Owner of Tim Ho Wan, a one Michelin-starred restaurant and brand
Location 9-11 Fuk Wing St, Sham Shui Po (along with 46 other locations in Hong Kong and worldwide)
Type of food Dim Sum
Price point Under 200HKD
How did you start Tim Ho Wan?
I started cooking in a diner at 15, learning from the ground up. At 19 I became the head of the dim sum section. I worked for 30 years as a chef at other people’s restaurants, and then at 47 finally opened up my first Tim Ho Wan location. It was a gamble. Before this I worked for three years at the Four Seasons Hotel [in Hong Kong] at the Lung King Heen restaurant. It came in stages. After I wasn’t a new chef anymore, I progressed up through better and better restaurants until I was a chef at the hotel. After hotels there wasn’t anywhere higher to go. So I started my own restaurant.
You and your business partner started this restaurant in 2009, and in the decade you’ve been open, you’ve never lost your Michelin star and you’ve remained the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong. How do you keep prices down and the quality high?
Making dim sum, our highest costs are labour. The ingredients are simple and actually aren’t that expensive. If wages and rent go up, then we’ll cross that road. But right now the pressure to raise prices isn’t very high.
Yes, it’s really cheap. But our thinking is that we should focus on selling more and doing more business. Even if we make less profit [per item], if we sell more it’s the same.
If we raised the prices, our clientele would change … We want more people to be able to patron the restaurant. When more people come to the restaurant, the food is also better as a result. Turnover is high and things come out quickly, so things are always fresh. If it’s expensive, we might only have a hundred or so customers per day, so the food we create might have to be stored in fridges or freezers.
What’s the hardest dish that you make?
The egg sponge cake. The dish is sensitive to temperature and humidity. Humidity will effect its ability to Faat How. Like yesterday was really warm – 30 degrees. But today is only 23 degrees – so today is worse. So it really depends on how the chef keeps the cake warm. Without that attention to the temperature of the environment, you can’t make it well.
Your pig liver siu mai is a unique dish. Tell me about it.
In Hong Kong, I can only think of three or four restaurants that still sell it. It’s a very old-fashioned dish. Making it well is not that easy - it’s difficult to make sure the liver is cooked just enough to be done but not overdone so it tastes like rubber.
Finding the best liver for the dish also isn’t that easy. It can’t be old … What I mean by that is that the pig should be about 200 catty (2 catty is equal to 1kg). The ones that are 3-400 catty are no good. Once it’s higher than 300 catty, the liver becomes too tough. And the pig can’t be too young either. Too young and the liver doesn’t have much flavour. What’s the hardest part about this job?
Everything outside of the food. Dealing with the government, the documents, the regulations. I was born from the kitchen ... I’ve never been afraid of food quality problems, chef problems, anything from the kitchen. But anything outside of the kitchen I get scared. We’re actually preparing to open a new location in Canada. We’ve signed the contract already. It’ll be at least another three years.
This interview has been translated and condensed.