There are some street sweepers about, and a few folks off to beat the rush on the MTR, but this part of town doesn’t get up all that early.
Chef Kwame Onwuachi and his fiancée Mya Allen are staying in a second floor walk-up AirBnB on Staunton Street, a couple blocks uphill from the landmark Man Mo Temple and the pricey antique shops of Hollywood Road. They’re in Hong Kong to do a dinner series with Kwame’s old friend Vincent Mui, who runs a pop-up restaurant space here called Test Kitchen.
Vincent and Kwame go way back. They met at CIA and went on the road together for the original Dinner Lab series, sharing hotel rooms and “sheds no more than 100 square feet” in what was meant to be a cross-country cooking competition. The idea was that teams of chefs would host dinners in ten different cities over the course of ten weeks, with guests scoring meals and the eventual winners getting funding to start their own restaurant. When Kwame and Vincent won, Dinner Lab moved the goal posts, and Kwame bowed out. He had already met the investor he needed at one of the early dinners, and was ready to get to work on his first solo project.
As far as Hong Kong goes, Kwame and Mya’s one-bedroom is a good sized 400 square feet or so, with just enough space in the living area for a love seat, some folding chairs, and a couple of half-unpacked suitcases. The kitchen consists of a small fridge and about a foot and a half of countertop between two electric stovetops and a sink. Similar apartments in the neighborhood can rent for around 4,000 USD a month. The fridge is empty.
A little after 8am, they’re out the door, Mya in her white Adidas, Kwame in his black Bagards. And we’re off.
Partly because Hong Kong’s steep hills have been made pedestrian friendly by a collection of scattered, often unmarked staircases – some large enough to register as city streets; many hidden enough to feel more like private property than public shortcuts – and partly because some combination of wifi and cellular signal density seems to throw its triangulation algorithm off by several different blocks every few seconds, Google maps does not work well here, so we pause often to politely bicker about where we are and where we are going.
It doesn’t help that we can neither remember the name of our destination, nor coax Google into figuring it out for us, despite the fact that we are aiming for a famous, Michelin-listed dumpling place that Kwame has been to several times and that is definitely very close to wherever we are standing. It is, we will all remember in unison shortly, the Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai Pan-fried Buns shop.
Back home in D.C., they usually keep things pretty standard – eggs, breakfast sausage, wheat toast, maybe some avocado and greens – but to start their days in Hong Kong, Kwame and Mya split an order of ten dumplings: Four pork, four shrimp, and two black truffle, for a total of about 12.50 USD. There’s a sticker on the glass separating the tiny, standing-only counter from the two large frying pans making the next round that warns visitors about the internal soup temperatures of these little broth balloons, so breakfast is slurped and chewed with lots of earnest blowing and exaggerated hand-fanning. I immediately burn my tongue. I imagine they taste fantastic. Kwame suggests we get some egg tarts across the street.
Like a lot of well-known places in a food tourist’s town, locals either consider Tai Cheong Bakery rightfully famous for its work, or at least a little overrated. Kwame believes the former, so he snags an egg tart for each of us, and we head out for coffee.
I call Vincent to let him know he should meet us at the coffee shop, but Kwame commandeers the phone and, without so much as a hello, asks, “Did the stock burn?”
When he first got here, Kwame put in an order for 100lbs of bones so he could make a huge batch of stock right away, but the biggest pot Test Kitchen has is barely big enough for one night’s worth of what he needs for his oxtail entrée, so he and Vincent are continuously monitoring a regularly refilled stockpot 24 hours a day, every day. The last tweak to the heat before close each night is a perpetual point of concern.
The stock is fine. We are lost. Again. Which is a little embarrassing because the name of the shop we’re looking for is also its address: 13 Peel. Also, I live here.
When we finally find the right street, Mya pops into a juice shop to err on the healthier side of egg tart, and Kwame buys a pitaya from the vendor outside. “It’s like dragon fruit, if dragon fruit had any flavor,” he says, as we wait for Mya on a set of stairs littered with a dozen or so of someone else’s empty champagne bottles from the night before.
The inside of 13 Peel is bright white, with an Instagram pink “Drink Naked Coffee” neon sign on the far wall, and a tiny little patio space out back, where we retreat with our coffees – almond milk macchiatos for the visitors because Mya doesn’t do dairy – and the egg tarts. If you wonder why egg tarts haven’t taken over the world like, say, croissants or cupcakes or donuts or cookies or literally any other sweet baked good, it’s probably because you’ve never had one. Food writers love the history of it and the“local delicacy” angle, but I can think of no other pastry treat whose marginal returns diminish faster bite by rich, yolky bite.
As I take pictures, the betrothed joke that this is their engagement shoot, and Kwame insists they cross arms for a sip.
They met in Boston just before Mya headed to ICC for culinary school in New York. There was a lot of back and forth to D.C. while she was in school, and things got meet-my-family serious pretty quickly. About six months after they started dating, she says Kwame came up for her graduation and was acting strange. He was quiet and awkward, very not Kwame. She was sure he was cheating. After the ceremony they drove back to Boston in near total silence, and she braced herself for a confession and the fallout. In reality, despite all his Top Chef confidence and business bravado, there was a ring in his pocket, and even small talk made him nervous.
His attempts to tell her “very traditional” parents about his intentions on that trip were comically bad: “Her mom was going to Target one day, so I asked if I could come along,’ and she just said, ‘Why?’ I had to be like, ‘I just really like Target?’ So she lets me come and on our way there, I said, ‘You know, I really love your daughter,’ and she was like, ‘So? Why are you telling me this now?’ and I was like, ‘I’m just saying,’ and that was it. We went to Target.”
Eventually, he slipped away from watching a movie with Mya to tell her parents his plans, and after a bit of an inquisition from her mother that got more personal than he would like to share here, he made his way back downstairs to pop the question surrounded by the whole family.
They are still in the early stages of wedding planning. No date has been set. Please stop asking.
Vincent meets us at the coffee shop and we pile into his beige minivan, a literal grocery getter for the restaurant that also serves as his shuttle for visiting chefs. We head toward the waterfront. Unfortunately, Hong Kong, like a lot of cities, decided the best place to put its widest swaths of asphalt was right along the water, and so despite its harbor-side address, Test Kitchen faces enough of a snarl of highway and flyovers that it’s basically under an underpass.
Still, it’s a trendy little block on a street otherwise packed with tiny cardboard recycling sites and bric-a-brac wholesalers. There’s a co-working space / coffee shop next door, and a wine bar next to that.
Unopened, Test Kitchen is a wall of black corrugated steel, part of which is a two-story sliding door that pushes aside to reveal a bright, minimalist, concrete space with black accents and white walls. When Vincent finally got this space, after several years of running his pop-up operations out of vacant restaurants, other people’s houses, and whatever free space he could find, it was a blank, kitchen-less, slate. Now it does two seatings a night for Hong Kong’s upscale dining set, at about $125 US for a full tasting menu (however that week’s chef defines it) and more for cocktail and wine pairings from Ada Lang, former marketing guru turned sommelier and wine merchant.
First things first, despite Vincent’s repeated reassurances, Kwame checks the stock. His running joke for the day is variations on “First rule of the kitchen: Trust no one.”
The stock is still fine.
Next, he separates the oxtails from the broth. They’ve been braising over 12 hours, and look it. A few steamy masses of beautifully browned gelatin are scooped out for sampling, before the rest heads back into the combi oven to keep going till service.
Mya preps some cocktail mix for tonight’s “Navy Grog” and “Everything Criss”, both originally developed by lead bartender Zach Hoffman at Kwame's Kith / Kin restaurant in DC's Intercontinental hotel. A bottle of rum appears. Some disappears.
We leave for lunch. Kwame wants to go to Kam’s Roast Goose, another quintessential and therefor touristy place in Central. You can guess the star dish.
Staff at Kam’s have a no-nonsense reputation, which makes sense given the hoards gathered on the sidewalk taking selfies and hovering around waiting to be called in for a table. Kwame puts our name in and we find our way to the far end of the crowd. I ask if we’ll be able to hear our number. “Don’t worry,” he reassures, “She recognizes me. Maybe it’s because I’m American.”
For all Hong Kong’s diversity, with huge numbers of immigrants from across Asia, Europe, and Oceania, it can be easy to go an entire day without seeing anyone who looks like Kwame and Mya. When I ask what that’s been like, he shrugs it off as: “The usual. Can’t get a cab.”
Later in the day, Mya can’t get a cab, so she takes an Uber, which operates in a legal gray area in the city and isn’t used anywhere near as much as in the U.S. Her driver – working off of the aforementioned shit show that is Google Maps – nearly plunges their car down a flight of stairs he mistook for a shortcut. The usual.
Kwame orders char siu, suckling pig, goose, and some noodles for the table. “Bliss,” he says. Everything is to share, and we share everything (except the bowl of noodles, which I mistake for my own and slurp accordingly). Meat, fat, and skin, glazed and roasted, served in slim strips and big chunks, follows a familiar Cantonese formula. The formula works.
Kwame’s first restaurant, Shaw Bijou, did not. He painted a target on his back with a costly tasting menu and a bravado that rubbed some people the wrong way. At 26, he was charging Minibar prices in a town with a select few Minibars. There was the upstairs members only club with Icelandic sheepskin seats, and booze lockers, and a bouncer’s list that was to be curated more for intellect and creative energy than bank account.
The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema started off the critical response with a brutal “First Bite” review that ended with his dinner guests going down the street for a piece of pizza to top off an unsatisfying meal. Kwame ditched the members only club idea and cut overall menu prices in half within a month of that review. After over two and a half years of planning and buildout, Shaw Bijou closed just shy of three months in business.
We take a spin through the market to pick up some limes and a few carrots for service, and then it’s back to Test Kitchen for final prep. Staff arrive. They’re interns and college students and servers on their nights off. Because Test Kitchen only opens every other week or so, Vincent is the sole full-timer in the house.
That staff transience makes family meal a get to know you affair. Tonight, Vincent lays out a series of styrofoam Chinese takeout containers from down the street, and we pass the fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and noodles around and ask where everyone lives and what everyone really does for a living, before various meetings break out around the restaurant. FOH staff huddle with Vincent near the first floor communal table, running through the guest list and seating plan. Cooks gather round the pass to hear from Kwame. Mya pulls the bartender aside to explain where she’s stashed what grog.
When I ask Kwame what he misses about being back home in D.C., and in his own kitchen at Kith / Kin, right away he says his staff. Later that night, around mid-morning in the District, Wyclef orders breakfast at the restaurant. He's been staying at the Intercontinental, and Kwame’s staff uses their edible printer to put the singer’s face onto his own cappuccino, and pic after pic comes through on WhatsApp. He won’t show me everything they’re saying, but I assume it’s hilarious.
The first guests arrive twenty minutes before the ticketed time of 7PM. The Beastie Boys’s Girls comes on loud, and Mya laughs at Vincent, “What is this? I said like 90s, but GOOD.” He runs upstairs and pretty soon the volume’s down and Outcast’s Elevators (Me and You) is rolling slowly out the speakers.
Service is smooth. Two back to back seatings of 40 people each, all working off one set menu with very little variation makes for a relatively straightforward rhythm for the kitchen. Vincent expedites, murmuring “Service. Service.” into his headset and methodically crossing out dishes table by table with red x’s on a sheet taped to the pass. The service bar is basically a card table with a cooler beneath it and some backup mixers stored in reach-ins nearby.
Guests are Hong Kongers, so it’s hard to tell who’s an expat, or local, or just passing through like Kwame and Mya. There are red blazers and orange loafers. One couple brings their own bottles for corkage, and takes pictures of them on the table to show their wine friends their superior subs. A guest pigeonholes Mya to inform her that his wife isn’t really into coke, and doesn’t want him doing coke, but he has coke, and would Mya and Kwame like some coke? His wife looks on, unimpressed. Mya graciously declines.
The menu for the evening:
Dry aged beef Suya skewers
King crab curry with plantain granola
Brussels with calabrian chili honey and roasted tomato soubise
Scallop peri peri
Braised Oxtails with Allspice Jus
Fried Jamaican Red Snapper
Jasmine rice and peas
Thumbelina carrots with smoked carrot yogurt
Fried plantains with cilantro powder
Red bean Sofrito
Rum cake, carrot ice cream, dulce de leche
In many ways, this is what could’ve been at Shaw Bijou. Kwame is relaxed. Things move at a steady pace. He has a lot of time to laugh, and I only see a single flash of anger (when he is taking pictures of a dish he just plated and a server tries to pick it up for service before he’s finished composing the perfect shot). When dessert goes out to the first seating around eight o’clock, he has time to work all three floors, glad-handing guests.
After he does the same for the second seating, Mya and Kwame are ready to leave. Vincent wants to stick around to help staff close up, but he directs us to a ramen spot on Gough street. We are the last guests of the night, and they don’t serve booze. It’s a small menu, and between us we nearly order the entire thing. Kwame and Mya snap photos of their bowls, and Vincent eventually arrives with a bottle of mescal to add to the mix of tea and water.
“This is great. So simple. This ticketing system. Two seatings. Set menu. You should do this in D.C.” I tell Kwame.
“Yeah. I tried that before.” He deadpans.
“Didn’t happen. Never happened.” Mya adds. Her reassurance is some kind of mantra for them, and Kwame nods, “I know. I know.”
But it did happen. And so did Top Chef and Dinner Lab and Test Kitchen, and his childhood in Nigeria and the Bronx, and the glowing “First Bite” review that Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema gave Kith / Kin before Kwame came to Hong Kong, and the lukewarm full review Sietsema gave that same restaurant after Kwame got back, and the glowing re-review Sietsema handed down several months later, after critic Bill Addison gave a glowing one of his own in Eater.
In fact, enough has happened in Kwame's young life, that he has a memoir due out next month. The publisher calls it, "One man's pursuit of his passions, despite the odds." Those odds? The usual.
Andrew Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong who uses third-person in italics. He is the creator of the Family Meal newsletter for and about the restaurant industry. If you read this whole thing, you should subscribe.