkasan Abu Dhabi was the first Hakkasan in the region and our location in the landmark Emirates Palace is really special.” There are now also Hakkasan restaurants in Dubai and Doha, although the Abu Dhabi venue remains the largest.
With a restaurant, bar and Ling Ling lounge, as well as four private dining rooms, the 16,000-sqft space is dominated by the main dining area, which is crafted into a wooden cage. “We also have a beautiful terrace area that offers exceptional views of Abu Dhabi’s skyline,” Lee adds.
In keeping with the UAE trend of Friday brunch, Hakkasan Abu Dhabi launched its first brunch menu earlier this year. Called the Hakka Brunch, “our version offers guests a real taste of Hakkasan, with a selection of steamed, baked and fried dim sum, including har gau and scallop shumai.” The menu then offers guests different live station dishes, including that Peking duck, alongside a dish from the brunch menu.
That Peking duck is pretty spectacular. Not only because the duck is of the best quality, but it’s hung to dry at 3C for up to two days, before being roasted in a firestone oven for one hour and twenty minutes. The result is perfectly crisp skin, with a sweet softness that melts away in the mouth. The high-impact technique used to perfect the dish means it’s also a favourite of chef Lee’s, too. “We strive to perfect the crisp of the duck skin and smooth taste of the duck meat after roasting. It takes more effort than one may think,” he admits. “We also pair it with caviar, which gives off a fishy taste, giving the Peking duck a perfect vitality, that we feel makes it unique to other duck dishes.”
Another standout dish is the smoked Wagyu beef with muichoi. Lee uses the traditional Chinese ingredient muichoi (pickled cabbage), “which pairs perfectly with the meat in the dish by boosting the dedicate flavour and enhancing the freshness of the meat itself.”
Lee reveals his passion for cooking, and indeed Chinese cuisine, was ignited at a young age: “Growing up in Malaysia, I was surrounded by a family of cooks so food was an important part of my life from a very early age. I started working as an apprentice cook in a Chinese restaurant when I was 15 years old, learning the basics of wok cooking and how to create the unique balance of flavours, which is so important in Chinese cuisine.”
Continuing to hone his culinary skills eventually led him to London, where he worked with chefs Tong and Ho Chee Boon, with Lee counting Boon as another inspiration. “Not only has he had a Michelin star for over 24 years, but his traditional techniques use fresh local ingredients to ensure his contemporary dishes retain the essence of conventional Cantonese cuisine,” Lee says.
As Hakkasan continues to excel in the Middle East, Lee believes Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene is really starting to warm up. “This is a really exciting time for Abu Dhabi. The city’s reputation as a culinary destination has grown a lot in the past 12 to 18 months, with some really interesting concepts opening their doors. I particularly like Brasserie Angélique, a French restaurant located in Etihad Towers. The restaurant is so vibrant, the service is good and the chef has a great attitude towards the French cuisine he creates.”
While Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE’s restaurant scene continue to thrive, Lee’s focus remains on the restaurant he helped launch five years ago. “I am very happy here in Abu Dhabi. In the long term, I would however like to have my own restaurant one day, back home in Malaysia, offering a style of cooking which combines all of my years of experience in Cantonese and Asian cuisine.”
Find out more about Chef Hua’s culinary career
West Corniche Road