[Update 2017: Patrick Dang is no longer in charge of Saam]
Chef Patrick Dang helms intimate Graham Street establishment Saam (Afrikaans for “together”), offering an ever-changing menu of hard-to-pinpoint dishes that take inspiration from countries across the globe. He talks with Adele Wong about feeling out of place in Hong Kong society, and witnessing a restaurant’s kitchen collapse during a downpour.
A little background
Patrick grew up in Sydney and made the switch from finance to F&B when he realized he wasn’t ruthless enough to get ahead. He started training in prestigious kitchens across the world — from MO Bar in Hong Kong to T8 in Shanghai — working his way through Italy, Australia, America, Southeast Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean in between. Patrick repatriated back to his hometown, Hong Kong, two years ago and made his own mark by opening Saam last year.
Do you try to keep up with what’s happening in the city?
I don’t really like to follow trends. I think Hong Kong tends to fall into a trap where it’s always what’s hot, what’s new. I don’t see the Hong Kong restaurant industry as very well developed. We have a lot of options here, but all of a sudden the whole town is eating burgers because there are so many burger places. I’m like, did they just reinvent the burger last week?
How does it feel to be back in Hong Kong after so many years abroad?
I kind of feel like I’m an alien here. I was born here, but I’m familiar and I’m not familiar with Hong Kong. I speak Cantonese, but I can’t blend in. I’ve been back for just under two years. Even with my own mom, I kind of have a disconnect with her. She thinks I’m crazy, raw, a nutcase. But I’m not that guy holding a knife chopping people on the streets, you know what I mean.
What do you think about the local dining scene? As in, proper Cantonese food?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but I feel [the Cantonese chefs] don’t trust the ingredients much. I find that Asian chefs — except for the Japanese — really focus on mechanical technique rather than understanding the ingredients. I do like Cantonese cuisine, but I think there’s a lack of [innovation]. Is there any contemporary Cantonese food except for the stuff by Mr. Alvin Leung? And I wouldn’t even call his dishes Cantonese.
What aspect of running a restaurant drives you nuts?
When customers call for a table and they don’t show up — I just don’t understand. We basically don’t take any reservations for a table of four or less now. In other cities like Australia you can ask for a deposit, but we get yelled at by people here. If I have 100 seats I don’t have a problem when people don’t show up, but I have 20 seats. I just need to protect myself and our business.
Tell me more about your experience abroad. Any crazy stories?
When I worked for the Hilton in Sanya, China, it was rainy season and halfway through dinner service, the main kitchen just collapsed. I think it was a rush job. The roof came off. Luckily, no casualties. We just stood there and laughed. What could we do? I was at a different restaurant in the hotel, and my restaurant flooded. The water was up to my ankles.
Do you ever wish you stuck it out in finance?
No, I don’t miss my job in finance. I’m not very good at acting. Maybe it’s something I should learn. I can’t backstab people. And I don’t really mind the long hours in F&B because, for me, it’s not a job — it’s a lifestyle, it’s part of what I do.
What makes you smile?
Every time I see a familiar face coming back, it tells me I’m doing something right. I’m very simple like that. I don’t need them to praise me.
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