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Chongqing’s Chef Chan on Chilli Fagara, Sichuan Spice, and Michelin Stars
by: Rubin Verebes
April 06, 2022
Born in 2005 on Soho’s streets, Hong Kong’s leading Sichuanese brand, Chilli Fagara, has attracted a cult-like clientele in experiencing the fiery, numbing, and authentic central Chinese fare.
Run at the helm of Chongqing-born-and-raised chef Chan Kai-ying, the restaurant is set to enter its 17th year in business in Hong Kong with returned success receiving Michelin Award commendations, amid growing popularity of the brand.
With the principle of delivering family recipes and challenging the palates of Hong Kong with raw Sichuanese spice, Chan, alongside daughter Tracy, strives to innovate on the powerful cuisine in their Old Bailey Street kitchen.
Chan revealed her youthful passion with Sichuanese spice, her journey to creating Chilli Fagara and the future of her restaurant in an interview with The Beat Asia.
Chef Chan was born and raised in China’s monolithic central-city Chongqing to a family of restaurateurs and local F&B gurus. “As a child,” Chan said, “I was always surrounded by relatives in the food business, working as chefs and serving Sichuan cuisine for their whole lives.”
Her father - an owner of a litany of local eateries in Sichuan - drew Chan into a close mentorship that allowed her to present Chilli Fagara as true to taste. Family and food have equally been an important relationship in her life.
“My father was one of my greatest mentors – I learnt everything I know about Sichuan cuisine from him. As a child, I often used to watch him in the kitchen while he cooked traditional Ma La Tang food and always tried my best to imitate him.”
“Whilst being such a great culinary inspiration and role model, for him, family was always at the core, and he was proud of me and my ambitions to follow in his footsteps.”
The first simple dishes Chan knew how to make was stir-fried egg with chilli - a plate served today at Chilli Fagara - to feed her four younger siblings at the age of 13. She used simple fresh market vegetables and other various ingredients left in the pantry to cook 15-minute-long buffets for guests.
“I was so little when I started cooking - I remember having to stand on a stool just to reach the kitchen counter! That was truly one of the fondest memories of my childhood,” Chan said. Every dish she prepared had chilli in it, to infuse with flavour.
Chan’s previous travels to Canada with her family, namely Winnipeg in 1970 and Vancouver in 1980, provided her with exposed markets to introduce the spice, heat, and flavours of Sichuan cuisine. The return to her “second home” in Hong Kong enabled Chan to challenge the status quo of familiar Chinese food in the city.
“I love Hong Kong and its diverse crowd of discerning diners who are always curious about trying new dishes and unique ingredients they have never tasted, while they also love classic Chinese cuisine. It’s the perfect mix of people and taste preferences that enables me to prepare my favourite family recipes alongside new creations.”
“That’s what I appreciated and enjoyed the most when I first came to Hong Kong to build up Chilli Fagara with my daughter Tracy – I couldn’t have realised this dream without her loving support, ambition and creative ideas.”
Opening Chilli Fagara in 2005 on Graham Street in Soho, it was natural for Chan to bring her traditional Sichuan cuisine and culture to international tables. “It has always been my dream to work in the F&B industry as well and to launch my very own restaurant,” she told The Beat Asia.
“In my over 50 years of culinary experience, I always knew that this is where I belong - serving and reinterpreting my favourite family recipes, some also with an innovative new twist.”
“I made this dream come true by founding Chilli Fagara. The name combines both Sichuan peppercorn (“fagara”) with the region’s renowned chilli, since the restaurant concept is based on the Chinese ma la tang spice levels and tastes of Sichuan food. Our revolving menu represents a breath-taking range of culinary possibilities, all using the finest ingredients.”
Chan has a distinct draw and inspiration from Sichuanese cuisine and the spice that follows every bite. “To me, Sichuan cuisine is the epitome of ‘homecoming’, since I’m from Chong Qing and my entire family has been working in the restaurant industry ever since I can remember.”
The Michelin-starred chef has Sichuanese spices imported to Hong Kong from “a small network of trusted growers and producers” in her hometown province. Taking the concept of Ma La Tung – ma representing number, la as burning, and tang neutral, Chan takes generational recipes and innovates them for a demanding and evolving culinary scene in Hong Kong.
With hints of peppercorn, chilli sauces, and numbing flavours, “this is what makes Sichuan food so unique,” she said, “allow[ing] me to concoct outstanding dishes with a complex and enticing flavour profile, that amaze diners of all spice preferences.”
“At the same time, I can […] play with different ingredients that attract all different senses. It’s my passion to experiment with various unique ingredients and up-and-coming culinary trends, like gluten-free options or new plant-based meat substitutes.”
With classics such as Kung Pao Chicken, Homestyle Ma Po Tofu, Moo Shu Wrap, Black Truffle Spicy Fried Rice, and Crispy Fried Calamari, almost every item on the menu is inspired by the dishes Chan grew up with in Chongqing.
Two of Chan’s favourite dishes are menu mainstays and crowd favourites: Chilli Dungeness Crab and Emperor Prawns. “For the Dungeness Chilli Crab, I stir-fry jet-fresh crab and mix it with dried Sichuan peppercorn to give it our authentic spice kick. The Emperor Prawns are another timeless signature dish with their perfect texture and naturally juicy flavour, presented on a decadent bed of dried chilli.”
It is the guest's drive for new flavours, a generational shift in health-conscious eating, and Chan’s love for the fresh produce and new ingredients of Hong Kong’s wet markets that motivate her to nurture a constant refresh of her vibrant menu.
Today’s menu boasts a selection of 24 ma, la, and tang appetizers, 52 mains, and eight rice and noodle dishes, along with a curated space for Chinese liquor and tea.
Chef Chan’s creativity in the kitchen has translated to culinary triumph in recent years, namely with attention from the Michelin Guide.
In January 2022, Chilli Fagara received a Michelin recommendation for the 11th successive year, was awarded one Michelin Star from 2011 to 2013, and received the elusive Michelin Bib Gourmand award in 2009.
“Tracy and I are proud and grateful for every single one of our Chilli Fagara family, because this would not have been possible without their continuous diligence, precision, creativity, talent, passion and support.”
“It’s also thanks to our loyal and new customers who inspire and drive me to constantly grow and explore new possibilities, fostering an ever-evolving Sichuan dining culture. Being recognized and awarded by the Michelin Guide was one of the most rewarding moments in my career as a restaurateur.”
Following continued Michelin approval and success in Hong Kong’s F&B industry, the future is bright for Chilli Fagara.
“We are currently exploring more plant-based meat options and are looking into new spice and chilli sauce variations,” Chan said, with an added effort to accommodate for growing demand of delivery and takeaway options in the city.
Chilli Fagara’s latest delivery-only HOT ‘N’ MEEN and Chillitarian menu’s, featuring a range of 10 sizzling noodle dishes and Chan’s signature menu repackaged for easy delivery, allow people isolating and working-from-home to enjoy the Sichuanese tang at home.
“We are currently exploring different biodegradable takeaway packaging options as well as various ways of how to reduce the amount of waste to the minimum. We also aim to contribute with small steps towards a more sustainable future in the F&B industry.”
With Chilli Fagara’s dominance of spiced Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong, chef Chan continues to innovate and wow out of Chilli Fagara’s cosy Old Bailey Street location.
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