A Dishin’ the Dirt profile.
Max Levy is the chef-owner of modern Japanese restaurant Okra in Sai Ying Pun —which has an eponymously named sister establishment in Beijing. He tells The Loop HK about being discriminated against while practicing his craft, and an unlikely situation that led him to his love.
How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I am originally from New Orleans. Since leaving at 17, I have spent time in Alaska, Japan, Colorado, New York, Shanghai and Beijing. After spending the last 10 years in Beijing, I was searching for a new challenge, and Hong Kong presented itself.
Why did you choose to specialize in Japanese cuisine?
When I first came into contact with sushi, I recognized similarities in the food that I grew up with: fish and rice comprised my almost-daily meals. I was fascinated by such a different, yet simple, use of familiar ingredients. The more I traveled and ate throughout Japan, the more similarities that I saw between the Japanese food culture and that of New Orleans. Both enveloped and embraced new ingredients and techniques to make them their own. The fact that I make “Japanese food” is only a label to make what I do more accepting. To me, I am only trying to find and turn good ingredients into a pleasurable experience for my guests.
Was it a tough journey to become a Japanese-style chef?
Yes. Not at the beginning, as no one took me very seriously. As I got older and better, there was quite a lot of discrimination from co-workers, restaurant owners, customers and media. Sometimes I was underpaid. Sometimes I was made to work behind a curtain. Sometimes I had to wear gloves. But I knew what I was getting into when I started. It did bother me sometimes, and I did want to give up many times, but I enjoy my job and it’s more rewarding to convince people than to just swim with the current.
What was a memorable moment in your career that you still think back on to this day?
I was forced to work behind a curtain at one restaurant where having a non-Japanese sushi chef was considered a low standard. I met my girlfriend and long-time partner and collaborator, Diana, because I was able to talk to her behind that curtain when it was not so busy.
What are some challenges of being the chef and owner of a restaurant? If you had to pick one, which would you be?
I am constantly trying to find the balance between owner duties and being a chef. I would love someone to handle all the financial and marketing stuff sometimes so that I could just focus on food and discovering new ingredients, but I would probably disagree with them. I’m not easy to work with!