Birds & Bubbles Pop-Up: How Do You Handle a Country's Aversion to Salt?
Two guests at the same table would have different opinions: one thought the chicken was salty, one thought it needed salt.
It's true, the majority of the Hong Kong diners are very sensitive to salt. And sugar. They prefer their food under-seasoned and their sweets "not so sweet." They, however, have no sensitivity towards giving you their opinion. I appreciate a straight shooter, but I would be lying if I said the mixed feedback I received from guests in the first week was easy to swallow – mainly because it was so inconsistent. Two guests at the same table would have different opinions: one thought the chicken was salty, one thought it needed salt. They would agree on one thing – they typically only want dark meat and though they were pleased the breast pieces were so juicy and flavorful, they wish we'd only served legs, thighs, and maybe a wing or two. We struggle with the opposite problem in the states as many guests only want "white" meat. If only the United States and Hong Kong were closer – they could come together and solve both country's chicken waste problems.
Many guests have remarked that the desserts on the dinner tasting menu were too sweet with the caveat that they really enjoyed the Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeye Petit Four – ironically the sweetest bite on the table.
Then you have the expats – the ones longing for southern food which is scarce in Hong Kong. They can't get enough of the buttermilk biscuits and salty Steen's butter, banana pudding or pimiento cheese. And though not one of them has mentioned it to me directly, the salt grinder on their table served as a dead giveaway that they thought the dishes needed salt.
One of the cooks joked that we should put out two versions of every dish – one for Hong Kongese, one for Western palettes.
I don't think racial profiling guests is a wise strategy. But considering we operate our restaurants under the philosophy of doing everything we can to give the guests what they want, I am tempted to have the servers ask the guests to rate their sensitivity to salt on a 1-5 scale when they double check for food restrictions.
At the end of the day, I rely on the back of the house team to be our barometer continually holding taste tests with the cooks who seem to have the strongest sensitivity to salt themselves. If they are fine with it and Aaron and I believe it tastes "servable," we send it.
The desserts are another story. I find it impossible to land on a happy medium of sweetness. And while a guest with a Western palette can add salt to their Shrimp & Grits, we can't expect them to sweeten their own desserts. So we have left the desserts as is. At some point as a southern chef, you take an oath to leave banana pudding as it was intended to be – stupidly sweet.
For someone who has always prided herself on putting out perfectly seasoned food, I must admit in the beginning I found myself on most days feeling a little defeated, especially on the nights when over half of the glasses in the dining room were filled with red wine.
Though Hong Kong is one of the largest importers of Champagne, there isn't the passionate Champagne culture we expected when we arrived. While many of the guests I spoke with admitted to drinking it, they also confessed they didn't really like the taste. However, they like what it represents – culture and sophistication. For the same reason, they prefer red wine because red represents good luck. Lucky for us the tannins in the red wine make the desserts seems less sweet.
Despite the aversion to salt and sweets and their affinity for red wine, I've found the diners fascinating and, though they can be very demanding, they are very kind. There is magic in watching guests who have eaten rice every day of their life taste Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice for the first time. Likewise, serving someone a cornbread just like their Grandma (who happens to be almost 9,000 miles away) served on Sundays makes it all worth it.
By Thursday of the first week, we'd launched the lunch and dinner menu – as well as a bar snacks menu, kids' menu, and a tea set menu and had begun prepping for the brunch menu we launched the first weekend. Even with putting out a new menu every day, we were shocked at how quickly we found our rhythm, made possible only because of the amazing talent in the Isono kitchen.
Despite the very large language barrier, we quickly found ways to communicate with the Cantonese speaking cooks. It required patience on my part – a tremendous feat considering anyone who has worked for me knows patience is not one of my virtues – as well as a tremendous amount of repetition and hand gestures. It took me a week to teach Billy and Lucky, the two lead sauté cooks, the technique behind mounting the barbeque shrimp sauce with butter for the perfect nappe consistency. Just when I felt proud of myself for somehow communicating the science behind an emulsion using little words and many awkward hand gestures, I walked into the kitchen to find Lucky trying to fix a broken sauce with the immersion blender. After skimming foam off the top of the sauce for at least ten minutes, only to find a tiny bit of servable sauce left, we both laughed at the immersion/emulsion confusion and I realized his mistake taught him something I could have never put into words or, in this case, hand gestures. There is a lesson there. Maybe I should let our cooks fail more often without jumping in to correct them.
Of the many, my favorite moment lost in translation was when I asked Billy where I would find a funnel. He quickly ran to the back of the kitchen, chest slightly puffed from the satisfaction of understanding me on the first try and returned beaming from ear to ear proudly clutching two bulbs of fennel! We laughed until we cried. Almost three weeks later we still laugh about it at least once a day.
Elaine, who we mistakenly called Eleanor for the first three days of service, is the only pastry cook at Isono and speaks no English. Miraculously, in four days, Aaron taught her how to make everything from perfect, flaky buttermilk biscuits to a boozy mint julep pate de fruit. With four types of bread, three desserts, four petit fours, and three brunch pastries, the to-do list is quite extensive for one person. I have never seen a cook work harder and faster than Elaine. I've also never seen one human consume more chocolate milk on a daily basis. Maybe it's the secret behind her machine-like production capacity. Somehow over the past few weeks, she also found the time to bake baby bird cookies for decorating a chocolate cake for me and Aaron as a surprise on our anniversary.
Aaron spends most of dinner service working a station with Jake, a rookie cook with an amazing attention to detail. In between tickets, Jake has shared little tidbits with Aaron over time such as his love for basketball, Pokemon and his job. He is grateful to be learning new things, and for the fact that he's paid well and treated with kindness. The rest of the cooks seem to share the same sentiment and for that I am amazed. These kids work 12-hour days, often commuting an hour both ways, with only six days off per month and are grateful for the opportunity to do so. It's a stark contrast to the constant struggle we face at home finding, training and keeping good cooks.
I spend dinner service working a station with Martin. For the first week, Martin came into work every day with a new list of recommendations of places we should eat before we leave. Every morning he asks me if I've tried one of them yet and I'm embarrassed to tell him that aside from a few outstanding meals at Ho Lee Fook and Yardbird, most nights we've been eating hummus in our pajamas.
There have been a few days we've been able to sneak away between lunch and dinner service for a mid-day meal. Yesterday we split a half goose and some wilted greens for lunch at Yat Lok, a tiny hole in the wall known for its Roast Goose and its one Michelin star. The wilted greens was the saltiest dish I've eaten since we landed and, by that I mean they were perfect. I also could not stop watching the service staff as they took orders and ran food to tables while they snacked on boiled peanuts.
We're still putting in at least 12 hours at the restaurant with another four hours per day dedicated to admin work and communicating with our teams back home. We wake up just as Rise is winding down and Birds & Bubbles is rolling into dinner service with a two-hour window at the crack of dawn and another after our own dinner service wraps up to connect with our teams. The 12-hour time difference is more stressful than I'd ever imagined and though I have said it before, I have never felt so drained. I really mean it this time.
Luckily we have our first day off tomorrow and are determined to knock some spots off of our ever-growing list of restaurants to try. Between the recommendations from the guests we've met in the first few weeks, our chef pals, and Martin, we have quite a challenge in front of us. As western diners setting out to explore the local cuisine, I'm now wondering if we should bring our own salt.