Yes, Chef! Lucas Sin, the Hong Kong Chef Exploring Cha Chaan Teng Culture
June 14, 2023
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.
Lucas Sin, formerly of Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day Chinese in New York, embodies a youthful, new-gen spirit with appreciation of Hong Kong food culture that has spanned generations.
The Hong Kong-born food icon is notorious for his honest and affable takeovers of YouTube’s biggest food channels – munchies, Bon Appétit, Food52, Food + Wine, and Goldthread – educating the masses on the delicate, historic recipes of Hong Kong cha chaan teng (cafes).
Cooking Chinese food in New York for ten years, Hong Kong-born Lucas announced in October 2021 his departure from New York to Shanghai. Splitting his time between Shanghai and Hong Kong, Lucas is a homecoming journey involving deep exploration and experimentation with Chinese and Hong Kong cuisine.
The Beat Asia caught him on a trip to Hong Kong to discuss his warm embrace of China, its food, and his favourite cha chaan teng’s in preparation for a cookbook he is writing on the culture.
Lucas, it is a pleasure to sit down with you. Many people and friends across the world, London, Montreal, Hong Kong, Paris and New York, have watched your features on YouTube creating Cantonese food. You’ve created an almost international ambassadorial role of Hong Kong cuisine. What success have you found in New York, and what made you want to champion this identity?
After spending six years at Yale and New Haven, Connecticut, I moved down to New York to open restaurants. We weren’t making Hong Kong food, but rather fast casual, fast food for a homestyle, broadly Chinese umbrella.
Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day Chinese, the two restaurants I ran in New York City, were both brands trying to revitalise people’s thinking about Chinese food through a fast-casual lens. It was interesting as Chinese immigrants to rethink what Chinese food really brought into the discussion.
These restaurants came about after looking at P.F. Chang’s and Panda Express and wanting to connect to Chinese culture with the food we’re making, fitting it into a genre of fast-casual.
You mentioned the pandemic was a turning point for your cooking, specifically exploration of Hong Kong cuisine. What spurred on this pathway for discovery of your hometown food?
I have taken being from Hong Kong for granted for most of my cooking career. During the beginning of the pandemic, we never stopped going to work. In March 2020, when all chefs in the U.S. were locked in, many of my peers would launch takeovers on other people’s Instagrams and begin conversations about identity, what we stand for, our cultural identity.
The thought for me is Cantonese food is so precious that I didn't want it if it wasn't the way it was back home. In quarantine, I began to make these dishes with the specific techniques of my fathers, with my grandmother's recipes. People asked me for perspective. If I’m not cooking restaurant food, I’ll cook the food for one of my people.
Hong Kong people were interested in our perspective as chefs during the lockdown, our intergenerational Hong Kong-Chinese knowledge. I finally realised I was from Hong Kong, and I should try to make the stuff I shelved away at the back of my head.
Did the creation of SHY*BOYZCLUB collective with friend and chef-partner Eric Sze and Justin Au allow for a greater look at Chinese and Hong Kong good?
Yes. SHY*BOYZCLUB was a collaboration with many of our friends in the industry in the U.S., built on a Taiwan versus Hong Kong rivalry of who cooks better [laughs].
We make introverted Asian food. We all have restaurants and genres of cooking, so we don’t have to be shy to cook food outside of these genres with the club. We invite our friends – Rich Ho, Steve Chu, Calvin Eng – to expose what Chinese cooking is.
From pop-up dinners organised in New York and the East Coast, what spurred you to face the camera and present yourself on cooking shows for munchies, Bon Appétit, and Food52?
I wasn’t a huge fan of the camera, and being on video, I only began it during the pandemic. As far as social media goes, what I like about it is that there is an active and engaged community who cares for what I create, and it’s evergreen.
I've enjoyed my time on YouTube with channels like Munchies, Food52 and Food + Wine, because the people behind the camera are willing to let me ramble on about the science and cultural backing of Cantonese cooking.
I enjoy exploring what I am curious about, such as the home-cooking techniques I grew up with in Hong Kong, how restaurants are being run, and how people create street eats. I am fortunate to have that medium, but [I’m] still slowly figuring it out.
Why did you leave your life in New York after ten years and venture to Hong Kong and China in autumn 2022?
I’ve been so desperate to return to Asia since the last time in 2019. Permanently, I haven't lived here in 11 years. I am most excited about Asian food, so it made sense to spend time here. If I spend all the time rambling on about Chinese food, I should come to China.
Currently, I live in Shanghai, using that as a base for events and popups in the city, but also travelling to get to know different parts of China. I hope to host events in Hong Kong too.
What interests you about the move to Shanghai and cooking for Hong Kong?
Shanghai is one of the most exciting food scenes in the world. It's a good mix of modern bistro cooking and hungry, interested young Chinese chefs with a tradition of Chinese cooking and recognition. Shanghai has the accessibility and convenience that a modern city gives it. It's a nice meet meeting point of old East meets West.
I am cooking at my girlfriend's restaurant called Egg, a legacy French restaurant, open in the day for brunch, and hosting pop-up events at night. I’ve been testing my recipes there and using it as a test kitchen.
I am flexing my creativity and creating a lot of Frankenstein-fusion stuff, which is part of what is cool about cha chaan teng culture. Its DNA is this cultural confluence and evolution. Everything served at a cha chaan teng is stolen, bastardised, evolved, or changed.
The idea of many of the pop-ups is bringing these cha chaan teng ideas and techniques, and seeing what happens when chefs introduce new cuisines. It’s a good licence to bring an idea to somebody else’s restaurant and see what they want to do with those ideas.
This homecoming tale is not complete without your latest project, writing a cookbook on cha chaan teng and Cantonese café culture. What inspires you to document this?
The book itself is an opportunity to study the history, technique, science, and operations of a cha chaan teng. I think these are stories worth telling, but understanding the history and techniques makes our cooking better no matter what type of food we're cooking.
It is an edible anthropological project. I am aiming to release this in two years. The publishing cycle is quite ferocious.
What is your favourite cha chaan teng in Hong Kong?
Australia Dairy Company. I love saying that. Many people hate that I love it. It’s a great meeting of what I think are some of the best versions of the food. There are places that do better scrambled eggs, macaroni soup, or toast. But in the meeting point of the service and food at Australia Dairy Company, it’s perfect.
I like being yelled at Australia Dairy, because it breaks you down and makes the food taste better. The eggs are excellent there. I went there a lot when growing up. The best cha chaan teng is the one that you go to the most.
Thank you so much for sitting down with me Lucas and sharing your story!
Thank you, Rubin! It's been amazing to come back to Hong Kong and get to know the people who are still here, like meeting many new people doing cool stuff.
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