GBA Lifestyle News
By Gayatri Bhaumik | May 18th, 2021

A veteran of Hong Kong’s Chinese restaurants, Executive Chinese Chef Hung Chi-Kwong is the powerhouse behind one Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Rùn at The St. Regis Hong Kong. Drawing on his over 25 years of experience at Hong Kong’s finest Cantonese restaurants—including Man Wah and Cuisine Cuisine—Chef Hung built Rùn from scratch, creating a team, a restaurant, and a culinary vision.

At Rùn, Chef Hung’s menus are a study in contemporary Cantonese cuisine that play with tradition. From his famous Wagyu in Black Pepper Sauce Puff to an exquisite new Green Apple and Cod Roll, the Cantonese dishes here are among the best you’ll find in the city. We speak to Chef Hung about cutting his teeth in the high-octane world of Cantonese kitchens, creating a restaurant from the ground up, and chasing Michelin Stars.

How did you get into food and cooking?

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was to go out to dine with my family and friends. I noticed everyone smiling and being happy whenever there was good food on the table. Dining out was a luxury back in the day, but I began associating it with unity and togetherness. One of my fondest memory is a family dinner celebrating my grandmother’s birthday. The chef specially prepared a dish from her hometown—she hadn’t been able to have it for a long time—and I remember seeing how happy she was.

Growing up, I realized I wasn’t an academic, but I wanted to do something that would make people happy. So, I decided to be a chef, working with food to bring happiness to our guests.

What training did you do to become a chef?

For any chef, the best training is to learn on the job. I’ve been in the industry for 32 years now, but I first got into it when I was 15. I had been recommended to a Cantonese restaurant in Causeway Bay by a friend; the restaurant has since closed down. One of my first responsibilities here was to help with basic things—arranging food orders and preparing ingredients, for example. It took me a long time to really understand the cuisine and to build the necessary passion, love, and respect for it. I can honestly say I didn’t truly understand the extent of this until I became a head chef myself. But, because I was involved in every step, my passion for the industry and the cuisine grew.

What do you think are the most important attributes for a chef?

Bring in the food and beverage industry is a lot of hard work. You start early, finish late, and often miss out on important holidays and occasions. So, one of the most important attributes for a chef is to not be afraid of hard work. That’s what brings great success. You also have to be passionate about the industry—your guests can taste it in the food. Respecting ingredients is important, too—treating any ingredient badly is an insult.

What is your process for creating a dish?

I select the main ingredient based on what’s best during a particular season. I then work on the flavor profile of the dish and think about traditional pairings and whether I can recreate this differently to surprise guests. There’s a lot of tasting during this process. Only once we’ve landed on the perfect pairing do I start to think about the presentation of the dish. Because we live in a culture of “camera eats first,” people will see the dish first then taste it, so it has to look good. In the last few years, it’s become increasingly popular to choose known ingredients from specific countries. For example, many places now use Japanese scallops because they’re bigger, and of high-quality Sashimi-grade that offers more flavor. For example, one of my signature desserts is only available from May through September or October—the Chilled Guava Sago Cream uses Taiwanese guava for the soft pink hue, freshness, and crunchy texture.

What are your favourite ingredients to work with?

I love working with seafood, which is a staple of traditional Cantonese cuisine. You can work with different seafood in different seasons, and there are so many ways to good it—steamed, grilled, fried with garlic and spices…the choices are endless and I love this variety.

What do you consider to be the standout moments of your career?

Without a doubt, it was when Rù gained one Michelin star just eight months after opening. Before we opened, our hotel was just a building site; for a chef, it’s really hard to be in front of a computer to create menus. Without the kitchen and being able to work with the team to taste and test different ingredients, it was tough. This is also the first restaurant I’ve created, from selecting the team to creating every dish on the menu, so when they announced the award, I was shocked, honored, and proud.

What do you think sets Cantonese cuisine apart from other types of cuisine?

There’s a saying in Chinese: “If a dish looks good, smells good, and tastes good, then it must be a good dish”. In Asia, people say “camera eats first,” and actively, people pick up on looks first. So, the plating and presentation of the dish have become a huge factor. However, nothing beats the taste and for Chinese cuisine, everything must be piping hot.

Do you think Cantonese cuisine requires a particular set of skills that are different from those required for other cuisines?

I don’t think you need a particular set of skills. It’s about trying new ingredients and being creative enough to execute pairings while respecting tradition and ingredients. As with all cuisines, it’s about finding the right balance in a dish. There’s a common saying in the Chinese Kitchen that it takes physical strength to withstand the heat of the kitchen whilst balancing a heavy wok and adjusting the dish within the fire.

How do you balance traditional Cantonese cuisine with modern tastes?

With any ingredient I work with, I have to respect the ingredient and the tradition. The same applies to any dish. I have to understand, appreciate, and respect its tradition first. Then I can become comfortable with playing with flavors and pairings. At Rùn, we don’t modernize taste with just another ingredient. I play around with the way we present the dish, too. Take our signature dish, for example. Our Wagyu beef put in black pepper sauce retains the core flavors and traditions of the dish—the beef is still paired with a rich black pepper sauce—but I use Wagyu beef because it’s softer and has a stronger aroma, and I also use a combination of regular puff pastry and charcoal pastry.

Another signature dish we have, the deep-fried glutinous dumpling in Nyonya spice, is presented in an apple shape instead of the traditional oval shape. I wanted to create a more playful display and create a sense of intrigue from the moment it’s served.

You’ve worked at many Michelin-starred restaurants, including Rùn. What do you think it takes to earn this honour?

All chefs have their eye on the Michelin Guide, and perhaps even Michelin stars. The recognition of a job well done is a great encouragement to any chef to continue to innovate and bring new dining concepts and experiences to guests. For me, this is really the only award that is based on skills. It’s the oldest guide and has been well respected within the industry since it was established in 1891. There are other prestigious awards, but some of these are based on relationships, not skills. What I like about Michelin is that their inspectors are all from the industry. Some are former chefs, so they know a lot about food and different cuisines. With the guide, chefs have to work hard every year, because there’s no guarantee you’ll get or retain your stars.

Oen of my bosses used to tell me that you can be happy for one day—the day of the announcement—but the next day, it’s back to the drawing board. You have to keep proving your skills in the kitchen, ensure consistency, and push the boundaries to create a bespoke dining experience. That includes beverages—I’ve learned a lot about alcohol and tea pairings since joining Rùn through working with our Chef Sommelier, Tristan Pommier, and Tea Master Kezia Chan.

What do you want diners to take away from their experience at Rùn?

Happiness. The best comment a guest can make is “Thank you, chef, that was amazing.” When you go to dine, it’s all about pleasure. So, getting that kind of feedback from my guests is why I wake up everyday. I also like to hear constructive criticism as it’s the only way I can learn and adapt.

What’s next at Rùn?

It’s been a very difficult year for the industry. Not just for Hong Kong, but for the rest of the world, too. But, my team and I are putting our best foot forward and our aim is to get two Michelin stars in the next guide.

Dishin’ the Dirt profile.