David Sung is the chef-owner of hidden French gem La Cantoche in Sheung Wan. He tells Adele Wong about his French connection and how he was probably the only kid in school who actually looked forward to a canteen lunch.
A little background
David Sung was born and raised in France, but decided to try his luck in Hong Kong — where his parents grew up — 12 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. In Hong Kong, he dabbled in trading, textiles, advertising and a whole bunch of different industries before returning to his restaurant roots.
His family owned two restaurants in Paris, and Sung helped out in the kitchen when he was young, so he knew a thing or two about managing the operations. After testing the waters with a private kitchen on the terrace of his old residence, Sung opened La Cantoche four years ago to offer diners a casual-cool take on French food.
Your parents brought you to Hong Kong regularly when you were growing up. What was your impression of the city like back then?
I hated Hong Kong so much when I was a teenager. I didn’t see any attraction in Hong Kong. You know when you’re a teenager and you come back every year with your parents, and the only things you do is go yum cha, go to ladies’ market — it was a bit boring.
But one year I had to go abroad for an internship, and I got a job in Hong Kong working for a trading company for a big supermarket. I worked there for nine months before going back to France to finish my studies. And I discovered a Hong Kong that my parents didn’t know, like Shek O, Stanley, junk trips, Lan Kwai Fong — that kind of thing.
Let’s backtrack a little. How did your family end up in France?
My mother is Cantonese from Guangdong but she was born in Vietnam and grew up in Laos. My grandfather and grandmother [on mom’s side] were the Chinese diaspora of Vietnam. They went to France because of the Indochina wars: they got help from the French government to move them to France.
My mom and dad met in Tokyo. My mom, when she had my older brother, she decided to move the family to France.
My father’s from Shanghai but arrived in Hong Kong at the age of five. My dad was kind of like a bad guy in Hong Kong. What you need to know is the restaurant scene back then was run by bad guys, tough guys. It’s completely different now.
There was a strong correlation between triads and the F&B scene back in the day.
Yeah. Actually my father was sent to Japan because of that connection, but officially he was working as a chef in a Chinese restaurant in Japan. That’s how my parents met and came to Hong Kong.
Tell us more about the inspiration behind La Cantoche.
I discovered French food when I first went to school. The school canteen was called La Cantoche. It was not something the French people would fancy because of course the food they were served at home was better than the school canteen. But I had nothing to compare to, because when I went back home I had rice or noodles. So for me everything that I was having at school was so great. It was new colors and textures, new flavors.
They served Brussels sprouts, spinach, all kinds of veggies. You know in Asian culture it’s important to eat veggies and all that. So at school I was probably the only child to finish my veggies. I felt a bit ashamed, like: Why didn’t the French kids like the school food? Sometimes I was pretending I didn’t like it as well, but deep down, I liked it so much.
So the whole thing with La Cantoche is, well, not really to bring back childhood memories but more like to bring [casual] French cuisine to Hong Kong.
What’s the toughest thing about running your own restaurant?
The most difficult thing is to keep the liquor licence. For the first year and a half I had to renew it every six months. People were complaining a lot. It’s difficult because the neighbors are really, really tough. Because they have the right to have an opinion of you and whether you should have a liquor licence or not.
We’re not making a lot of noise, you know, but people write letters saying they don’t want the area to become Lan Kwai Fong. What I’m pissed about is some people are making false reports but they can get away with it. There are no consequences for them.
It’s also difficult to maintain the marketing. You can survive easily with good marketing and average food. This is driving me crazy, it doesn’t make sense.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
My brother came here last March and we were walking around and we were supposed to rent [the space that is currently Bindaas]. We wanted to do a late-night joint and serve only three items: pho, bahn cuon, bahn mi. But we were not confident in our marketing strategy. Everything was done, the business plan and all that. We were just afraid that we didn’t have strong marketing backup.
My brother’s much more organized than I am. We’re complementary. But both of us know shit about marketing, and we just realized how important it has become in Hong Kong. You have the right recipe, it doesn’t mean you will succeed. We would be quite competitive in France though, so we’ll probably open in Paris.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.