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Private kitchens: Hong Kong's hidden treat

By Molly Gray, for CNN
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Thu July 5, 2012
Private kitchen Fleur de Sel in the city's Causeway Bay shopping district caters to its local patrons by offering a teatime set of dessert teas in a more informal environment. Private kitchen Fleur de Sel in the city's Causeway Bay shopping district caters to its local patrons by offering a teatime set of dessert teas in a more informal environment.
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Marshmallow teatime crepe
Fleur de Sel in Causeway Bay
Caramel crepes at Fleur de Sel
Chinese tea at Club Qing
Szechuan-style king prawns
'Egg' dessert from tofu and mango
Organic cucumbers at Yin Yang
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Private kitchens are a spin off of traditional restaurants located throughout Hong Kong
  • they offer a variety of cuisines from traditional Chinese and Western dishes to fusion
  • The kitchens only serve between 20 and 30 customers a day and are reservation only
  • They have grown in popularity in part due to the allure of the unique experience each offers

Hong Kong (CNN) -- On the tenth floor of a commercial building in Hong Kong, the neon lit streets of the city's Lan Kwai Fong bar district below are replaced by Qing Dynasty antiques and the alluring waft of Chinese cuisine.

Club Qing is an eatery of sorts that prides itself on fine dining but shuns the word restaurant. Serving only 20 to 30 customers per day, Club Qing calls itself a private kitchen -- a concept that has become a staple of the Hong Kong dining scene.

Private kitchens started about 15 years ago when chefs and restaurant owners were trying to sidestep the city's notoriously high rental prices for ground level spaces and began moving upstairs into residential and even industrial locales.

They acquired licenses as private clubs in order to avoid the regulations and fees placed on public restaurants.

"As time passed, (kitchens) just became the cool thing to do," said critic Adele Wong, food and lifestyle editor for HK Magazine.

"People love to find out about lesser known restaurants ... places that look like holes in the wall but are actually great (food and beverage) dining destinations."

While there is no way to count the number of kitchens, because many are extremely secretive, it's reasonable to say there are hundreds in the city, Wong said.

One of Club Qing\'s most popular dish is an appetizer that features cherry tomatoes covered in lychee sauce.
One of Club Qing's most popular dish is an appetizer that features cherry tomatoes covered in lychee sauce.

Club Qing offers three different set menus ranging from HK$380 to $1,780 (US $48 to $225) a head for dinner, as well as a lunch menu and a la carte items. Each menu features between six and eight different courses broken up by servings of traditional Chinese tea.

"We have over 40 different kinds of Chinese tea," said the kitchen's manager Kennis Ko, who is a tea connoisseur and often travels to China to visit the tea producers. "They each have their own character and that makes (the meal) very enjoyable."

Ko said Club Qing is the only restaurant in Hong Kong to do this type of tea pairing -- picking the perfect flavor of tea to cleanse diners' palettes after each part of the meal.

"This private kitchen is just like the Hong Kong people. When you come over here, you feel very traditional, very Chinese," Ko said. "But you can touch many different kinds of culture ... with our food you can taste different ingredients from all over the world cooked in local traditions."

The kitchen's most popular dishes are chilled peeled tomatoes in lychee sauce and savory stir-fried king prawn with Szechuan peppers.

Private kitchens don't just stick to Chinese cuisine, however. Many private chefs specialize in Western dishes.

When Gregory Alexandre left his job working as a chef for the French ambassador he wanted a change of pace from the high-end cooking he had done for years in Paris, Monte Carlo and Hong Kong.

He decided to open a private kitchen serving solely crepes and galettes -- a French form of street food.

Nestled two stories up in the densely populated shopping Mecca of Causeway Bay district, Fleur de Sel caters mainly to shoppers and expatriate French families looking to find a taste of home.

Fleur de Sel owner and head chef Gregory Alexandre cooks one of the kitchen\'s most popular teatime crepes.
Fleur de Sel owner and head chef Gregory Alexandre cooks one of the kitchen's most popular teatime crepes.

Alexandre said he loves the casual dining atmosphere that Fleur de Sel affords.

"There is an open kitchen so I can have contact with my guests ... it is not strict like the fine dining. It is less stressful and more fun," Alexandre said.

Fleur de Sel has an open balcony and serves lunch, dinner and teatime dessert crepes that are popular among Hong Kong natives.

Other kitchens set themselves apart by the ingredients they use. Yin Yang, in the heart of Wan Chai, pulls from an arsenal of fresh produce from an organic farm that Executive Chef Margaret Xu Yuan owns and operates.

"Having a private kitchen in the truly traditional sense is not a speakeasy without a license," Xu Yuan said. "It's somebody who has special access to some sort of special recipes and they share it with other people."

Though people occasionally complain her food doesn't have enough salt or oil, Xu Yuan said it's a waste to cover fresh food with additives.

"It just tastes better," said Xu Yuan, who also makes all her own terracotta ovens for cooking her signature duck, as well as other dishes. "Coming to a private kitchen is like eating from someone's family recipe."

While many private kitchens are located in the heart of Hong Kong near busy commerce centers and tourist attractions, newer kitchens have started opening their doors in more remote locales.

One such spot, Wong said, is Aberdeen, a town on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

I only work by word of mouth ... so I cook for the people that I like and that I love.
Andrea Oschetti, Private Chef

"It has always been known as a more industrial zone and there has been nothing much in terms of (food and beverage) in the area," Wong said. "But because it has lower rent ... it is a perfect spot for a private kitchen to pop up."

Chef Andrea Oschetti runs Cuore -- which means "heart" in Italian -- just outside of Aberdeen.

"It is the most beautiful space in Hong Kong and I am in a very large building," said Oschetti, who invites diners into his home -- an oversized loft in an industrial building.

"A lot of restaurants in Hong Kong are very small. Even if you get a private room you don't have enough room to move around and feel comfortable."

Oschetti, who left a career as a senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers to explore his passion for cooking, works with his guests to customize each meal. Reservations must be made about a month in advance, but once the menu is set Oschetti has ingredients flown in from Italy for the feast.

"I don't do advertising, I only work by word of mouth ... so I cook for the people that I like and that I love."

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