The experts have spoken: after receiving the highest amount of votes from 300-plus restaurant connoisseurs, The Chairman in Hong Kong, China, has been named The Best Restaurant in Asia 2021, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. We speak to its owner, Danny Yip, to discover what this modern classic Cantonese eatery in Central is all about
For the first time since the launch of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013, the restaurant voted No.1 in 2021 is a Hong Kong eatery that specialises in Cantonese cuisine. While previous winners have included innovative Japanese restaurant Narisawa, Thai favourite Nahm, boundary-pushing restaurant Gaggan and French-inspired fine dining spot Odette, The Chairman is all about going back to the basics – serving simple Cantonese dishes made with the very best ingredients from southern China.
Owner Danny Yip opened the restaurant in a small spot in Central in 2009 after stepping back from his previous IT business. For him, it was a passion project – he wanted to create “a place for me and my friends to eat”. “I wanted to do it my way,” he says. “We had no experience. We didn’t even [use] Facebook. We only created an Instagram page last year and we’ve updated it just four times. We just love eating, love cooking and we want to do what we love.”
Inside The Chairman at 18 Kau U Fong, Central, Hong Kong
Over the last 12 years, however, The Chairman has gradually earned a stellar reputation. Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ anonymous voters describe it variously as “mind-blowing Cantonese cuisine”, “unpretentious”, “the finest expression of Chinese cuisine”, “absolutely delicious and at the same time historically precious”.
When asked about how the restaurant has evolved since its inception, Yip laughs. “The kitchen hasn’t changed. Our core members – most of them haven’t changed for 12 years. Our rent has doubled, but we decided to stay in the same location. We’re old school, like a dinosaur,” he says self-mockingly. However – crucially – there is one element at The Chairman that is in constant evolution. “We have new dishes every year, we’re always creating new dishes,” admits Yip.
Travelling across the country with trusted chef Kwok Keung Tung, the pair developed a wide range of seasonal dishes inspired by forgotten ingredients from South China. “The essence of Cantonese cuisine is freshness,” says the restaurateur. “We’re ingredient-oriented, we’re not recipe-oriented. When we spot a good ingredient, we play around with it to find out how to extract the best natural flavour. That’s how we get our inspiration.”
Chef Kwok Keung Tung at work
This philosophy is perfectly exemplified in the dish that has become The Chairman’s signature – the flower crab, a prized delicacy from the South China Sea. In Yip and Tung’s recipe, it is steamed with 15-year-old Chinese wine, chicken fat and clam juice, and served alongside fragrant chicken oil and flat rice noodles. However, Yip explains, the precise recipe changes for every crab.
“Some crabs are saltier, others are sweeter. We try each one very carefully and we balance the salt with the chicken oil and the wine. Each dish is tailor-made – there is no formula. That’s why it’s the simplest, but also the hardest dish to make. It’s only made of three ingredients, but it’s very difficult to make the proper link between them. You have to improvise every single time,” he says.
Although Yip says that his restaurant serves “simple cuisine”, the attention to detail, modern approach and careful ingredient selection combine to set The Chairman on a different level. “The Chairman depicts the route for Cantonese cuisine to evolve in a modern context while preserving its core features,” comments another voter.
Steamed fresh flower crab with aged Chinese wine
Since its inception, the restaurant has employed an ex-fisherman to select its seafood. Every morning, at 6:30am, he goes to the market to pick the seafood that will be served at the restaurant that day. Yip also owns a small farm in the northern part of Hong Kong, where a local producer grows vegetables and cures meat. “My food is all about ‘one punch’”, says Yip. “I do Thai boxing and I try to relate that to my food. Each dish packs one big punch of flavour that I know the guest will be able to pick up. Less is more for us.”
Having survived a tumultuous 2020 – during which restaurants in Hong Kong had to navigate ever-changing restrictions and temporary closures – Yip is hopeful for the future. “I’m very grateful, excited and speechless,” he says. “We’ve been hanging in there. People still need to eat. And we’re chefs, so we stay in the kitchen and we cook, regardless of Covid-19. During a tough time, we cook even more and better. We cook with our heart. That’s the only thing we can do, right?” Sometimes greatness can simply be the by-product of genuine passion.
Go inside The Chairman with Danny Yip:
The list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2021, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on March 25, 2021, via a virtual awards ceremony – visit the website to discover all the winners. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.