City on a Plate: A Love Letter to Hong Kong From the Queen of Bao, May Chow

May Chow is a bona fina culinary superstar
May Chow is a bona fina culinary superstar | Courtesy of Little Bao
Kieran Morris

Staff Writer

Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells and sensations that drive their approach to food. May Chow’s creative and joyful Chinese fusion cuisine has made her into a bona fide superstar, and tables at her Hong Kong restaurants are as coveted as anywhere in the city.

May Chow is the woman responsible for Hong Kong’s bao boom

Few chefs have progressed from rising star to superstar in quite the manner of May Chow. And superstar she most certainly is. In 2017, Chow became the youngest chef to win the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef; what’s more, she did so with a 20-seater, no-reservations diner in some tiny corner of Hong Kong, by the name of Little Bao. Chow’s bao far exceeded cult status – they became a phenomenon, a brand. People would buy Little Bao T-shirts and stickers for their laptops; top chefs from around the world would stop by as soon as they touched down in Hong Kong, queuing just like everyone else for a pork belly bao and a side of truffle fries from the hottest restaurant in the Delta.

Not bad for a chef with no formal training, having been dissuaded from attending culinary school by her parents, who believed that the rough-and-tumble industry wasn’t fitting for a college-educated young woman to get involved in. But to know May Chow is to know of her total refusal to live by anyone else’s rules. She began surreptitiously working in kitchens in her last year of college in Boston, Massachusetts, and has worked flat out ever since, learning on the job under chefs like Matt Abergel and Alvin Leung, before breaking out with her first Little Bao stall in 2013. Working 16 hour days at a minimum over the past seven years, she has moved from one stall to one diner to a second Little Bao in Bangkok, a gastropub called Second Draft, a larger Little Bao in Causeway Bay and the ultimate expression of her culinary vision: a polysexual Cantonese diner called Happy Paradise.

Little Bao’s legendary pork belly bao had diners queueing for hours, night after night

Happy Paradise is where you see the joyful brashness of Chow in full effect. Driven by her desire to open a place that she would most like to hang out, as well as a complaint from one of her friends asking why “there weren’t any nice gay restaurants in Hong Kong”, Happy Paradise – named tongue-in-cheek like a massage parlour – pairs Chow’s precise, imaginative takes on Cantonese classics with strong cocktails, bright neons and drag-queen glitz. This characteristic boldness has brought international renown to Happy Paradise as well as Little Bao, and further cemented Chow as one of the most imaginative and forward-thinking restaurateurs on the planet. Culture Trip speaks to Chow about her love of the city she calls home, how fusion fits with authenticity and why the spirit of Hong Kong can be found in everything she cooks.

Who are you, and how do you cook?

I’m May Chow, and I’m the chef-founder of Little Bao and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong but spent a lot of time living in the US before I settled back here. I love exploring cultures and their connectivity to one another; my cooking needs to connect the mind with the place and time that it’s in. So, of course, Hong Kong is a huge inspiration for me, and I let my daily experiences here drive my creativity. I’m not overly into technicality – I think much more about the stories behind food, how they connect with people and, of course, deliciousness.

After years in a tiny space in SoHo, Little Bao has relocated to a bright, lively spot in Causeway Bay

What is your city to you?

This city is amazing because if you put the effort in to find it, there’s always a new side to see. There is always, always, something new and exciting happening. And when you feel like escaping the urban jungle – which you will – the beautiful nature here is equally jaw-dropping, and always there to welcome you. My favourite little corner to escape to is Tai Ping Shan Street, which has traditional old buildings, temples and so many local creatives and artists working away. It’s peaceful (well, for Hong Kong), it’s close to my restaurant, and it’s where I go when I need to restore my peace of mind.

What is the flavour of your city?

How can I pick one? The flavour of our city is diversity – authentic diversity – that has come about from centuries of being the epicentre of Asia, where all others cross through. Our flavours can be as punchy as they are sophisticated – from all the different regional Chinese cuisines we have on offer to the hole-in-the-wall hawkers to the lightest, most refined fine dining you can find. We really know how to eat well, and our flavours reflect that. Although if there’s one thing I just can’t find anywhere else, it’s roasted goose, and I love a good roasted goose.

Chow is unafraid to mix and meddle with different world cuisines

What is the character of your city?

We love going out, especially to eat, and we’re very quick onto the next big thing here because news travels fast. It’s easy to see what is exciting people because you’ll see lines trailing out the doors of places. People love to try new things: whether it’s a hot new restaurant or a sneaker release or a new bubble tea shop. Ours is an incredibly efficient city – one of the most efficient in the world – and sometimes, people are a bit spoiled by it. We can get a little impatient over things that delay us or stop our momentum. It’s very go, go, go, and anything that halts that brings scorn very quickly.

Where would you eat your last meal?

Well, of course, I’d say my mom’s. But if not, I’d love to go to a rowdy restaurant like Ju Xing Home, which has the most authentic, homely and amazingly delicious Cantonese food around. With that, and how lovely the owners are, I can’t think of a better place to spend my last meal, with a bunch of friends and family along for the ride.

What is your city on a plate?

I’d choose the sourdough egg waffles from Happy Paradise, and the Szechuan fried chicken bao at Little Bao. Hong Kong is a city that envelops so many cultures and influences naturally and organically, like nowhere else in the world. All of the flavour and excitement of food from around the world is distilled into Hong Kong. It’s in our DNA, and it’s what I like to capture in my food. At the heart of it all, there is that Hong Kong soul that you will always identify in my food.

There may be more seats, but queues have not dimmed for Little Bao since their relocation

May Chow is the chef-founder of Happy Paradise and Little Bao in Hong Kong. Keep up with her on Instagram.

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