November 1, 2019

If I said that you could have an absolutely delicious fine dining meal without the presence of any meat whatsoever, would you believe me? Right up to a week ago, even I myself was a sceptic. Who would pay top dollar for a plant-based menu in the first place? Dining at Hong Kong-based Nectar has made me a newly minted convert. Aside from holistic, vegetable-centric menus that tick all the boxes, we’re talking gorgeous aesthetics that could grace the cover of any voguish food magazine touting borderline Michelin-star fare.

I smothered freshly baked bread in brown cashew nut butter, and devoured the verdant purslane pasta tossed in vegan butter and ‘salami’ enlivened by lemon zest. Your perception of porcine-rich Bak Kut Teh is challenged with the double-boiled mushroom spiced broth that’s both intense and aromatic enough to conjure powerful food memories. Gone are the days of uninspiring salads. There’s also a cheese course made from entirely nuts, beans and tofu. Plant-based dining has grown in finesse and chef Peggy Chan is the bellwether of the green cuisine seeking to debunk myths and misconceptions surrounding it. Over tea at Straits Clan, I talk to Peggy about everything from the dire situation of Hong Kong’s F&B scene to the debilitating idea that meat is more valuable than plants.

High Net Worth: Tell us more about your personal journey towards switching to a plant-based diet, and was it a conscious or gradual decision on your part?

Peggy Chan: I started to think about how I was eating even as a teenager. Very early on in my life, I began to cut down on my red meat intake. One of my first experiences was on a school trip. As we were passing by the farms, I managed to lock eyes with a cow, and thought to myself: Why are we consuming animals and why are we harming them? It didn’t make sense to me, which made me question a lot of things in my life. I was also going through certain issues in my life at that juncture, with my family splitting and the passing of my grandfather that made me think about life from a different perspective. There was a lot of suffering and pain, and since I tend to internalise things given my hypersensitive personality, it led to me cutting out red meat, fish and seafood gradually throughout the years.

What’s your view on veganism? Is it more a social justice movement or is there a bigger picture to it?

Some extremists can be too much. I hate that and avoid giving the impression that our restaurant is too preachy. A lot of our efforts have come across collaborative instead of judgemental which is especially important in an egotistical world of F&B. Things have been changing rapidly in the last 10 years and it’s important that we keep abreast of the latest developments. Veganism can be very holistic. Most people who think of sustainability will think about everything else, but truthfully, it’s multi-tertiary, touching on sectors such as integrative medicine, zero-waste packaging and all sorts of wellness. It’s important to adopt the mindset of compassion, extending that from the animals to human beings who don’t have the capacity to speak for themselves.

I prefer not to take the aggressive stance with this advocacy, since compassion also entails embracing people with different mindsets. Instead, I try to speak to them through different means and ways, in a bid to help them see from my point of view gradually. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my share of attacks from extreme vegans. At Grassroots Pantry, we were 98% vegan, the only thing that wasn’t vegan was the free-range eggs that we served at brunch. At that time, we were known to have the best brunches in Hong Kong and understood that protein insertion was huge for brunch. Let’s just say it didn’t sit so well with them. [pauses to recollect the trauma] I don’t like the word ‘vegan’ so much anymore in my branding. It’s more plant-based dining that I focus on now.

Your food is very related to emotions. Would you say that most people come out of the dining experience feeling like they’ve learnt something?

I guess that was exactly what we were trying to do at Grassroots Pantry, but the model didn’t allow us to better connect with our customers the way we wanted to especially after we moved to a bigger location. Where we were previously was a tiny space; a hole in the wall. I cooked and served the food, presented guests with the bill, and then asked for feedback—in hopes of securing more regulars via that exchange of knowledge. When you’re running a model that’s much faster-paced, you need a lot more people—as a result, you lose that connection. Tying in emotions into a dining experience is very crucial and it’s really all about the engagement. The reason why we wanted to evolve after 7 years is to slow down and engage with our customers a bit more. We want to share with them the techniques we use and reveal the true background of our motivation.

Can you speak more about the cuisine that you serve at Nectar?

Rather than defining it as one cuisine—Thai, French, Italian, etc.—we serve ‘authentic food’ at Nectar. If we want to make Thai curry, we try to make it as authentic as possible, not healthy nor chi-chi, just plain old tasty—often led by the stories we want to tell. Currently, we have three tasting menus. The 5-course Original Grassroots tasting menu (HK$680 per person) is for customers that love the OG, we take our foundational dishes and give them a spin.

Then there’s the 8-course Integrative Tasting Menu (HK$950 per person) which focuses on different types of techniques to create food that boasts nutrition, yet still remaining mindful. Enhancing nutrition, zero wastage, ethical sourcing, and environmental sustainability, these are the brackets and framework for how we create our dishes. From that menu, there’s Bak Kut Teh which was a dish that I learnt from my mother. By removing the meat part then replacing it with an umami bomb of dried shiitake mushrooms followed by double-boiling, we can extract the same flavours and emotions from the dish. At the end of the day, the essential message is, ‘Let’s not forget the traditional techniques.’

Finally, there’s the Edible Solutions 12-course menu (HK$1380 per person). Each course highlights a solution to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. One of the dishes is ‘plastic’, essentially slow-roasted shimeiji mushrooms, annatto seeds and saffron to achieve flavours that are reminiscent of lobster bisque. Our hope is to educate diners about all the single-use plastics that our wildlife is consuming. Most of us may not be aware of this, but crustacean shells can be used as a form of packaging and they rival plastics for keeping food fresh. It is our belief that to solve one of the biggest crises in the world, we need to aid in raising the level of awareness among consumers. That is our responsibility.

What techniques do you employ in your dishes?

Most of the dishes I make are already plant-based. The motivation is second nature to me. I always think about what’s in season first. Next, the techniques that I employ are to hold the produce for as long as possible like compressing pumpkin and fermenting figs or creating a chutney with squash. It’s a combination of techniques that balance operation and management.

These were techniques that I picked up throughout my culinary career. I was French culinary-trained, and dealt with everything from elk to sweetbreads. Clearly they have not been forgotten and the fundamentals are still useful. Somewhere along the way, I was going through some internal issues and was looking to heal them. I started to read “Healing through Whole Foods” by Paul Pitchford and it got me curious about the kind of nutrition every food has. I started testing some of these ‘home remedies’ on myself and I’m proud to say that I have never needed any form of Western medication for the last 18 years.

Are the majority of your diners vegetarians? If they are not, what is the hardest part about convincing diners to step out of their comfort zones to try your food?

I would say that only 10 to 15% of our diners are vegetarian. The best part about them is when they bring friends who are not. Thankfully with such a niche concept, we have managed to acquire a good handful of regulars by leveraging on Instagram, and we were one of the first few to do so in 2012. People really want to relate to food in a visual way, apart from the dishes we serve, so ambience is important as well. Over time, we’ve succeeded in becoming a dining destination.

You’ve worked with some of the local farmers since the start of Grassroots Pantry. What are some of their challenges that they face presently?

Logistics is a major problem. For example, getting vegetables sent to HK island is expensive despite the short distance. Next is systemisation. Some days, farmers won’t have enough harvest to meet your demand. In this volatile business, everything is unstable, but at the same time, it’s really spontaneous. To help the local farmers, every Sunday we set up a small booth outside the restaurants where farmers can sell their product. They also get very excited to share their knowledge and techniques on growing produce with the public, and that in turn motivates us.

Do consumers normally pit you against other vegan institutions? 

The word ‘vegan’ is something that I’ve removed from my marketing content, because we don’t really want to claim to be a vegan restaurant. It does not in any way value add to the restaurant. It’s a business after all and you have to think of the larger picture so as not to jeopardise the longevity of your restaurant. To be honest, a lot of these vegan restaurants use processed vegan food which taints the scene. We’re focused on a plant-based diet, on nutritional food. It’s about bringing the best quality vegetables, superfoods, ancient ingredients, producers, farmers, and consumers together to form a sustainable cycle.

Call me ignorant, but why are your prices comparable or even slightly higher than restaurants who have Iberico pork or Foie Gras on the menu?

Our society has made us believe that the value of food is related to the amount of protein and the quality of it. We don’t really think about the knowledge and background behind the growth of plants. Why is it that out of 20,000 species of edible plants, only 20 species grace our supermarket shelves? These have been modified to suit what consumers want—crunchy, sweet and never bitter vegetables that are big and uniform in shape. That is the problem with our society’s mindset. Did you know that if you purchase one kilogram of carrots from the organic farm, freshly pulled out of the ground, as compared to one kilogram of carrots in a supermarket that has been wrapped in styrofoam, it’s about 8 times more expensive? Yes, we have made vegetables that cheap, and we have done the same with meats by exploiting everything that is on the bottom.

We have abused the animals, the farmers, the soil, the land, our water. They can’t complain as they don’t have a voice for themselves. Because of this exploitation, there is always this misalignment about the true costs of food and its value. Comparing luxurious produce like foie gras and uni to plants is like comparing apples to oranges. The day we start comparing vegetables that have grown mindfully in a sustainable environment using exceptional methods against sustainable meats, then we can start talking.

What is your favourite detail in the restaurant and how does that tie into the holistic approach of plant-based dining?

We work with a Scandinavian-based design company to get our curtains made from upcycled polyester. The same company also uses a special technology to press together fabric under enormously high pressure to bind it together to create a polyester board. You can see the fabric cutoffs from the surface but it feels just like wood. We are very excited to work with companies that share the same ethos as us.

Finally, what are some baby steps that we can take to practise ‘mindful dining’ at home?

Choose sustainable food. You don’t have to have meat all the time, so you should consider reducing your intake. When you do choose to have meat once a week, make sure to choose the best one. It’s probably going to five times more expensive, but it’s worth it and will make you rethink your value model on food. Other tips include buying less, reducing, reusing and recycling. It’s important that we take accountability for our impact on the environment. I suggest giving your pantry a makeover and choosing the best types of food in each category, from the best oils to the best salts that are nourishing. It helps to keep your body satisfied for longer, and eventually with enough nourishment, the body and mind will heal on its own.