Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Eleven Thousand Bowls of Soup

It was almost noon on a Friday in the working-class Hong Kong neighborhood of Jordan, and Chiu Wing Keng was tired. The 28-year-old chef had been up until 6 that morning prepping ingredients in anticipation of a busy weekend at Kai Kai Dessert, his family’s two-floor storefront on Ning Po Street. Chiu’s father, Chiu Wai Yip, started Kai Kai nearly four decades ago, having learned the craft from his uncle. The family specializes in the kind of traditional Cantonese dessert soups that my mom, who immigrated to New York from Hong Kong in 1969, made when I was a kid: sweet red-bean soup with lotus seeds, silky egg-­custard pudding, glutinous sesame rice balls drowned in ginger syrup.

In 2015, the Michelin Guide almost caused the family business to close. Kai Kai Dessert was one of two dozen establishments honored in the prestigious culinary guide’s first-ever listings for street food, introduced in the Hong Kong and Macau guide. It’s a nice idea: giving international attention to a longtime local shop so it can bring old-fashioned, painstakingly crafted flavors to a new audience. But the downside came quickly. Customer traffic went up 30 percent in the first month, and a few weeks later, the Chius’ landlord more than doubled their rent, to $27,000 — the equivalent of about 11,000 bowls of soup. That’s more than half the restaurant’s total monthly income. (...)

High-end restaurants across the globe fret over the perks and perils of inclusion in the widely recognized Michelin food bible. How can I take advantage of the attention? Can I handle the increased business? Do I hire more people? Do I expand? Do I franchise? Do I do something — anything — different? But the new street-food category can threaten a restaurant’s very survival: For a hole in the wall serving $3 soups, a rent hike is disastrous. (...)

The Michelin recognition came as a surprise to the family. “We always thought the Michelin award was for fancy, high-class restaurants, not our kind of food,” Chiu the younger told me. The announcement of the street-food category — “a first in the history of the Michelin guides,” said Michael Ellis, the guides’ international director — also surprised many in the food world. Historically fine-dining focused, Michelin has been criticized in recent years for lacking relevance in a world where meals are exhaustively documented by the likes of Yelp, Eater, and any number of opinionated online food guides. Ellis explained the launch as specific to Hong Kong: “Street food is part of the local way of life. The city never sleeps, the streets are constantly bustling, and Hong Kong residents love to eat out, without necessarily sitting down and spending a lot of money.” Some observers, like the guide Lifestyle Asia, accused Michelin of getting gimmicky with “a ploy to show that they actually are in touch with how Hong Kong eats.”

In many ways, the listings are a natural culmination of the worldwide fetishization of street food: Places like Kogi BBQ, the L.A. taco truck that launched the Roy Choi mega-empire, have elevated humble foods to the status of haute cuisine. But they also reflect Michelin’s savvy investment in Asia.Originally focused on Europe, Michelin now has guides covering nearly 50 regions around the globe. The 2017 debuts include guides to Seoul and Shanghai, also street-food meccas, and the street-food category has expanded to Singapore.

Chiu told me that the street-food designation doesn’t bother him, mostly because he doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to mean. “Does ‘street food’ mean a lesser thing?” he asked. In any case, he said he would never dream of getting a star — it’s too much pressure. When I visited, the mood at Kai Kai was one of cheerful relief; two days before, Michelin had handed out the second year of Hong Kong street-food awards, and Kai Kai had made the list again. “Now I wonder about what happens if they stop giving it to us — that people will say, ‘What happened? They must have done something wrong.’”

by Bonnie Tsui, California Sunday Magazine | Read more:
Image: Pierfrancesco Celada