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The unsustainable truth about Hong Kong’s farm-to-table aspirations

An award-winning chef is jostling with old ladies to get his hands on the best corn at a local vegetable stall in Wan Chai’s wet market.

Selecting the finest ingredients is a very serious business for Nicholas Chew Lee-on, resident chef at Serge et Le Phoque. The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star last year for its tantalising Parisian-style dishes of informal haute cuisine at sensible prices. Chew and his French boss, restaurateur Frédéric Peneau (former co-owner of the famed Le Chateaubriand in Paris, once voted France’s best restaurant) know all about the concept of terroir, and how best to source the finest quality local ingredients, so Chew’s casual admission is a little startling.

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“Actually, about 85 per cent of our produce comes from overseas,” he admits as he carefully selects some beetroot from a neatly stacked pile.

It is a typical story for a leading Hong Kong restaurant because, while the issue of localism continues to dominate political discourse in the city, there is very little evidence of it making much of an impact on the city’s dining scene.

Hong Kong seems isolated from a growing international vogue for “farm to table” dining, reduced food miles and support for local ecosystems. Here, the food on the table is far more likely to have arrived from the airport than a local farm, yet despite repeated food safety scares – from Ikea horse meatballs to tainted Chinese pork – few seem unduly bothered. Well-heeled discerning diners seem to attach more value to Japanese mackerel, Tuscan sea bass and Australian grass-fed beef than anything caught or supplied fresh from around the corner.

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), there are 547 organic farms in Hong Kong, more than 5,000 registered fishing vessels, 43 pig farms and 29 poultry farms, not to mention 44,300 hectares of country park to go foraging in. So why is local produce such a rarity on the menu?

“Believe me, we tried,” says Chew, who is very familiar with the preference for sourcing ingredients locally, but adds that trying to do so in Hong Kong proved almost impossible.

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“Day one, the produce might be fantastic, but day two could be rubbish and some days they can’t supply at all,” he says, adding that when there is a restaurant full of passionate and sophisticated foodies, impatient to be fed, consistency of supply is vital.

His experience is not unique, yet there is a small but growing band of restaurateurs who persevere with their dream of supplying their customers with high-quality Hong Kong produce despite the apparent challenges and questionable levels of demand.

“It was a nightmare – a real challenge, extremely difficult,” says Vincent Cheng Wan-shun, co-founder of A-Side/B-Side in Sheung Wan, a charming, informal eatery, popular with the neighbourhood’s expatriate and hipster set.

He explains how he and his business partner hired a car and visited more than 30 local organic farms, and eventually located only three they felt could offer the passion and quality they sought.

“Even now, we only get what they give us, and during the recent typhoon they gave us nothing at all,” he says.

“ You don’t need to wonder why our menu is always on a blackboard,” he adds, but he still aims to source all the restaurant’s food in Hong Kong, with the exception of beef.

“The local free-range chicken is fantastic and there is a locally grown radish with an amazing multilayered flavour,” he says with genuine enthusiasm, but admits it would actually be cheaper to fly in produce form the other side of the world. It’s a big challenge being profitable when sourcing locally.

“We just wanted to use this [restaurant ] as a wake-up call – to be an authentic local brand and get more farmers interested. Eating local means eating healthy,” he says.

It’s a noble crusade, but is it a viable business plan if most Hongkongers just don’t care where their food comes from? Unlike most other international cities, it is very rare even to see the word “local” appear on a restaurant menu in Hong Kong. SohoFama in the PMQ complex in Sheung Wan is an exception.

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“Hong Kong is miles behind the curve in living healthily or even having any consciousness of a healthy lifestyle,” says Steven Wu Wing-chung, a Hong Kong-born banker who worked in New York and Toronto before giving it all up to co-found local food brand LocalFama in August 2013.

Wu is also a committed advocate of food localism and explains how his company aims to create an ecosystem by creating demand for local farmers (from which the business derives its name) and revisit traditional Chinese dishes by using local ingredients and by removing some of the MSG and heavy unhealthy cooking oils.

“In Hong Kong, the culture is all about the celebrity chef, but we are challenging that idea and suggesting we should celebrate the local farmer who grew the food,” he says. They have taken the concept of “farm to table” one step further by cultivating a “mini-farm”in the restaurant. He admits there were some supply “frustrations” in the early years that needed “ironing out”, and estimates most of their vegetables are local and about 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the entire menu’s ingredients are sourced in Hong Kong.

Does he think Hongkongers attach enough value to locally sourced ingredients ?

“People eat out a lot more in Hong Kong but they focus totally on flavour, not where the food came from,” says Wu.

Somewhere else where great-tasting food carries a food localism message is Fish School in Sai Ying Pun, where chef David Lai sources about 80 per cent of his seafood locally. The reverse of the menu has a colour graphic of seasonal fish caught in local waters and information about them. Lai’s longstanding philosophy is that Hong Kong was originally a fishing village and it is a rare privilege for diners to partake in that local heritage, be part of a natural uninterrupted food chain and to eat unprocessed, natural food from a local ecosystem. He explains he became bored with seeing the same imported reef fish in every banquet restaurant and investigated local suppliers.

Over the years, Lai has developed personal relationships with fishing families operating local boats who will catch to order if the season is right. As a chef he is attracted to the authenticity of it all, but like Wu he knows at the end of the day, the taste must be perfect for his diners.

“It’s a work in progress getting customers to buy into the philosophy and maybe that’s more of a communication issue,” he says.

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Ambivalence about food localism is also rife amongst the sophisticated diners at Serge et Le Phoque. Chew explains that since the award of the Michelin star, about 60 per cent of their clientele have been local aficionados, but “only a small handful” of these foodies are concerned with how the ingredients are sourced or where they come from. It’s a big contrast from Australia, where he worked for six years before coming to Hong Kong.

“I see a vast difference in that people have much less awareness about what they eat – it is progressing slowly but it’s still very different from Australia,” he says.

He explains that although it’s great to have his restaurant located close to the Wan Chai wet market and source his vegetables from there, he suspects a lot of the produce comes from the mainland, and vendors know very little about where or how it is grown.

“We try it, we taste it, we smell it and sometimes we just say, wow, this is very good. The corn from this market, for example, is really excellent,” he says, but mostly they prefer to get it from overseas. He points to Hong Kong’s climate, its pollution, and questions whether local organic farmers are passionate enough about producing the highest quality consistently.

Wu remains more optimistic and thinks there is change in the air, if only more people would engage with locally sourced food.

“The biggest challenge is to unlock the masses – we need to explain to more people – each time there is a food safety scare, a few more people will convert,” he says.

In the meantime, apart from the determined few pioneers of food localism, Hong Kong food miles will continue escalating, though there is a growing number of hopeful signs that local food quality is coming up to the mark.

“Actually, our frogs legs are all local. We have them freshly butchered in the market,” says Chew, pointing across the road. They are so good, he adds, that the city’s devotees of the finest gourmet French food just assume they have been flown in from Paris.