Celebrity Chef Interview
Like many other secondary school leavers in Hong Kong, Elmo Ku didn’t qualify for university. So he sought admission to the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education, a.k.a. IVE.
Elmo enrolled in a diploma course in leisure and recreation management. This major was based on his test results rather than his interests.
This is common in Hong Kong. Students often choose their major based on their test scores rather than their interests. It is a legacy of the educational system inherited from the British.
While pursuing his studies at IVE (which is pronounced “ivy”), Elmo worked part time in the banquets department of the J.W. Marriott Hong Kong at Admiralty on Hong Kong Island.
And that is where he discovered his true vocation: food and beverage.
“I decided at the age of 22 that I wanted to be a restaurant owner,” Elmo says, adding that there was only one problem. He couldn't cook.
Fortunately, Elmo became buddies with a couple of guys that COULD cook at one of the many gigs he took part in on his way to restaurant ownership.
On the surface, Jaco Leung, Yan Choy, and Elmo Ku seem to be about as different as three guys can be. Below the surface, however, they share one common trait: a passion for good food.
Jaco, Yan, and Elmo often chatted about their dreams for the future. All three of them wanted to own their own restaurant one day.
For Elmo, a series of food and beverage jobs followed, including stints of various durations at both hotels and free-standing restaurants.
It was all a part of Elmo’s long-term plan: to gain as much (and as varied) kitchen experience as possible with an eye to opening his own restaurant in the (hopefully) not too distant future.
It was working at the buffet restaurant of a hotel in Kowloon that Elmo learned an important skill (even if he didn’t like the job). He learned how to work fast.
It was at the free-standing restaurants, however, where he learned about scheduling and how to oversee a kitchen.
This was also where he got to meet suppliers and learned how to negotiate deals for the first time.
He learned about wine, as well. And he got a data base of regular customers, which he could harvest when the time to open his own restaurant came.
By the end of 2015, Elmo’s time had come. He was ready to realize his dream. He started looking for investors and an appropriate space.
As one million Hong Kong dollars (US$129,00) would be needed to renovate (and equip) a restaurant, Elmo approached a couple of friends with deep pockets and asked if they would like to support his plan.
He also started looking for a space. He found one close to the spot he had been working at. This was important because many of his potential customers lived in the vicinity.
He got in touch with his two buddies, who had gained valuable experience working for several years in the kitchen of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Hong Kong – one of the former British Crown Colony’s few three Michelin star eateries.
Aroma Kitchen and Bar opened in August 2016. It received its liquor license in October of the same year.
I dined there in December with a couple of buddies of my own. I liked the food so much that I asked if I could return to interview the chef for a series of “Celebrity Chef” interviews I was planning to publish. The first nterview in this series follows.
Elmo Ku, Part Owner, Aroma Kitchen and Bar
Accidental Travel Writer (ATWHK): You had several jobs before opening Aroma. Which one did you enjoy the least?
Elmo Ku (EK): “I was a team leader at a buffet restaurant at a hotel in Kowloon. I didn’t like working there, but I had two days off.”
ATWHK: How long did you last?
EK: “Three or four months.”
ATWHK: Did you learn anything there?
EK: “Yes. How to work fast. You have to work fast at a buffet restaurant.
ATWHK: Hotel buffet restaurants are very popular in Hong Kong. Why is that?
EK: “There is a lot of choice. A lot of time the price is quite reasonable, yet you’re dining in a hotel, and you can get better service.”
ATWHK: What do you PERSONALLY think of hotel buffets?
EK: “The food is mass produced, and it isn’t as good as at a fine-dining restaurant. I don't like buffet restaurants.”
ATWHK: Any other bad experiences along the way?
EK: “At another hotel …. It was really, really, really terrible. They were trying to hire people that didn’t know anything about Western food, Western drink, or Western culture.”
ATWHK: How did your buddies respond when you said you were going to open a restaurant and asked if they would like to join you?
EK: “They said, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure? Call me again when you are sure!’”
ATWHK: The space is quite attractive. Who designed it?
EK: “Jaco [the head chef] designed the kitchen, and I designed the dining room. I just put up whatever I liked.”
ATWHK: What was the biggest challenge?
EK: “I knew about appearances, but I didn’t know about the quality of the materials or the plumbing.”
ATWHK: How did you resolve this issue?
HK: “I left it up to the contractor.”
Jaco Leung, Head Chef, Aroma Kitchen and Bar
ATWHK: Jaco, why would you give up a secure job at a famous restaurant to take your chances with a start-up like this?
Jaco Leung (JL): “Elmo and I were friends, and I wanted to help him out.”
ATWHK: Anything else?
JL: “Yes. It was a chance to express my creativity in the kitchen by creating my own menus.”
ATWHK: How would you describe your cooking style?
JL: “It is like a piece of art. It is a chance to express myself.”
ATWHK: Where do you get inspiration for the dishes you create?
JL: “My inspiration comes from the Wanchai Market. I walk through it and think about what I would like to do.”
ATWHK: How often do you change the menu?
JL: “I change the lunch menu once a week because there are only four items: pasta, fish, meat, and a new creation. I change the dinner menu once or twice a month, depending on the season. During the cold season, for example, I use dried or cured meats or sausages. And I have to take holidays such as Christmas or Chinese festivals into consideration.”
ATWHK: When did you decide to become a chef?
JL: “It is quite normal in Hong Kong. We didn’t do well at school. We had to find a job, and I found one in a kitchen. That’s when I discovered that I enjoyed cooking.”
ATWHK: Has anyone in particular inspired you?
JL: “Yes! [French Chef] Joel Robuchon! I worked for five or six years in the kitchen of one of his restaurants.”
ATWHK: What did you learn there?
JL: “Fine dining skills.’
ATWHK: Where do you eat on your days off – at home or at other restaurants?
JL: “Sometimes I cook at home. I just open the refrigerator and see what’s there. Now that I’m a vegetarian, I only eat vegetables.”
ATWHK: What is your favourite restaurant – other than your own, of course?
JL: “Amber at the Landmark Mandarin [a three Michelin star restaurant in Central on Hong Kong Island].”
ATWHK: Why do you like it so much?
JL: “They serve very decent food.”
ATWHK: Have you ever had a kitchen disaster?
JL: “Nothing serious. I’ve only cut my fingers.”
ATWHK: Do you ever eat fast food?
JL: “Only when I was a kid. Now I never touch it.”
ATWHK: What kind of food do you like cooking most?
JL: “French cuisine, especially seafood.”
ATWHK: What kind of food do you like eating most?
ATWHK: What is your biggest challenge as a chef?
JL: “Taking care of the customers. In Hong Kong, it is quite rushed. You have to cook fast. But it isn’t easy to make good food in a hurry.”
ATWHK: How would you describe the perfect customer?
JL: “Someone who is polite and respectful toward the chef.
Yan Choy, Sous Chef, Aroma Kitchen and Bar
ATWHK: Yan, When did you decide to became a chef?
Yan Choy (YC): “I went into the kitchen when I was 21 years old. I didn’t do well at school. I liked to cook so I decided to find a job in a kitchen [rather than continuing my studies].”
ATWHK: What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
YC: “I love to cook.”
ATWHK: Yan, why would you give up a secure job to take a risk at a start-up like this?
YC: “When Jaco said yes, I decided to go along!”
ATWHK: Are there any chefs that inspire you?
YC: “Yes! Joel Robuchon.
ATWHK: Why is that?
YC: “He makes food using very simple ingredients, but the taste is very, very good!”
ATWHK: On your days off, do you prefer to cook for yourself at home or eat out.
YC: “I prefer to eat out. I like to try different types of cuisine.”
ATWHK: As a sous chef, do you have any input on the menu?
YC: “Yes! I often discuss the dishes with Jaco.”
ATWHK: And where do you get your inspiration?
YC: “Same as Jaco. Also from the Wanchai Market.”
ATWHK: Have you ever had any kitchen disasters?
YC: “Nothing serious. Only cutting my finger.”
My final question is a bit irreverent. I start with Jaco, explaining the scenario:
You have been falsely accused of murder. You are tried and convicted. You are sentenced to death.
According to tradition, you are entitled to one last dinner before the execution, and you get to decide what it will be.
What will you order?
A long time passes. Jaco is deep in thought. I wonder if my question has upset him.
While Jaco ponders the question, Elmo looks at me, smiles, and says, “Wow! He is really thinking!”
Finally, Jaco looks up at me and says, “I would cook something for myself.”
I remind him that he is in prison and doesn’t have access to a kitchen. Someone else will have to cook for him.
Elmo looks up and says as we wait for Jaco to respond, “I have my answer!”
After several minutes, Jaco looks up at me and solemnly says that since he can't tolerate spicy food (it makes him sick), he would want to eat something as spicy as possible.
“So for your last meal, you would eat something you usually don’t get to each because you won’t have to suffer the consequences?”
“Yes,” he says softly.
“How about you, Elmo?” I ask. “What would you order?”
“Something cooked by my wife,” he says smiling.
“Your wife must be a very good cook,” I say.
“Not really,” Elmo says. “But if it’s going to be my last meal, I would want her to cook it for me.”
I was really touched by Elmo’s answer.
Turning to Yan, I say, “Your turn, Yan. What would you order for your last supper?”
No thought is required. With a big grin, he says, “Sea food!!! Lots and lots of seafood!!!”
What's for Dinner?
Elmo passes me the dinner menu, and asks me what I would like to order. There are 11 tapas to share, four main dishes, four side dishes, a cheese platter, and what is called a simple dessert.
The last time I ate here I was blown away by the Deep Fried Chicken Wings with Preserved Egg Yolk (HK$68), and what a surprise that was!
We had each chosen a dish, and to be honest, two of us were a bit put off by the term "preserved egg yolk".
But we kept our mouths shut until they arrived, and BOTH of us said at the end of the meal that it was our favourite dish.
I also quite liked the Grilled U.S. Angus Rib Eye (HK$258), the Pork and Chicken Liver Rolls (US$68), and the Aroma Pork Spring Rolls (US$69).
But I want to try something different. Besides, not all of those dishes are on the menu this week.
“Let’s let Jaco order for me,” I suggest.
Jaco suggests the following dishes …
Nullahyaki (tapas to share) – a savoury scallion pancake topped with nam yu (red fermented beancurd) and a mixed chicken salad. (HK$78)
Roots Garden (side dish) – a medley of picked Japanese turnips, beetroot, and baby carrots sprinkled with dried mushroom crumbs. HK$48.
24 Hours Sous Vide Pork Belly
24 Hours Sous Vide Pork Belly (main dish) – succulent pork belly that has been marinated for 24 hours with pickled leek, apple puree, Galo winter melon, and vegetables. HK$228.
If the Deep Fried Chicken Wings were my hands down favourite dish on my first visit to the eatery, my favourite dish this time is the Nullahyaki.
I'm not sure exactly what yaki means, but I know it has something to do with food. I check Google Translate. It's Japanese for "grilled"
The restaurant is situated on 64th Stone Nullah Lane so I assume that the name of the street was the inspiration for the name of the dish, Nullahyaki.
But what was the inspiration for the dish itself?
Elmo explains: “I really like kebabs so I mentioned this to Jaco. He said, ‘I can do something similar.’”
Absolutely amazing! I love kebabs, as well. And I TOTALLY love this dish! The combination of flavours and textures is pure magic.
But I can’t see much of a connection between the two dishes.
It must take a very creative mind to find inspiration in one thing and come up with something so completely different – and yet so delicious.
Aroma Kitchen and Bar – 64th Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai, Hong Kong. Telephone: (852) 3565-6732.