by Chef Michael Saxon
Preface from Chef Saxon- " I was conducting a pre-opening of a 1200 room hotel in Hong Kong and was asked out to dinner by my team and this is what happened."
I interviewed all the staff for my area, made my choices, and told them we would call them closer to the date. The principal assistant I had chosen, Tan, was a great guy, and he suggested that since it was now winter in Hong Kong, I might like to go with him to a game restaurant to explore possible menu ideas. Not really knowing what he was talking about. I went along anyway because I was keen to try as many new things as possible. We arrived at the appointed restaurant, which was located down a back street, or more rather some dark alley, such that you would never be able to find it a second time even if you wanted to.
The owner and chef came out to greet us and told us that if we were willing he would like to play a little game with us. He would bring out the food and as we finished each course, we would have to guess what we had just eaten. It sounded a little scary to me given that this was Hong Kong, but as I wanted to try things, and was also keen to fit in, I went along with it.
The first thing we ate was a strong smelling stew, yet clear, soup which the chef said was "Good for the body". Which part I wondered. He asked us what we thought it was. There I was, an international chef, and I had no idea. "Let me guess," I announced. Well, I surmised, it was a game restaurant, and it was a soup. Pheasant!" I said. "What? What the hell is pheasant?" came the reply. I knew then that I was in trouble, and this was going to be a long, long night. Our host went in to the kitchen and brought out a large cage on a trolley with wheels, covered by a dirty white blanket. He did his trick of pulling away the blanket like a television magician, revealing a huge, slimy, long-tongued, uglier than anything I had ever seen ...lizard. My stomach started to turn over straight away and I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes, and for that matter everyone else's.
Then came the next course, a small bowl of some kind of stronger-smelling, heavy stew. I nibbled at it since my appetite was already suffering under the enormous strain. "Game restaurant", I whispered to myself. "I'll give them GAME restaurant,' Out came the dreaded cage, once again, and away went the blanket to reveal a beautiful snowy owl, it's huge eyes looking deep into mine. That, my friends, was the last straw. I didn't care any more if I was going to fit in or not. Dinner was over for me and, as the next course came out, I announced that I was out of the game. So as not to cause offence, I decided to ask for something safe instead, and with which I was familiar.
"Hey, how about just giving me some chicken cow mein?" I asked pleadingly. The manager looked at me extremely confused. "Chicken chow what?" he said. "Chow mein," I reiterated. "Are you trying to be funny?" he responded angrily. "If you don't like the food, I understand, but there is no reason to be rude." "What the heck was he talking about?" I asked Tan, and he told me that he had been living in Hong Kong all his life and had never heard of this dish. What was worse, "Chow" translated from Cantonese to English is "Stink" For the full four years in Hong Kong, I was unable to find a single restaurant that had heard of the famous "Chicken chow mein", much less had it on the menu.
My protestations of being full had still not spared me from the third course. This was another thick stew, which the owner chef told us, "is made especially to keep the body warm during the winter," while pulling away the trolley to reveal a somewhat scabby-looking dog. This time I tried a different track. "I think I must of eaten something which did not agree with me at lunch earlier today," I mustered. This at last seemed to do the trick. Though still trying to extend hospitality and feeling sorry for me being unable to eat the delights of the main meal, he brought out some steamed prawns and steamed fish insisting that would make me feel a little better. And guess what, my appetite was indeed encouraged back to life! It showed me though that if you have the taste for something and the money to pay for it, you can find it and eat it in Hong Kong.
The next night, Tan introduced me to the famous Dai Pai Dong concept of eating. Generally, these places are about the atmosphere, and the food can be great too. Unfortunately, this was not to be on my initiation night, and I felt as if I had seen it all. The so-called chef was woking the rice and noodles in the street, as they do, but in his case while smoking at the same time. As he threw the food in the air, the sudden jerk of his arm sent ash from his half-smoked butt into his fine cuisine of "Wok-fried Hong Kong style ashed noodles". There was no toilet in close proximity to this particular restaurant stall, and the chef was drinking his fair share of the night's profits, he needed to go to the toilet to relieve himself. As I looked on in amazement, he finished one dish, then went behind a nearby bush for a leak, wiped his hands on his shorts, pulled up his zip, and casually strolled back to his open air kitchen. The chef had a singlet T-shirt on, with his hairy and sweaty arm pits showing in full view, a cigarette in his mouth, very short shorts such that his "wedding gear" was virtually hanging out from one side, and was wearing no shoes. Can't be bad, I thought, Let's eat!
Many thanks to
Chef Michael Saxon for allowing EOL to publish this excerpt from his book Chef's Tale.
Chef Saxon acquired his vocational skills in cooking and went on to become an international rated Executive Chef in the five star industry. In the process he virtually traveled the world, mastering his culinary skills and at the same time engaging life's colorful characters and surviving an endless stream of adventures, both in the kitchen and the world outside. Follow Michael Saxon as he crosses both national and cultural borders in the pursuit of his lifelong vocation.