Birds & Bubbles Hong Kong: 15-Hour Days and 55 Pounds of Butter
Sarah Simmons brings fried chicken and Champagne to Hong Kong, Part II.
Read Part I of Sarah's Hong Kong pop-up adventure... Having slept like logs through the night, we woke up by 5am on our first morning in Hong Kong. The sun had fully risen and with five hours to spare before our 10am "orientation" at Isono we headed out to get our bearings with no real agenda other than getting coffee into our systems. Our apartment, located in the heart of the city's Central district, sits just at the top of the hill on a quiet street under the botanical gardens. One block down, we saw twenty-somethings spilling out onto the sidewalks from clubs and all-night diners.
As we made our way down the winding street towards the bottom of the hill, we turned our heads at a crosswalk, simultaneously spotting those all too familiar golden arches halfway down the block. Without uttering a word to one another, we changed direction like synchronized swimmers and walked down the street. Within 12 hours of arriving in Hong Kong, our first stop was McDonald's. I'd never felt more American.
In Hong Kong, McCafe is more than a logo on the side of the coffee cup, it's a separate coffee bar complete with pastries meant to mimic a patisserie in France. For some reason, this makes me feel better about our decision to stop in.
The city started to wake up as we wandered about sipping iced coffees, passing workout-ready Westerners in Lululemon, street vendors setting up shop and well-dressed business folks en route to work.
By 8am, people started to pack the narrow sidewalks so we decided to head back up the hill to shower and grab a real meal before heading to work. Three minutes into our hike back up, I was fully overcome by the infamous "Hong Kong heat."
Having spent six years (and most of the last nine months) of my life in Columbia, South Carolina – a city with the tagline "famously hot"- I arrived with a false sense of confidence in my ability to manage the Hong Kong weather. I'm now convinced there is nowhere hotter than Hong Kong in July from 9am to noon and that hell on earth is a forecast of high 84, low 83 and 100% humidity–it feels like 105!
As we trudge up the hill, we stumble upon "the escalator." One of the most genius and fascinating transportation systems we've ever seen is actually a series of 20 escalators and three moving sidewalks designed to make it easy to move between the mid-level and central areas of the city. While it's packed with passengers heading down the hill, I tell Aaron "I bet it goes up at night" - a statement I now realize is simple logic versus the revelation I felt it was at the time. We climbed on.
After a quick shower, we're back into the heat in search of breakfast before our scheduled arrival time at Isono. We quickly learned that one missed turn in Hong Kong becomes a time warp. Because of the alleys and side streets and lack of cross walks or street signage, two minutes in the wrong direction often turns into 20 to find your way back to square one.
Miraculously, we ended up right in front of Isono. Now too hot and frustrated for breakfast, we headed up to the restaurant to meet our new co-workers. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by Jaime Martin, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, who introduced us to the first half of the kitchen staff. The team of Hong Kongese cooks greeted us with small smiles and shy hellos. I told myself it was because they were busy prepping for their own lunch service. I should have simply told them I was just as nervous and anxious as they were.
We then settled in for a meeting with the operations team to review the schedule for the next few days. With 72 hours until we opened, every waking hour of every day had been allocated to finalizing the design for all menus, staff wine and service training, menu tasting, photo shoots and interviews with the media, preparing for a 50-person opening party, and prepping all the components of every dish on the lunch and dinner menus.
Knowing the team still needed to be focused on the restaurant's regular service, Aaron and I divided the tasks, found a work space as far out of the way as possible and got started with our prep.
As I began with the simple tasks - boiling eggs for deviled eggs, shredding cheese and roasting red peppers for pimento cheese, peeling shrimp and making a brine for pickling - I observed everything happening in the kitchen.
Chef Jaime, a native Spanish speaker, had his own moments lost in translation as he tried to communicate with his staff. There was very little chatter among the kitchen staff yet they all moved together as if they were singing their own silent song. Kachun, the sous chef, playing his part of conductor, floated about the kitchen tasting everything, correcting everyone as a parade of plates made their way to the pass. Chefs dream about this sort of magical flow by a kitchen team. I found great relief because this was a solid team.
Meanwhile, I realized, I was also under observation as the cooks watched my every move. On the way back from the walk-in, one cook would squeeze in next to me, mimicking my technique for perfectly peeling eggs and quietly walk away when the task was complete. As I put a pot on to boil, knowing I needed a larger vessel than I'd found in the storage, another cook would appear out of nowhere with a pot the perfect size for the job. Other than me asking them their names, there was really no other communication between us besides smiles, thank yous and nods.
We worked well into dinner service, only reaching a stopping point because we ran through most of the ingredients we needed. From my experience with CITY GRIT, I know most guest chefs indicate much larger quantities of ingredients than they actually need, so I didn't fault chef Jaime for assuming we'd never go through the quantities we listed.
But in our first day of prep, we used all the flour they had in house – a quantity that would typically last them a week. After one triple batch of candied apple jam, we'd emptied the sugar bin.
In the 48 hours since we started cooking, we've gone through 30 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of sugar, a case of buttermilk, 50 dozen eggs, and 70 pounds of butter. 90 percent of the food in Hong Kong is imported – mostly from mainland China. But the majority of the products we're using – aside from the eggs – had been imported from France which in some cases requires a three to four-day lead time to replenish. Not knowing how the first week would go, we asked chef Jaime to order four cases of buttermilk and twice as much butter in the next order just to be safe. He almost passed out in shock. The butter, which arrived frozen in a giant 55-pound block, is delicious and rich and 100 times better than anything we can find back home. And the buttermilk with its full fat goodness is the best I've ever tasted and the reason why our biscuits in Hong Kong are richer and flakier than ever.
As we wrapped up our first day of prep, we ventured out into the oppressive heat to find something quick to eat and make our way home. It was 10pm on a Friday night. Every restaurant was packed and the bars were bursting at the seams with people. Once again we went down a wrong path and somehow found ourselves halfway down the hill, or so we thought. As we rounded a corner we saw Marks & Spencer, UK's version of Trader Joe's, and stopped in to pick up some snacks. The air-conditioner offered a much-needed blast of cool air and the location was conveniently located next to the escalator, which was, indeed moving upwards at that hour.
We loaded up on rice crackers and hummus and hopped onto the moving staircase. Not having to climb the hill was a blessing until we reached the top and realized we'd certainly gone too far. After finding a spot with wifi (our international data plans weren't set to start for a few more days), we realized we had a 20-minute walk ahead of us. At least it was downhill. It was 11:15pm when we walked in the door to our apartment. We slept even harder than the night before.
The next morning, we got up early just as dinner service was starting at Birds & Bubbles in New York. After checking in with the team before their night got started, we carefully studied the map to ensure we would arrive at the restaurant without any mishaps. Five minutes into our walk, Aaron points out the Marks & Spencer on the corner. My first thought was that Marks & Spencer had really cornered the Hong Kong market until I realized it was the same one from the night before. We laughed at our foolishness of being so turned around we hopped onto the escalator just three blocks away from our apartment.
For the next two days we followed the same route back and forth from our apartment to the restaurant, spending at least 15 hours each day making food. Little by little the cooks have helped when they've had time. This afternoon, as we prepared snacks for a press preview party, we finally got to work side by side with the team, showing them how all the components come together for each bite.
In the Birds & Bubbles kitchen, getting to fry the chicken is an honor. What seems like a chore is actually a compliment since we consider you to be one of the best cooks in the kitchen. It takes months before a new cook is even allowed to help fry the chicken. Here with hundreds of canapes to assemble, time isn't an option and cooks we've just met are taking over the skillets after watching me demonstrate how we drop the birds in the buttermilk for a quick dip before lightly coating them in the flour. As each cook finished their canape assembly, they rushed to me for a quick tutorial before politely nudging their peers to take their turn at the task. Feeling confident in their skills and pride in their genuine excitement in our dishes, I went out to meet our guests in the dining room.
Everyone seemed pleased with the food minus one food blogger who confided that everything was too salty. I've tasted each component of each dish, confused by the complaint, and head to the kitchen to share this news with Aaron who is putting an order list together with chef Jaime. When I give him the feedback, chef Jaime nods his head and says, "oh yes, the Hong Kong diners do not like much salt."
It's my turn to almost pass out in shock because it's the first we're hearing of this. And we've certainly seasoned these dishes for Western palates. As we clean up and head out for the evening, I pray the ex-pat community comes in droves when we open the doors tomorrow.