May Chow is the owner of popular Little Bao in Sheung Wan, and she’s about to open up beer bar Second Draft in Tai Hang. She tells us why she stopped trying to be a cool boss and about the compliment that has stuck with her.
A little background
May Chow had an international upbringing as a globetrotting kid who was born in Hong Kong, then grew up in Canada and the United States. Chow learned to appreciate cooking from her mother, who was the designated home cook for all the aunts, uncles and relatives in the extended 20-something-member Shanghainese family.
Over the years, Chow worked at various restaurants, including Bo Innovation and Yardbird, where mentor Matt Abergel encouraged her to strike out on her own. Chow opened up Little Bao three years ago, serving burger-style bao that seamlessly blend the flavors of the east and west. There is now a Little Bao branch in Bangkok, and Chow has also partnered up with some local beer fanatics to open Second Draft, serving western food with beer to go along.
What’s something you didn’t expect when you first decided to do your own thing?
When you’re nobody in Hong Kong, the landlords ask you to be personally liable for the rental payments. I was like, no, that’s crazy. But those are things you encounter when you’re on the outside and you’re trying to step in. What’s being offered to me today is not the same as three years ago when I first started. Three years ago they wouldn’t have bat an eye at me. So that was hard.
Now that you have proven yourself, is it a smoother ride?
I had a lot of friends as colleagues. But when your relationship changes from “I’m your friend” to “I’m your boss,” the dynamics will change. At first I was sad. I thought, “I’m so cool, why wouldn’t you want to have drinks with me?” But my staff felt like, when Little Bao eventually became bigger, it was like, “Oh I have to go to drinks with my boss.” And I understand that. I’m quite happy now and have accepted my role. You win some, you lose some.
Were you ever afraid that the bao would just be another fad or trend?
The reason that I didn’t grow for three years was because I personally was scared. What if we were just trendy? But two and half years later, we’re busier than ever.
Do you cook less now that you have to run the restaurant too?
When I first worked at a small restaurant, there was a chef who was super-intense, and every time he was stressed about something, he was only half a person. So let’s say that was me and I’m doing this interview at Little Bao. I’m prepping. I’d say to my staff, “This is my station, but hold it, I’m gonna go talk to [the interviewer].” They would be like, “Do we move her board or not? Are we supposed to clean after her?”
So I decided I wasn’t going to be involved in the daily operation. But all the things that need special treatment, I’ll go in and do it. Being in business is different from being a chef. If you want to just be a chef and work as a chef, then there’s a certain set of criteria that you should fulfill. But being a business person, you’re marrying into it. You need every point to be on track. And you can’t blame anything on anyone except for yourself. So if your front-of-house service sucks, that’s on you.
What’s an ingredient you love to work with?
One of the best ingredients that we use locally is the three yellow chicken that are killed fresh every morning. Chinese chicken is something to be proud of. It’s probably some of the best in the world. You can’t say the same thing about our beef. The pork is okay, but the chicken is distinct.
What’s your proudest moment?
I don’t take a lot of compliments from people because I really need to respect that person first. I remember Rick Bayless — he’s like the guru of Mexican food in the US. He came in and we were quite busy that day. He’s one of the most successful chefs in the US, period. Even before dinner started, he said, “I have not been that excited at a restaurant for a very, very long time. And I can tell you that your restaurant reminds me of my first restaurant.” After he ate, he was like, “This is amazing. Good luck to you.”
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.