Vincent Mui is looking for chefs to travel to Hong Kong. He will pay for flights, hotels and for you and three friends to sample some of the island's finest food. The catch? You need to cook a brilliant tasting menu for his pop-up restaurant, Test Kitchen. Chris Dwyer talks to two chefs who have cooked at one of Hong Kong's hottest restaurants
The streets of the Sai Ying Pun district of Hong Kong are filled with the smell of the sea and packed with shops selling every imaginable dried seafood, from shrimp to scallops, and from abalone to shark's fin, all from one of the world's greatest natural harbours, just a couple of hundred yards from the heavy steel doors of Test Kitchen.
The chefs come, courtesy of Test Kitchen founder Vincent Mui, to cook 40 covers of their own cuisine for three to five nights. In return the former chef turned culinary entrepreneur covers flights, accommodation and meals in the city's most iconic restaurants for them and up to three of their colleagues. It's hardly surprising that a number of British and Irish chefs have seized the opportunity to add to their CV in one of the world's hottest destinations.
Hong Kong-born but US-educated Mui, 33, started Test Kitchen almost three years ago. After university he moved to New York to pursue culinary arts and restaurant management at the French Culinary Institute, before working as a commis at the city's Bouley restaurant.
Before returning to Hong Kong, he joined a pop-up dining tour, travelling and cooking in 10 cities across the US. Working alongside chef Kwame Onwuachi - a young talent who recently opened the 96-seat Kith and Kin at the InterContinental hotel in Washington - he fell in love with the experience and realised that pop-ups were what Hong Kong was missing.
"I learned more in those few weeks than in a year at culinary school, so I thought it would be great to create a platform where passionate, global chefs could cook the food they love," Mui says. "Hong Kong diners are knowledgeable and open-minded about new tastes and experiences: I was confident they'd embrace the idea. I wanted to get to know the chefs, to understand what drives them and their food."
March 2015 saw the launch of the first ever Test Kitchen dinner, in an art gallery in Hong Kong's antiques district. Later locations included industrial warehouses and even a historic colonial house on the city's famous Victoria Peak. But in the summer of 2016 Mui found a permanent home for Test Kitchen in the up-and-coming Sai Ying Pun district.
The word Mui uses more than any other is "passion", a characteristic that he seeks in the chefs he works with. And these chefs truly come from around the world - from New York, Bangkok, Manila, Berlin, Dublin, Helsinki, Lyon and London, showcasing cuisines including modern American, Thai, Filipino, Sicilian, Mexican, Irish, new Nordic and British.
Test Kitchen serves tasting menus, usually eight courses, although some have been served family-style. There are no specific criteria as to the level of chef experience needed - some chefs have held Michelin stars, some are dynamic young talent, but all are open-minded, energetic and keen to embrace the city and its food scene.
k Moriarty won the prestigious San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year in 2016, awarded by judges including Massimo Bottura, Grant Achatz, Yannick Alléno and Joan Roca. His signature dish of celeriac baked in barley and fermented hay, cured and smoked celeriac and toasted hay tea wowed the judges and set him on an enviable year of global pop-ups.
e 25-year-old Dubliner, who worked at Cutler & Co in Melbourne before returning to Ireland, reveals: "I did 16 pop-ups including London, Milan, Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore and Moscow. It was a unique, fantastic year, and overall Test Kitchen was the best pop-up. The stunning venue was perfect for personalising; it's furnished in a minimalist style that allows for additions, and the kitchen itself was fantastic. The city was brilliant and my team made the trip."
Moriarty first heard about Test Kitchen in Singapore, doing a collaboration at restaurant Jaan with Kirk Westaway. He met Mui at a culinary conference and they agreed to chat about a collaboration in Hong Kong. Four months later he found himself boarding a flight with two of his former head chefs and mentors from Dublin: Mickael Viljanen from the one-Michelin-starred Greenhouse and Graham Neville from Dax. He was also joined by Karl Breen, a former sous chef at the Greenhouse.
"It was a fantastic reunion in a most unlikely venue. Vincent was great to work with, particularly in the lead-up to our departure for Hong Kong. The kitchen and restaurant set-up were terrific. Great oven, Thermomix, water baths, the crockery and cutlery were very nice, maybe a Pacojet instead of the ice-cream machine would have been better, but that's getting picky! It had everything you need to be successful."
Equipment was one thing, but ingredients and service also needed to be on point. Moriarty recalls: "Vincent facilitated all our ingredient requests. We had a few key ingredients flown into Hong Kong, namely pigeon, truffle and oysters, and we got some high-quality salmon from China. Every morning we visited the market and picked up ingredients to add to our core dishes. This was the most interesting part - tasting unknown ingredients and changing the dishes based on what we could find."
Service, however, was one area he felt needed improvement. "As a venue set over three floors, it's hard to keep an eye on the tables from the kitchen. The staff were perhaps inexperienced for the level of service required, particularly with wine pairings. We began to run plates from the kitchen ourselves and once front of house followed our lead, it was a lot smoother."
Moriarty's dishes included a royale of foie gras, apple, walnut and smoked eel, and one that drew inspiration from Hong Kong's markets - pigeon, turnip cooked in ponzu, and cabbage."We offered something very different in our Irish menu and also tried to provide a unique service experience. As a pop-up, you need to do this, as anyone can get a tasty menu in a permanent restaurant. We did a lot of tableside service and interacted with our guests," he says. And, it's fair to say, the four made the most of the city. "We didn't really sleep too much on the trip as most spare time was spent enjoying the Hong Kong nightlife," says Moriarty. "We visited the well-known restaurants like Yardbird and Loaf On, but the most interesting places were the street joints and smaller dim sum houses, like Luk Yu Tea House. We had some top nights out and picked up great knives in the market. We saw a lot in our six days." Another Test Kitchen alumnus is Ben Orpwood, who is executive chef at D&D London's modern Japanese restaurant Issho in Leeds. Orpwood, who previously worked as executive chef at Sexy Fish in London, says his next career move is even more exciting. "I'll be joining Gordon Ramsay Restaurants to work on a big project. I can't say much more at this stage." wood found out about Test Kitchen from his friend and colleague Michael Hoepfl of Zuma, London, and, although he admits he had never done a pop-up, they ended doing a four-night stint together in February 2017. Orpwood explains: "Vincent was great and we were assisted by a few guys he knew who wanted to learn - we very much appreciated them. Test Kitchen has a very good set-up. The only problem was the pasta machine - we only had a tiny home-style one, so it was a proper graft to get the ravioli done every day." 'Outrageously good' Like other chefs cooking at Test Kitchen, Orpwood was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ingredients in Hong Kong: "The produce I found generally superb," he says. "We had a dish with baby leeks that Vincent ordered specially, but then we found some beautiful pink spring onions in the market that were much better. The local pigeon were outrageously good - I mean stunning. Mike brought some black pudding from his hometown in Germany, and the rest of the ingredients we sourced from Hong Kong. There were a few issues, such as the bonito we ordered was not great, so we changed to tuna halfway through, but this meant trips for us to source this and that, and that was part of the experience." As he does with every chef at Test Kitchen, Mui ensured that Orpwood and Hoepfl got to sample some of Hong Kong's 25,000 places to eat. "I found Hong Kong very liveable, I loved the size and proximity to everything," Orpwood says. "We sampled the top-end restaurants at Ho Lee Fook, Ronin and Zuma, and then the low end at midnight on the way back to the flat! All were superb." Orpwood's Test Kitchen experience parallels that of other chefs. "I would absolutely do it again. It was very exciting, we had a bit of press in the run-up and a lot of great social media during and after. I would like to see more of Hong Kong, and now, knowing what produce is there, I could work even more locally." !Test Kitchen Almost three years on since the first pop-up, Mui retains his enthusiasm and passion for the project. "Working with global chefs of the quality of Mark, Ben and others has been brilliant, and the reception from Hong Kong's diners really enthusiastic. Part of the beauty for me is that it's a process where we constantly learn from one another, particularly in terms of produce. Taking a chef to Hong Kong's incredible wet markets is an amazing cultural exchange, where Unfamiliar ingredients are translated beautifully on the plate. You can't ask for more than that."
Hong Kong hot list As part of the Test Kitchen experience, Vincent Mui invites chefs to some of Hong Kong's most renowned restaurants: Ho Lee Fook The cheekily named spot (meaning 'good fortune for your mouth' in Cantonese) sees chef Jowett Yu craft clever, delicious contemporary takes on North Asian dishes in a funky underground space. Luk Yu Tea House This legendary dim sum spot, in operation since 1933, serves impeccable dim sum in elegant surroundings. Yardbird A perennial favourite and must-visit for any chefs passing through town. The sensational yakitori, great drinks and a relaxed vibe make for a brilliant combination. Loaf On This seafood restaurant sits near the waterfront in Sai Kung, meaning you can bring your own catch or buy from local vendors selling directly from their boats. It was awarded a Michelin star for its excellent versions of classics such as steamed fish and tofu and a brilliant signature crispy chicken. Zuma Needing little introduction to global foodies, the Hong Kong outpost of the Japanese favourite is always popular, no more so than for its Champagne-filled weekend brunch. With two pop-ups every month, Vincent Mui is always on the lookout for new chefs. If you are interested, get in touch with him via ww.testkitchen.com.hk