Plant-based chef Peggy Chan on sustainability in Hong Kong and defying the odds as a female restaurateur
The good fight
While the current landscape of the world is poised to be at its most progressive state yet, living a sustainable, conscious lifestyle still poses its own set of challenges. So imagine what it was like seven years ago for Peggy Chan, a female plant-based chef who was dreaming up a vision of her own to spark change and education in the F&B scene in Hong Kong. "The thing is, nutrition has always been sided in a medical field, although it has something to do with food. Then you have the chefs who never have to learn about nutrition as a prerequisite. So how are they going to incorporate that into making delicious healthy food? Then, all the way up is the realm of sustainability and environmentalism. All of these subjects are completely separated and we created this problem — they should all be linked together", muses Chan.
Bridging the worlds of food, sustainability, and environmentalism is essentially what Chan's restaurants have been about. Namely Grassroots Pantry, which has since been reopened as Nectar, marking a new revolution for Chan's journey as a plant-based chef. In her fine dining restaurant, she serves nutrient-dense, seasonal tasting menus that nourish the mind and body, spark curiosity, and protect the environment.
She first became a vegetarian when she was 16, when she locked eyes with cows on the farmland. "I just questioned why did we harm animals. Why are we eating something that can breathe, that have eyes, that have lungs, that have a heart, and also gives birth to mammals like we do. And it didn't make sense to me. I felt like something was changing inside me. I started with omitting beef, then pork, then poultry, and then fish and seafood," says Chan who had been going through a trying time at home when she was 16.
Her interest in the culinary scene was inherited from her mother, who too was a professional chef. Chan had been working in corporate F&B before deciding she wanted to work on something that had meaning, and could create impact. Therefore, leading to the birth of Grassroots Pantry in 2012. Today she is a pioneer of the plant-based movement in Hong Kong, and stands as an influential figure in advocating sustainable food practices.
While discussing the dishes in Nectar, her fine dining restaurant down at Hollywood Road, Chan cheekily smiles as she explains the conceptualisation behind Balut, a dish at Nectar that is inspired by the traditional fertilised duck egg. Till this day, she vividly remembers how it tasted when she first had a balut at the age of four. "I loved how it tasted. It was so delicious. People always ask me how I make foods that taste so much like animal products. The thing is, food memories stay with me, and that's how I replicate the same textures and flavours in my dishes." Her iteration of the dish appoints pine nuts blended into a cream, alongside torched ripe avocado to imitate the part of the duck's egg yolk. With it, are some puffed rice and oats, which is what ducks eat. To top it off, Cambodian peppercorn oil and a tuile to resemble the peppery broth, but compressed in a solid state.
Being a pioneer in championing plant-based cuisine must have been a real challenge when you first set up Grassroots Pantry in 2012...
Back then, definitely. Even today, people still have this mindset that you need meat to get protein, you need meat to grow, you need dairy to provide calcium in your diet. And that's because food marketers have lied to you. Personally and physically, becoming vegetarian was a way for me to learn about my body. Once you clean yourself of any kind of animal and dairy product, your body starts to tell you what it needs.
I see all my challenges as opportunities. If it's difficult, there must be a reason. Mainly, the challenges were quite internal. Would people be able to accept my philosophy in food? Would they be able to accept a woman-restaurateur in the kitchen? Because prior to that, there weren't any. If there was a woman who was heading the kitchen, it was in one of those mom-and-pop places. The media is constantly seeking content and stories to write about and Grassroots Pantry was content-rich during its inauguration. There was plenty to talk about, from plant-based foods, farm to table, sustainable agriculture, or go down the gender route to spotlight a female chef, female entrepreneur and female owner. Because when you look at this F&B industry, it has always been dominated by males.
What are your thoughts on the current plant-based food landscape and awareness right now?
I think it differs everywhere. But what I think it's crucial is that people understand the difference between plant-based food and meat alternatives like your Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. When you call something plant-based, it is actually made out of plants. But when you process a particle and then add 50 other things to it, that's not plant-based.
The meat alternatives are made for carnivores. And it's extremely important that we aren't attacking these companies who are trying to do good — whose intention is to really disrupt the meat industry. They are not here to disrupt the plant food industry or the vegetarian society.
On the subject of food, how do you come up with the many various dishes at Nectar?
It's really based on what our farmers have in season. I would say currently, about 50 percent are local organic produce. Maybe 20 percent comes from Taiwan, and then the rest is from China. Some are also based off my childhood memories. At the end of the day, we use whole foods to heal, utilise techniques like fermentation, dehydration, and other raw food techniques that can maximise the nutritional contents of our ingredients.
How is Hong Kong doing with regards to sustainability in food?
I think there are pretty good fast casual places that offer good options of grain bowls. But is the growth fast enough? No, I think our rent doesn't allow growth. While restaurants are starting to dedicate dishes to vegetarians and vegans, the dining scene is still quite lacking.
A piece of advice you would give to someone who's looking incorporate a plant-based diet into their lives.
Always start with your pantry staples. Because when you constantly eat the refined sugars, flour, processed oils and refined salts that are just sodium and deficient in minerals, your body will cling to the processed junk and crave for all of the wrong stuff. Also, if you happen to have snacks, it's because it's there. So control what you buy in a supermarket as well. Don't get any of the processed stuff and read the labels — start with that.
What's next for you?
One of the reasons that I'm here in Singapore, is to scout out the space. But one of my biggest passions and missions, is to scale what we have been doing in our consultancy. For me, It's extremely important to do what we do. We R&D our processes, we audited to figure out our sustainability methods, and we were also recently recognised by the United Nations as a best-practice case study on sustainable sourcing and responsible management. It's wonderful that my restaurants have succeeded in doing so, but that's not enough. What we need is for the other 15,000 restaurants to do the same in Hong Kong. We have to scale education, because without that, people are not going to feel empowered to create change. They're only going to be told what to do and that's all they are going to do. We have the knowledge, the science, the curriculum — so that's why one of my most exciting missions is to scale those kind of practices so that other chefs can replicate.