Food is very serious business in Hong Kong. The markets, the restaurants, the hotels turn over millions of food dollars. The pursuit of the finest products and the most expensive seafood, all of it alive, keeps Hong Kong's many markets constantly busy. Transport of foreign delicacies keeps the airlines and ports buzzing. Lunchtime all over town sees restaurants turning tables over at least twice and with constant queues.
It makes great sense for the Hong Kong Tourist Association to celebrate all this with a Food Festival annually and to invest some $HK3 million bi-annually in the Culinary Awards.
A team of international judges were brought to Hong Kong last month (I was representing Australia) from Canada, France, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, Japan, Malayasia, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, United States. These are the food connoisseurs and they are supplemented by another team of technical experts, leaders of catering colleges and institutions from Australia (Manfred Hennig) Switzerland and United States. This is further supplemented by a group of local experts, Hong Kong food writers and restaurateurs. Let there be no question of insufficient expertise.
We food connoisseurs had the best job. Not only could we watch some of the work in the kitchen but we also got to taste all 50 dishes. The technical judges had to stay in the kitchen and watch behind the scenes, check that the chefs' had not smuggled in all their food prepared and that the correct methods and standards of hygeine were being observed.
The awards are for both Western and Chinese dishes and judging for each is undertaken on seperate days in different kitchens. Where the Western teams have three hours to prepare a total of four dishes (a complete meal); the Chinese duos have just 30 minutes to prepare and present one dish. And do they show off in that time. A five wok line up of Hong Kong's finest chefs tossing, washing out the wok and serving - all in one seamless movement. It's in marked contrast with the heads down, plate placement of the Western kitchen.
All sorts and kinds of dishes were tasted. In the Western section, lamb dominated and dessert assemblage reached ridiculous heights and complications of flavours. In the Chinese section, innovation was striven for, perhaps at the risk of flavour. I was pleased to see some very traditional dishes win the day, notably the Wild Geese Resting on Plum Trees devised by Mr Kam Kwan Sing of Yung Kee, Hong Kong's most famous goose restaurant. This was served on blackened charcoal braziers, the goose was roasted, then braised in a sharp, salty plum sauce with gluten balls added at the last moment. Texture, taste and simplicity of presentation made it a clear winner of the Regional Cuisine, Southern specialities earning it a Platinum Award. Yung Kee Restaurant also won three Gold Awards in other sections.
Mr Kam is the eldest son of Kam Shui Fai who started 55 years ago with a modest cooked food stall which soon became renowned for the Roast Goose and its success allowed him to rent premises, then in 1964 to buy 32 Wellington Street, Central, and eventually four more adjacent buildings. Now the ten storey Yung Kee building boasts four levels of restaurants, another of privte rooms, offices, a huge kitchen with a massive array of equipment, service kitchens on other levels and on the ground floor, the wonderful entertainent of the open take away and lunch kitchen. From the street, the geese, chicken and ducks hang in their plump, rich glory. Inside there is frenzied activity as the orders come in for the lunch boxes and also for the diners at the ground floor tables.
Mr Kam senior was regarded as a legendary chopper, the fastest and most efficient in Hong Kong to dismemember and assemble a goose for take away. And, at 85, he is still there every day watching the tables, directing the waiters, filling the teapots and smiling at the ladies. He is a most charming and elegant man, still traditionally dressed in cheung sam. We have eaten there several times and I was delighted to see the whole family, the three brothers and Mr Kam Kwan Sing's wife and son at the gala dinner at the Kowloon Shangri La for the presentation of the Culinary Awards.
Yung Kee has been highly celebrated, it has received awards from Fortune Magazine ( Top Fifteen Best Restaurants in the World); numerous Hong Kong Food Festival Awards; American Express, Diners Club; Canada's Golden Flower Party Awardt, France Cuisine Asssociation and Iron of the Great Chef (Japan ) Award.
Kam Shui Fan told me that he is now retired and just likes to be at Yung Kee for his pleasure. I told him how much pleasure he and his restaurant have given us over the years of wonderful eating in Hong Kong -- and with many more to come.