This week’s That Girl is the ultra cool May Chow, the foodie genius behind hot new Hong Kong resto Little Bao. If you haven’t tried one of May’s drool-worthy bao yet (for the uninitiated, they’re absolutely mouthwatering “Chinese burgers”), you haven’t lived!
We chat with May about the inspiration behind Little Bao, how she’s learned that it’s good to be different, whether life in the kitchen really is as crazy as Gordon Ramsay makes it seem, and why she’d never buy Happy Socks!
Fill us in on your background?
I spent my early years in Canada as well as Hong Kong. After high school in Hong Kong, I went to study and work in the States for seven years and came back in 2008.
How would you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change? Have you ever felt judged by people that don’t “get” your style?
I’ve been through so many phases of my life finding my “style”. When I was young, I just tried to fit in with the late 90s “ABC” girlie look – short skirts, long highlighted hair and so on. Then one year, I pulled a Britney and shaved off a lot of my hair when everyone told me not to; from then on, I knew that was really the tipping point for looking and dressing however I felt like! A lot of people enjoy my style but often they’ll end up saying, “I can see it on you… but I could never pull it off!” People would be surprised how liberating it is to dress “outside the box”; I tell people all the time, “Yes! You can pull off wearing ugly grandma sweaters too!”
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
I like the black label at Izzue and my go-to place for shopping is Initial – I especially enjoy the fact that it’s a local brand done really well. Other than that, I buy a lot of random gold sequin shirts, tights and crazy socks from the old streets in Sham Shui Po, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui. I’m sorry to offend but I don’t get why people spend so much money buying Happy Socks when crazy-looking socks are readily available in Ladies Market! I quite like a mall in TST called the Rise Shopping Arcade too.
What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
I love everything about Ronin, including all the people in it. I also love Tung Po in North Point for when I have friends visiting – it’s always a riot and if you order the right food, it’s really good. For my local everyday hangout, I love going to “Come Come Chung Hing Chicken Hotpot” in the Kyoto Plaza in Causeway Bay (I made up that name as I don’t even think they have an English one!); it’s where I get my cheap and delicious Szechuan fix and chicken hotpot! I’m also a big fan of Rakuen in CWB. In terms of bars and clubs, the night always ends up at Fly.
Are there any things you miss about Hong Kong from your childhood?
I miss the Chinese egg waffles that they burn over charcoal grills right outside the tram station. I also miss the best dai pai dong ever, which was right around the corner of SOGO and set up after all the shops closed; they made the best stir fried beef ho fun and I still miss it today.
What’s the inspiration behind Little Bao?
The inspiration behind Little Bao is really an American diner with a modern Asian twist. It’s very streamlined and modern looking while still retaining the use of stainless steel from diners, plus traditional cha chaan teng tiling, rosewood and bright splashes of colour too. This goes with all the food and service – it’s fun, easy to eat, and the flavours are extremely bright and strongly flavoured with a lot of global and local influences. We use a lot of fine dining techniques for seemingly casual fast food.
I think a lot of people think that we only serve Asian burgers, but we’re taking the concept further with snacks like braised short rib dumplings, fish caramel candied Brussel sprouts, minced shiso pork stuffed eggplant tempura and more, paired with cocktails, wine and artisanal beers.
What’s the story behind the cute Little Bao baby logo?
I wanted to create a friendly mascot with the idea that Little Bao was truly for everyone. I see Little Bao as a “happy meal” for grown-ups so wanted something fun and positive. Little Bao in Chinese is often a child’s name so I envisioned this cheeky naughty little kid constantly eating baos! It is drawn in a retro American way with both American and Chinese facial features as well – many people think it’s me but it’s really not! I have to thank Entendre Studios and Cathlove for helping me realise the brand.
How has your background influenced your style of cooking?
Little Bao is really reflective of the fact I grew up everywhere. My mom used Canadian ingredients to cook Chinese food because she adapted to her environment. I never cooked traditional cuisine; I love creating my own pantry and mixing and matching everything I want to, for instance, we make fried chicken with honey orange salted egg yolk glaze. I like using local ingredients whenever possible to substitute; for example, I’d rather use Chinese pickled mustard greens instead of capers or cornichons. I like using Chinese black vinegar instead of balsamic to make my own “balsamic glaze”.
After cooking for the likes of Yardbird, TBLS and Bo Innovation and doing so many Little Bao pop-ups, what made you decide to take the plunge and open your own restaurant?
I think there was a very large force pushing me to go further – I hit my first midlife crisis where I thought I needed to be farther along at 28, and I also met some crucial people in my life that really inspired me to take things further and encourage me to think that I was talented. I’m also so thankful to the Yardbird crew – they really are our mentors. They do not have any ownership of this project but in terms of support and spirit, they couldn’t have helped us more. I also have my family, friends, girlfriend Sam and my Little Bao crew who have showed immense support and belief in our project, so I constantly strive to be better for them as well.
What were the biggest setbacks you faced in opening your own restaurant and how did you overcome them?
To make ventilation work, to understand all the licensing rules and to manage six different parties at once is a whole new experience for me! Oh, and finding a dishwasher… I almost bowed to her when she agreed to work for us! There are days where I felt like breaking down, but our team was so hands on in every aspect of this project – it feels great to know that we took part in making every decision and we get to see the actual outcome. It is my first baby and I think the whole team feels very involved.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start their own business or restaurant?
I think in some senses, it’s good to be naïve – but remember to find a team of people that can cover your weak points. If you’re not good with numbers, find a partner that is.
What kitchen essentials should we always have stocked in our pantries?
A mortar and pestle. Fish Sauce. Kewpie Mayo. Light and dark soy sauce. Mirin. All sorts of hot sauce. Sesame paste. Sesame oil. Rice wine vinegar. Sugar.
Where are your go-to places to buy ingredients in Hong Kong?
I like chatting to the people at Central Market and Causeway Bay Wet Market – we get our fresh fish and seafood from there. We also have a chicken guy that delivers us fresh chicken everyday, and we like to go to Yuan Heng Spice Co. for all our spices.
What’s your earliest food memory? Have you always wanted to be a chef?
My mom used to say that eating with me was the best because even as a kid, I was so happy and excited whenever I ate something good that just looking at me made everything taste better! She’s my mom though, so she’s probably pretty biased!
I just love everything about food – the creativity, the craftsmanship, the camaraderie, the happiness. I experienced it really young when my mom used to cook at home for 20 odd family members in Canada. I tried to go to college and get a PR/marketing job and be normal, but it just kept calling and calling me in my head… So when I got back to HK, I was like, “It’s now or never!’
How would you compare the dining scene in HK to that Stateside?
I think due to the natural environment of Canada and the US, it’s just easier to get good natural produce at cheaper affordable prices. Also, the rent’s not as expensive, and the place and assets really encourage creative good cooking. Therefore, I don’t blame Hong Kong restaurateurs for wanting to open another Italian or Spanish restaurant here – the risk is much lower. Plus, HK is just a city and they are a country, so I find comparing in that sense unfair. I think more chefs here should try to understand local and Chinese culture as a whole and incorporate it into their food more.
It seems professional kitchens are still largely male-dominated. Did you ever face any sexism in the kitchen? Is it really like Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen in there?!
I was never allowed in the hot kitchen at first. They always sent me off to do pastries for the first few years, but I think that had to do with pastry always being understaffed as well. I actually like pastries, but I didn’t like the fact that I was forced to be there. So I cooked a lot at home, cooked all the staff meals and just observed a lot – but actually, I think this turned out to be a good thing.
Guys are really angry when you stuff ten of them in a tiny hot kitchen – if they had guns in the kitchen, they would start war! There should be more Mom kitchens; I liked it when I went to Vietnam and all the tasty restaurants were mostly woman-dominated. I do get frustrated as well when things don’t come out right, but I think we need to manage our own EQ. There are perks as a woman that I truly embrace – I don’t feel the need to prove that I can carry a 50-pound bag of flour. I just ask one of the guys to do it!
Have you ever faced any homophobia in Hong Kong? What was your experience of “coming out”?
I think I am very comfortable with my sexuality and love who I am as a person. I think no matter who a person is, as long as you feel positive and happy, people automatically love being around you. I was in an Asian interest sorority when I was younger and they completely embraced me; I know all the dirty secrets of girls and guys, ‘cos they all feel like they can share everything with me! I am very thankful for my family and friends for being so open-minded as well. I feel so lucky as a person and all I want to do is share and inspire other people that it’s okay to be different.
You talked in the past about how you didn’t feel you understood yourself growing up in conservative HK. What advice would you give to others that have that similar feeling?
I went to an all-girls school and there were a lot of people that were gay but wanted to play, “One’s the husband and one’s the wife,” type relationships. I never felt like I wanted to be a boy and girlie girls didn’t want to be with other girlie girls – I didn’t get that and I didn’t want to conform, so I didn’t meet my first girlfriend until I was 21 when I was in Boston.
I think I created a lot of boxes for myself to fit into when I was young. I wasn’t good at school, so I thought I wasn’t smart. At one point, I thought I had to carry a Dior bag to show my status. Once I jumped out of one box, then I jumped out of another and another. I really am thankful to have lived in the US, as my friends and the environment there really liberated me to become who I am as a person. I formed my own career, my own views and my own way of loving. I think if I’d stayed in Hong Kong all my life, I would have become a tantrum-throwing princess!
What are the best and worst things about living in Hong Kong?
The worst is that it’s really easy to fall into a boring routine and become obsessed with all things materialistic. I think there’s a small population of people that are really contributing to the local culture of Hong Kong and as I grow older, I learn and appreciate them even more and hold them dear to my heart.
What’s the key to being happy in HK?
Surround yourself with happy people, work and hang with people that inspire you, and don’t make your weekend just about eating, shopping and seeing a movie!
Check out the rest of our That Girls here!