She’s fed pigs’ brains to Anthony Bourdain, was anointed Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2017 and now she’s running one of Hong Kong’s hottest restaurants Happy Paradise at the louche end of Staunton Street.
It’s been quite a journey to the slightly down-at-heel environs of Soho, but the diminutive and indefatigable May Chow – who made a household name for herself with her first restaurant Little Bao – warms to the subject of how she got there.
“It has taken four years for Happy Paradise to become one Hong Kong’s favourite dining places – four years ago people were like ‘why are we going to a massage parlour’,” May laughs, referring to the area’s demi-monde reputation and to the open-plan restaurant which still keeps the tatty chic of a real Hong Kong restaurant.
People coming up the steps and through the narrow passageway of what she describes as a small rabbit warren were often blinking in disbelief.
“They’d come up here and would be saying ‘this cannot be a restaurant – this is a bar! What are you trying to do?’ and ‘that’s not Chinese food! Where’s the fried rice?’,” she says with a wry grin. “We had to live through a lot of that.”
May had already cut her teeth with Little Bao in 2013 but was looking for a new challenge that fed into her deep roots in Cantonese cuisine – a love of which she absorbed from her mother. Four years later her neo-Cantonese direction culminated in the launch of Happy Paradise – a place where taking risks that produce happy outcomes is what it’s all about.
Gently, very gently, May likes to steer people towards tastes and foods they haven’t experienced. She achieved a real coup in 2018 when she introduced brains – a dish that even seasoned locals would baulk at – to Anthony Bourdain.
“I used to serve pigs’ brains as a dish for fun and no one would order it,” May recalls. “Chinese people might order it sometimes because they are more used to eating all different kinds of offal but mostly it didn’t sell.
“Then I put it in front of Anthony Bourdain when he came to review our restaurant and after it had been on TV we went from no orders for pigs’ brains to cooking eight to 12 of them a day.
“It was just so fun to know that we’d introduced pigs’ brains to so many people,” she enthuses. “And the people that were trying it that loved Bourdain were such great people. They were like ‘we’d never normally eat brains but we wanted to come and try it after seeing Bourdain and it was just way better than we expected.’”
As an expression of culture – living, breathing culture – May believes that food sits front and centre of all the art forms. If you are trying to tell someone what your culture represents, then food has an immediate impact: it goes straight to the senses.
“Living in a place like Hong Kong, we generally celebrate success through business and finance but even a businessman who knows nothing about art will at least know what good food tastes like,” she says. “I really like communicating at a level where most people are.”
Expressing yourself, who you are and where you come from, for May, is what running a restaurant is all about.
“In Hong Kong, to be honest, the majority of people are foodies,” she says. “To be able to share my heritage, my passion, my family with people is such a privilege.”
She says she’s even able to express how much she loves her mother through her cooking.
“Recently all my friends came to my mom’s for dinner and they were so wild about just how high the standard of cooking was. Just to see my mom having 10-12 people at her table that are professional food critics and then giving my mom, point by point, why they think the food is excellent gave me so much joy in my life.”
Having her mother as a mentor goes to the heart of one of Asia’s largest social issues, however, the role of women in the male-dominated world of the professional kitchen. As an LGBT woman, May is proud to be leading the pack when it comes to breaking the stereotypes that come with running a successful Hong Kong restaurant.
While not specifically discriminatory, people would often question why women would even consider going into a career where you have to work so hard in a craft that takes sometimes as long as 25-30 years – in the case of Japanese or Chinese cuisine – to even begin to master.
“Kitchen culture has been such a male-dominated culture,” May says. “Even if you were a woman and you worked at a restaurant, they’d probably really early on tell you to do the front of house.
“If you look at it, actually a lot of the great Chinese restaurants are run by women managers and yet they’re not in the kitchen. I met a lot of them and they often told me that, actually, they would have loved to have been a chef but it was just not a possibility even a short time ago.”
Now, May aims to change all of that. It’s been a struggle and she says she’s learned a lot on the way, but ultimately what is it that makes for a good and successful restaurant?
“The one thing I’ve learned is that cooking delicious food of itself does not equal a great restaurant – especially during a time like this when we’re going through Covid,” she says. “In the restaurant business we call them dog years – you live through eight years for every actual year you’re in business – that’s how tough it can be.”
But longevity is the one magic ingredient. The restaurants that make it are the ones that can be consistent and satisfy diners over time.
“For me, it’s all about the passion and the love and that never dies,” May says. “Of course there are days when you’re tired, but I’ve never had one day where I have regretted it.”