Yes, Chef! Gareth Packham, Head of ALTO Bar & Grill
January 05, 2024
Asia is one food-crazy continent! We take great care to pick restaurants based on culinary vibes, rankings on international gourmand guides, mentions in magazines, Instagramability, and added hunger. Yes, Chef! features the region’s chefs' stories of love and labour in kitchens, which has made some of our restaurants the next big thing in Asia.
Chef Gareth Packham of Alto Bar & Grill believes passion is never overrated. He first came to this realization when he was a clueless 15-year-old boy, washing pots in a kitchen in Manchester with a hazy outlook that many boys his age shared at the time. More than two decades later, Chef Gareth is behind the award-winning menu of ALTO Bar & Grill, one of Hong Kong’s finest sky-high grill & terrace restaurants perched atop the 31st floor of V Point Tower in Causeway Bay. Prior to this, he moved to the city in 2016 to lead the Gordon Ramsay Group as corporate chef.
The Beat Asia sat down with Chef Gareth to talk about cooking, the most important thing he learned from Gordon Ramsay, and why passion pays for everything.
How did your passion for cooking begin?
To be honest, my passion for cooking began quite different from most chefs. In fact, I became a chef for the wrong reasons. I became a chef because there wasn't much for a young boy from Manchester to do.
I had very little education and motivation to do anything. Long story short, I ended up in a kitchen where I washed pots.
I was around 15 and on my first day, one of the chefs in the garnish section was making mashed potatoes. So, I asked the head chef if he'd like me to make the mashed potatoes, and he said to me, "You don't cook in this kitchen. You just wash pots.”
I was like, “Okay, fair enough.” Then on the second day, it was a similar situation, but the head chef was off. So, I asked the sous chef this time and he agreed for me to do the mash. When the head chef came back the next day and tasted the mashed potato, he asked who made it. The chef on the garnish section pointed at me, the guy on pot watch.
He lost his mind and got so angry. He got me by the throat, pinned me by the corner, and started screaming at me, saying, “I told you you'd never cook in this kitchen.” As a young 15-year-old, I got very upset.
I went home with tears in my eyes and I told my mum about the incident. I said to her that if that man was willing to physically hurt me over mashed potato, I want that passion in my life. I had never experienced passion like that.
After that, I applied in one of the hotels and I just started cooking from there. I'm now 36. So, it’s been around two decades of cooking.
What do you like most about what you do?
It’s an industry that is universal. You can be from a very privileged background. Or the opposite.
It doesn't matter who you are in this industry. If you have passion and you want to learn, you can do anything. That's what I love about it.
What brought you to Hong Kong from London?
It was the shiny golden ball, Gordon Ramsay, at Savoy Grill in London. I had to decide between France and Hong Kong, both with Gordon Ramsay.
When I was around 17, I told my friends I’d work for Gordon Ramsay one day and live in Hong Kong. And for some reasons, those two materialised. I moved to Hong Kong in 2016. It was a great opportunity to see a new country and to get involved [in local dining]. I just loved the idea of it. So, with one suitcase, I hopped on a plane and moved to Hong Kong.
How old were you when you moved to the city?
I was 29 years old, so I've been here for seven years now.
How has that experience broadened your skills as a chef?
Gordon keeps people around him at the top of their game. When you work in any of his restaurants, you naturally absorb that skill level. Being there with these people just makes it for you. I was around 33 years old when we closed down the Gordon Ramsay restaurants. To me, becoming the head chef for the group was an accomplishment largely because of the experience I acquired in London.
How have you injected your previous experiences into Alto’s current menu?
Having spent seven years in this role, you get to understand the demographics. It’s easy for us as chefs to put something on a plate and say, “Eat it because it tastes good.” But in reality, each one’s palate is different. So, you have to understand the demographics. I think what I try to bring is a localised flavour. I try to understand the guests by talking to them and asking them what they want.
What are your efforts to adapt it to the local palate?
Alto is grill-centric with Asian influences. For example, you have steak tartare, which is a classical French dish. Normally it has ketchup, Tabasco, onions, gherkins, and shallots, which you will always find in a steakhouse dish.
Here at Alto, instead of doing the classic, French version of steak tartare, we do it a bit different. It's a little twist where we use soy sauce, jalapeño chili, pears, chives, and pickled ginger. Those ingredients give a different flavour to it, while retaining that signature spiciness with the jalapeño chili.
Please tell us more about Alto’s efforts in responsibly sourcing ingredients.
We ensure that all our eggs are cage-free. We also do not source fish flagged by the World Wide Fund for Nature. We always check in with the suppliers, asking them what’s in the seeds and making sure that we can seasonally use that ingredient. But again, it's not just Alto; it’s a collective effort, including the guests.
Do you have any favourite ingredients?
I do like bonito. I think bonito flakes give such a surprising flavour. They are also universal as an ingredient.
What's your advice to aspiring chefs?
My advice is passion. Don't worry about how many hours you're doing. Don't worry about what your friends are doing. Just worry about your passion. Passion that comes out naturally is seen, heard, felt, and touched. Passion pays for everything, to be honest.
Enjoyed this article? Check out our previous Yes, Chef! profiles here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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