With a background in hotel management and the culinary arts, executive chef Peggy Chan struck out on her own to open Grassroots Pantry in 2012.
She was determined to champion plant-based cuisine and sustainable dining. Seven years later, she has turned Grassroots Pantry into Nectar, a new fine dining restaurant. Here, where the menu is 99 per cent vegan (with the exception of eggs served during brunch), dairy-free, and about 90 to 95 per cent organic, she continues her advocacy.
Why did you decide on going the fine dining route with Nectar?
Nectar reflects my evolution as a chef. Grassroots Pantry has always been at the forefront of plant-based cuisine and Nectar provides us with an opportunity to further expand our menu and offer diners an elevated dining experience. With Nectar’s seasonal tasting menus, we have new opportunities to educate customers on the possibilities of locally-sourced organic ingredients.
Which are some of the restaurant/chef heroes you’re emulating in that regard?
I’ve highly looked up to chef Alice Waters (founder of Chez Panisse) for her persistent stance in promoting food education to the youth, so that would be considered my underlying mission with every project that I decide to work on. As with the restaurants and the chefs’ styles that I’ve recently been drawn to, Lyle’s in London, Toyo Eatery in Manila and Inua in Tokyo are all doing very cool stuff!
What are some of the more unusual local ingredients you have chosen and weaved into exciting dishes at Nectar?
The dried barks, fruits and berries often used for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are used in one of our dishes that highlights the preservation of TCM techniques. A walk through the dry food stalls in Sheung Wan, and visits from our farmers who bring us rare and not-often-used ingredients, help us stay creative. For instance, gourds are nearing the end of its season here in Hong Kong and we use it for multiple purposes—in soups, braised, pan fried, as well as dehydrated. We are now testing a brined, smoked and dehydrated winter melon dish and we’ll see what comes out of it!
Could you tell us more about your 12-course Edible Solutions Menu?
This menu highlights 12 ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through our consumption power. For instance, the Plastic course is a bisque of slow roasted shimeji mushroom which tastes a lot like lobster/prawn bisque, served with a sous vide then baked round local eggplant en papillote style. With this dish we wanted to raise the issue of single use plastic which takes up to 1000 years to biodegrade. However, over 90 per cent of plastics can be derived from plants instead. These bioplastics can sequester carbon, especially when made from waste biomass i.e. crustacean shells.
By using our dishes to tell the stories of environmental depletion and the solutions that can be replaced effectively, we hope that these issues stick with our diners and that they would perhaps take action themselves.
What are one or two plant-based creations you’re most proud of and why?
Utilising a traditional Chinese ingredient—lion’s mane mushroom—in its whole unadulterated form and applying it in a western context. This is now replicated by many vegan/vegetarian cafes and restaurants. Rather than creativity per se, it was about recognising the incredibly wide range of ingredients provided by the plant kingdom that could replace textures likened to meat without additives or fancy technology. Also, by adapting raw food techniques with traditional ones, we were able to create a raw vegetable pepperoni using bell peppers, sundried tomatoes and smoked paprika. This is used to create fragrant sauces for pastas and can easily replace the pepperoni for pizza toppings.
What are some sustainability practices you’ve implemented that could be replicated in other restaurants in HK or wider in Asia?
Diverting food waste, recycling and minimising livestock and livestock-derived foods from our inventory are all quick measures that can be replicated in any restaurant establishment. It only takes some setting up, training and evaluating in order for the systems to be properly put in place.
What I think we have introduced however is a way to offer ‘health’ or ‘healthy’ food in an innovative, delicious, ethical, environmentally sound and hip setting that is approachable and measurable. What we have integrated are various streams of knowledge gained through utilising whole foods, TCM and Ayurvedic techniques; understanding indigenous and ancient ingredients and their natural remedies; while applying scientific approaches to food such as soaking and sprouting nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Furthermore, we’re using superfoods to replace ingredients that are hyper-produced and no longer deemed nutritious, and when combining raw food preparations with classical techniques, we have ultimately designed our own style of cooking that is both respectful and authentic.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine November/December 2019: Hindsight 2020 issue.