Once upon a time in Hollywood: why HK culinary star David Lai deserves top billing

William Drew - 09/05/2022


A self-confessed introvert, Neighborhood’s David Lai is also one of the most influential and respected chefs in Asia. The Hong Kong maverick discusses his philosophy of life and food, being awarded the Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2022, and why every day is a treasure hunt

David Lai’s Hong Kong restaurant may be located on Hollywood Road, but it is surely the least flashy, least self-regarding establishment ever to make it to the higher echelons of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking. Neighborhood is, in fact, a direct reflection of the chef-owner himself: quality-driven, slightly quirky and much loved.

“I like working with my hands, so if I weren’t cooking, I’d probably be equally happy working as a carpenter,” says the self-effacing Lai. “l like the fact that cooking is one of the most straightforward and egalitarian ways to make oneself useful and to make other people happy. I’m grateful to have a job that I can enjoy while building good karma; it makes it easy to sleep at night.”

If that makes Lai’s outlook seem simple, then – just like his dishes – it belies a depth of intelligence and thought that has earned the chef-restaurateur the enduring respect of his peers and the lasting loyalty of so many customers. “Knowing oneself is the key to happiness,” he adds. “When a dish is truly inspired, the momentum of the idea carries the work and the result is an effortlessness; when it is not, it becomes contrived and tedious. I guess that goes for life too.”
Two of Neighborhood's popular dishes: spice-roasted baby lamb ribs and salt-baked local ruby snapper

For the uninitiated, Neighborhood is a small restaurant hidden down a laneway in the city’s Central district, surrounded by casual bars and offbeat antique shops, with a tiny kitchen and a packed, buzzing dining room. It could pass as just another boisterous mid-range neighborhood joint (suitably enough) if it wasn’t for Lai’s daily changing menu of apparently straightforward but sublime French-accented dishes, which draws customers from all over the island and, when borders are open, far far beyond. Over the last decade, it has moved from hidden gem status to perennial favourite, and is currently ranked No.9 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.

If salt-baked chicken with rice and morel mushrooms is something of a signature dish, the seafood specials are the pièces de résistance. “Every piece of wild-caught fish from the local wet market is unique. I prepare the menu based on what I find there. For me the market run is like a daily treasure hunt and I’m in for the ride just as much as our guests,” he explains.

A native Hong Konger, it was while studying art and art history at the esteemed University of California, Berkeley, that Lai fell in love with cooking, inspired by the ground-breaking Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. “Simplicity is beauty,” he says. “ It is a value I adopted from my mentor, chef Sylvain Portay [of The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco], who cooked very intuitively and had little patience for theatrics.”
Chef David Lai's restaurant, Neighborhood, is located in the heart of Hong Kong on Hollywood Road

On returning to his homeland, he opened Spoon by Alain Ducasse – another significant influence – before launching his own ventures, including Bistronomique, On Lot 10 and Kushiyaki Beco. “I'm very fortunate to be part of the Ducasse generation, because at the heart of his cooking is sort of a sensual rusticity. There is a lot of wisdom, a lot of common sense.”

In 2014, he launched Neighborhood, with an ambition “to get away from any general labels”. There is no marketing or PR operation, nor any social media or website – and yet reservations are among the most sought-after in town. “We run one small restaurant serving a niche kind of food,” explains Lai. “Our main job is to satisfy those regular customers who can appreciate our philosophy. It might actually not be a good thing to try to promise too many things to too many people.”

Paradoxically, it’s this down-to-earth, local-first attitude that has helped propel Lai and his restaurant to be admired across Asia and the world, helping the chef to win this year’s Inedit Damm Chefs’ Choice Award. Indeed, the HK chef community is close-knit, in part due to their tight geographical concentration in the city. Fellow chefs Vicky Cheng of Wing and Vea and Danny Yip of fabled restaurant The Chairman are both near neighbours of Lai. “It’s a shame that during Covid chefs haven’t been able to meet for after-work suppers because the city shuts so early. But part of the beauty of the city is that everyone is no more than 15 minutes away so meeting up can be spontaneous.”

“When I first found out that I had won the award, I was beyond surprised because all the previous winners were legends in the industry or they were chefs of really serious, ambitious restaurants,” he says with characteristic modesty. “It’s the icing on the cake to have recognition on top of a job I love, especially given that I am so much the introvert.” An introvert who continues to delight and entertain with his delicious dishes, accessible service style and unpretentious approach.

Delve further into Neighborhood by watching the video: 

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Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on Tuesday 29th March at live ceremonies in Bangkok, Macau and Tokyo. Browse the website, join the community on Instagram, follow us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay up to date with the latest news and announcements.