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FOOD

Return to your roots: top chefs cook local at Tong Chong Street Market

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Most of us would grimace if we found a worm hole in our apple. Not Barry Quek. The executive chef behind Beet restaurant in Kau U Fong, Central is a fan of nibbled produce: “If there are holes in the vegetables it means there’s been no chemicals added to it, that’s why the worms and insects are feeding.”

He’s half joking (to be clear, Beet does not serve insects in its beetroots) but he’s serious about sourcing local and organic ingredients direct from farmers. After all, “they know their produce best. They can tell us what’s in season and what’s at its peak,” he says.

This February, six of Hong Kong’s top chefs will share their culinary prowess at a special Tong Chong Street Market (TCSM) food truck on 10 and 17 February, as well as a dinner on 17 February co-presented by Tong Chong Street Market and T.Dining by Hong Kong Tatler. Along with Quek, these chefs include Vicky Cheng (VEA), Vicky Lau (Tate Dining Room & Bar), Jacky Chan (Taikoo Place’s The Refinery), Eric Räty (Arbor) and Shane Osborn (Arcane). They will promote home-grown produce through new dishes created especially for the occasion – but each of them will also bring a different perspective to the importance of eating local.

Take Vicky Cheng, executive chef of Michelin-starred VEA, for instance. Not only does using local ingredients add authenticity to his unique Chinese x French creations, but it also champions Hong Kong as a producer of quality produce. “Hong Kong is of the biggest importing cities and we neglect what’s here,” he says. “But if you look, you’ll find some really amazing products.”

Cheng hopes to inspire not just foodies and market-goers, but also his fellow chefs: “I hope to influence Western chef friends to use more local products, and expose them to ingredients they wouldn’t explore otherwise, such as lily bulbs.”

Vicky Lau, head chef of Tate Dining Room & Bar and named the Best Female Chef in Asia by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, recognises there’s a responsibility that comes with the title. “When people come to your restaurant [or visit the TCSM], you’re setting an example as to what they can do at home,” she says. Hence the importance of the education of health and diet and addressing sustainability issues. She bemoans supermarkets’ wastage of odd-sized or odd-coloured produce, and the perils of over-farming. “If one product becomes very popular, I tend not to use it in my cooking, to avoid things like over-fishing and over-farming. We really need to be aware of that,” she says.

As for The Refinery’s chef Jacky Chan, health and quality are key motives to cooking local. For his dish, he’ll be using local pork belly, sourced direct from a farm in the New Territories. “When you use local, organic produce you are almost guaranteeing that the source is good; what goes into the vegetables is all documented,” he says. “At the farm where the pigs are raised, the hygiene level was incredibly high – which gives confidence in the quality of the meat.”

One thing all of the chefs agree on is the importance of supporting local farmers and the industry. For David Leung, who represents a collective of 14 participating farms at the TCSM, it’s not just about being “on trend”; it’s a vital part of humanity’s health and wellbeing. “It’s all related: if more people enjoy local, organic produce and see the benefits, local farmers can grow their business and inspire young farmers to go into farming and make the whole cycle more sustainable,” he says.

Above all, perhaps, there is one ultimate benefit to cooking with local produce, as Quek can attest. “I find this kind of cooking very natural – and ultimately tastier.”

Want to hear more from chefs about TCSM? Click here.

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