Sandy Keung wouldn’t be a name unheard of to local veteran foodies. Helming TABLE by Sandy Keung and Good BBQ. The Loop HK is honoured to get to speak with the talented home-grown chef this week.
How did you get into food and cooking?
As the eldest daughter of a traditional Chinese family, I had to help my mom out in the kitchen. My mother taught me the basics of home cooking. However, I did not discover my passion for cooking until way after I started working. I moved to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, where my father was born and raised, to work in the private equity investment sector. It was during those three years living in a heavily French-influenced city that I took interest in and enjoyed cooking. Cooking at dinner parties I threw was a quick way to meet new people. I received a lot of compliments for my cooking so I thought, “I would not mind finding myself cooking full-time one day.” To ensure that I would still enjoy cooking after making it “a job” rather than a hobby, I volunteered to part-time as kitchen helper in a French restaurant in HCMC. I just needed to know if I would still find pleasure in cooking while being sworn at daily in a hot kitchen with little pay, super long hours, and deprived of time with family and friends. To my surprise, vulgar language and long hours away from families are not unfamiliar to someone who had a career in finance! Those hours I spent cooking in the professional French kitchen in HCMC planted a seed in my heart.
What training did you do to become a chef?
I am a self-taught chef. Prior to opening TABLE by Sandy Keung and after moving back from Vietnam to Hong Kong, I did catering for private clients for eight years. I learned cooking in the kitchens from trial and error, as well as from my chef staff. There is nothing you can’t learn if you are humble enough to put effort and take an active interest in it.
You have worked in finance in New York and F&B in Vietnam. What did you learn from these experiences?
On the surface, the two industries cannot be more different. However, I realized what threads the two chapters of my life together is my passion or maybe craziness (as they say being passionate and being crazy is just a fine line apart). I loved every minute of my time in finance and I love my time and experiences in F&B, which is close to a decade now. Without love and passion, one will have no motivation, drive, or chance to succeed. Life is too short to spend some 12 and 13 hours a day doing something that you do not love!
How do you juggle the work at TABLE and Good BBQ?
Clearly, F&B is a team business. I take different approaches to manage the two restaurants. At TABLE by Sandy Keung, I am very much physically in the kitchen daily. As for Good BBQ, the goal to manage it as a business was set on day 1. As a chain shop business, systems and teams need to be in place to effectively and efficiently run it. And this is something I am very much used to with my experiences in finance and management.
What do you think are the most important attributes of a chef?
No doubt, they are palate and love for me! If one cannot taste the tastes of food and ingredients, it is difficult for one to create and cook well even with all the techniques and skills. And if one has no love for cooking, it will be a very painful life to live as a full-time chef.
How has your culinary vision changed throughout your career?
When I first started at TABLE by Sandy Keung around 10 years ago, I had a simple vision. I enjoyed cooking and seemed to be not bad at it. The emphasis was very much on me — I wanted people to enjoy and like “my” cooking and dishes that “I” cook. “I” wanted people to be impressed. When I looked back, it was vanity.
As my culinary journey progresses, I became more aware that I am merely an instrument for sharing love and joy, if not an experience only. I do not know exactly when I started thinking otherwise. But I remember at the start of the COVID outbreak before vaccines were available, a customer asked whether he could buy one of our signature dishes, mud crab garlic rice, to take away on a Sunday. Our crab rice was one of his mom’s favorites and she was depressed as she had not left her apartment for months due to the pandemic. The son, our customer, wanted to cheer his mom up. Unfortunately, we are closed on Sundays so he asked if he could pick up the dish on the Saturday before so he could reheat it with our instructions.
At that moment, I knew I was blessed and felt grateful that my dish or my skills can be an instrument for the son to show love and care to his elderly mother. He could have chosen a hundred other dishes to share with his mom but he chose my crab rice. Anyway, I went in on that Sunday myself to cook that one crab rice fresh for him to take to his mother.
My motto/culinary vision: “Happy Chef, Happy Staff, Happy Food, and Happy Customers!”
What advice do you have for young Chinese chefs and young female chefs?
Be humble, be patient, be persistent, be curious and enjoy what you do!
What is your process for creating a dish?
As a professional chef, dish and menu creation is a disciplined curation rather than some random art. For me, there is a multiple-pronged approach to creating a dish:
1) Wine. I derive ideas from wine. Yes, I find that good wine is similar to a good dish. One tends to describe a good wine to be balanced and I believe a good dish should be balanced in terms of flavor as well. When I taste wine that I like, it will often invoke the thought of a particular ingredient or a taste profile. And that is one way for me to get ideas.
2) Seasonality. I look at seasonal ingredients following TCM principles and come up with new ways to use the ingredients.
3) Cultural heritage. I often go back to flavors that I grew up with or have experienced throughout my life. I bring those flavors either into dishes that I am already cooking or introduce them with non-traditional pairing or techniques to give a whole new experience to diners.
4) Techniques. I am always fascinated with processes and techniques in which people preserve food either to prolong shelf life or to increase flavors/umami. For example, different cultures carry out fermentation of different ingredients to create complex flavors. I find similarities in flavor profiles between certain fermented dairy (e.g. cheese), fermented vegetation (e.g. preserved pickles), and fermented seafood (e.g., shrimp pastes). Finding those links will provide ideas for creating new combinations or interpretations of those ingredients in dishes.
What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
I love to work with all ingredients as I love eating. But I think we are most known for our seafood, especially shellfish ingredients, as we are the first and maybe still the only restaurant to carry out ozone depuration.
What do you consider to be the standout moments of your career?
My mother paid for my entire university education when my very traditional Chinese father told me that “girls do not need university education as they will be married off”. When I first quit my full-time finance job to become a professional chef, understandably my mother was upset and disappointed with me. She refused to visit TABLE and did not want to acknowledge what I have achieved. Ironically, it was my father who helped convince her to go to dinner six months after TABLE opened doors. She understood why I did what I did for the first time when she saw the other guests enjoying my food, and how joyful her daughter was. She then accepted my choice. That was the first standout moment of my career as a full-time chef.
What makes TABLE unique in the Hong Kong dining scene?
It is unique because there is only one TABLE by Sandy Keung! As said, we may still be the only restaurant in Hong Kong to carry out ozone depuration for all live shellfish and have our own resident marine biologist. We never ever serve jet-fresh live shellfish! All live shellfish are subject to at least 24 hours in our ozone tank to purge themselves naturally of all metabolic wastes and pollutants.
What do you hope guests take away from their experience?
My goal is quite simple — I want my guests to be “happy”.
Happiness and love are at the core of my cooking philosophy. “Happy chef, happy staff, happy food, and happy customers.” I have always run TABLE as my full-time hobby since the start. Creating flavors and cooking at TABLE, working with my team, and interacting with my customers give me great enjoyment and fill me with love daily. I believe keeping TABLE as my hobby will continue to fuel my passion.
We [the culinary team] joke; we laugh; and talk to our food when we cook! I hope guests can taste not only the umami in our dishes but also the secret ingredient: love!
What’s next for you?
I plan to be happy and continue to cook!
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