Ian Pengelley's Hong Kong

by Ian Pengelley

My love affair with Hong Kong and its food and culture inspired me to become the chef I am today. Explore it with me, and I'll take you to some of my favourite haunts

One of the most attractive things about Hong Kong is the east meets west flavour of the architecture, the food and the culture. It’s such a tantalising mix. Colonial buildings of the former British reign sit in the shadow of towering Chinese skyscrapers.

My father was in the army, serving with the Gurkha Regiment, and we moved to Hong Kong when I was seven. I grew up there in many ways and, after moving away, I went back there myself when I was 21, working in restaurants and hotels all over Hong Kong. I’ve been back numerous times since.

My first taste of Peking duck

I remember it was so busy and crowded that as a child my mother used to tie me and my two siblings together all on the same piece of string to walk with us through the streets. I remember cutting the string once and running away into a Chinese kitchen. The man gave me a slice of Peking duck. It had no fat on it and it was absolutely delicious. The way he cooked it had drained all the fat off and that memory sticks so vividly in my mind.

British control

The first time I was in Hong Kong it was very much under British control. The second time I was there however, there was an undercurrent of rebellion towards the Brit control, and I noticed how things were changing, such as the roads signs increasingly being written in Chinese only. It was a really interesting time. A lot of money left Hong Kong in 1997 when control was handed back to the Chinese.

The atmosphere in Hong Kong is incredible from the moment you get off the plane. There is an incredible buzz and it is truly an assault on all the senses. The Chinese just work non-stop and this generates an incredible energy into Hong Kong.

What to do

The Buddha on the top of Lantau Island is a very striking start to a stay in Hong Kong. This is a truly magnificent landmark and you can see it when the plane lands at the airport.

I’d recommend visits to the bird market and the night markets for fascinating sights, sounds and food. Temple Street is one of the biggest night markets. Most feature open-plan areas and you can see a whole cow going in and being chopped up, it’s a sight you won’t forget. The local markets are everywhere so just visit any of these. You can buy live fish just hours after they’ve been plucked out of the sea. I’ve seen razor clams, grouper, even sharks being sold.

I felt like royalty in Repulse Bay, which is a very exclusive, and expensive, resdiential area and wide bay in the Southern District. I remember going to a wedding here and sipping Champagne, while listening to a string quartet playing as we overlooked the bay. I truly felt like a King.

The Tai O fishing village with stilt-houses, Lantau Island - this is a village where time appears to have stood still with old-fashioned, ramshackle houses made from tin and wood. Inside however, they are all incredibly clean with TVs and other modern appliances. The contrast is striking.

Disneyland is an experience. Though the Disney brand is the same, the Chinese have a very different way of doing things. You must shop while you’re in Hong Kong too. All the great designers have outlets and while the prices aren’t much cheaper than anywhere else in the world, in Hong Kong you work hard and you play harder. There’s a really strong work ethic so splashing out on designer clothing feels more like a well-deserved treat than a luxury.

The Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk) has to be recommended because it is such an icon. Stand on the deck and look back at Hong Kong harbour; it’s a magnificent view of the distinctive cityscape.

And go to The Peak for stunning views (www.thepeak.com.hk). Take a tram up to the top, it’s amazing; it’s an almost vertical journey. The best time to go is when the sun goes down and suddenly all the millions of the lights go on, illuminating the city below, it is truly magical.

Where to eat

I have travelled extensively; cooking, relaxing, and thinking. The influence of Asian food in my life and career has been immense. This is especially true of Hong Kong. The flavours, intensity, creativity and presentation have always inspired me. And these qualities are not always found only at the top-end places. I will wander down a dark alleyway in Hong Kong if an interesting cooking smell catches my attention. Being inquisitive can often be an education when travelling.

In terms of the British influence on food, the service was always that bit better in Hong Kong because the Chinese were used to serving the tai pan - the powerful foreign businessmen.

The Tandoor is an Indian place that I absolutely adore (1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central; 2845 2262). You are served freshly squeezed fruit juices and poppadoms are served in the shape of cones with a selection of eleven dips (unlike the usual three or four we get in the UK). You fill them up with all the delicious sauces. There is an open-plan kitchen serving incredible Indian food. I used to come here so often that they knew me and used to serve me special dishes made just for me.

American Peking (Lockhart Road, Wan Chai; 2527-7770) – I love this for the diverse and high standard of cuisine available and the buzz of the atmosphere. It’s ideal for people-watching.

I love the Felix restaurant at the Peninsula Hotel for quite a quirky reason (Salisbury Rd, Kowloon; 2315 3188; www.peninsula.com). The loos are all glass fronted and when you pee it is like you are peeing into Hong Kong Harbour, which is directly below!

Where to drink

I love to go to the cocktail bar at the Grand Hyatt (1 Harbour Road; 2588 1234). It’s full of beautiful people and always has a jazzy vibe. The Long Island Ice Tea is worth trying here.

The M1nt Club is a members only, upmarket joint with amazing DJS and unbelievable cocktails in Hollywood Road. The last time I was there they had a DJ from New York on the decks. He got the whole place rocking.

Joe Bananas (Luard Road, Wan Chai; 2529 1811; www.joebananas.com) - this was the first place I was ever taken in Hong Kong and I met my first girlfriend there, so it will always have special memories for me.

Where to stay

The hotels in Asia are often more glamorous, more decadent and over the top than in other parts of the world. And Hong Kong does top-notch service really well.

The Island Shangri-La – this is truly one of the best hotels in the world and you can’t beat it for luxury, service and comfort. The Shangri-La definitely has to be my favourite hotel, not only in Hong Kong, but in the world. I love the luxury and the staff are inobtrusive and yet there to help with anything at all. I remember once I was supposed to be flying back to London but I got caught in a huge typhoon and so I stayed holed up in the Shangri-La for several days. The storm was raging outside and we were warm and cosy inside, I would have been happy if we had been trapped forever!

The former Ritz-Carlton was fabulous – there was a luxurious pool located halfway up the towers and if you were lucky you could get a key to the private club at the very top, which had amazing views. It was extremely private and offered amazing top-class service. Sadly, it closed its doors in 2008 and has been redeveloped. It's due to open very shortly, and The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, in Kowloon at the International Commerce Center, should provide an excellent replacement. I'll be expecting the same very high levels of quality and service.

My top tip for Hong Kong

My best tip would be to walk where you can. It’s not a tiny place and it’s certainly not flat, but walking gives you an idea of what it’s all about. Walk where the Chinese walk, eat where the Chinese eat; immerse yourself in Hong Kong, you’ll love it.

Ian Pengelley

Ian is an executive chef at Gilgamesh in London. He spent most of his childhood living in Hong Kong where he realised his passion for Asian food and culture. With a strong understanding of Cantonese, Ian went on to train in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China before returning home to share his passion for the Orient. Enjoying a successful career working in Cicada, The Birdcage, The Hempel and as personal chef to Lady Weinberg (Anouska Hempel), his talents are probably most noted as the launch Head Chef of E&O, Notting Hill, in 2001 where he stayed for two years. He launched Gilgamesh in 2006 and has been there ever since. Ian has made a significant contribution to the popularisation of Pan-Asian Food in Britain and is easily recognised as one of the world’s leading chefs in this field. He has made numerous television and radio appearances. See www.gilgameshbar.com.