14 November, 2012

That Girl: Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry

14 November, 2012

This week’s That Girl is super inspiring chef and all-round cool chick Peggy Chan, founder of Sassy fave Grassroots Pantry. If you’re looking for delish organic vegetarian food served in a gorgeous homely environment, you’ll love her restaurant just as much as we do (check out our full review here)!

We find out more about Peggy’s ‘conscious eating’ lifestyle, her earliest food memories, the best places to pick up organic ingredients in HK and the joys (and difficulties!) of starting your own restaurant.

Fill us in on your background… Are you and your family originally from Hong Kong?
I was born in Hong Kong before moving to Canada at the age of 5. My entire family are all huge foodies therefore many of my childhood memories revolve around Vietnamese bánh mì and pho from Montreal Chinatown, French fine dining, French onion soup and barbecued ribs from Bar-B-Barn!

My mother’s side is originally from Hong Kong with Uighur, Xinjiang blood, and my father from a tiny village in Guangdong. Because of their respect for ancestral history, I have also been taught to love and respect our elders and traditions that have been passed down for years. After moving back to Hong Kong aged 9, my father made a point for us travel to all parts of China every chance we had – Nanjing, Guilin, Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou… I’ve travelled to the poorest slums being forced to try the most bizarre foods (pig’s brain, fried maggots, a beating snakes heart!) yet gratefully, I would always return home to my mom’s fabulous home cooking. My mother is a wonderful host, cook and a nifty decorator, which I believe is where I got those talents.

Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live in a remodelled apartment located on the 5th floor of an old walk-up building in Sai Ying Pun (5 minutes walk from Grassroots Pantry). I liked that it was designed in a simple and modern fashion with a 700ft rooftop. As most of my stuff are antiques, Indian-inspired or have a countryside feel to them, the juxtaposition of old and new really attracted me to rent this apartment.

How would you describe your personal style? Where do you shop?
These days, I find myself in loose t-shirts, leggings with holes in them and classic Toms more than anything else. It’s just so much easier to slip into my chef’s jacket in the morning! However, I have a love for all things beautiful – and that includes fashion. Believe it or not, I had actually thought of pursuing a fashion design career before going into culinary!

I feel best in bohemian and vintage inspired outfits – overly worn jeans, an old vintage pair of leather shoes, loose classic rock tees and Indian fabrics and patterns. In the last year however, I’ve been more inspired by browns and beige, loose blouses and that Barcelonian summer look.

My best bet when it comes to shopping is places where I know I’d be able to find something that fits – Initial and its imported brands like Tucker, I.T, Massimo Dutti, Urban Outfitters online, thrift stores such as Select 18 on Bridges Street, and one-of-a-kind pieces I buy from one of my Grassroots Pantry girls, VicandLily.

What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
Cafe Gray Deluxe – my friend Joey, the Chef de Cuisine there, is amazing! He’s probably one of the most talented, humble, passionate and kind-hearted chefs I know. Along with Chef Gray’s philosophy on paying full support to sustainable agriculture, they create magic. Every time I go there, I get inspired.

Amber is my guilty pleasure. It’s probably the only fine dining restaurant I know of in HK that caters 100% to vegetarian diners – and by that I don’t mean steamed vegetables and pasta! Chef Ekkebus is genius.

What inspired you to start Grassroots Pantry and offer cooking workshops there too? How long did it take from your original concept to actually opening the restaurant?
The last two years of travel and working abroad in Tokyo definitely gave me the confidence to finally start up my own business. I have been reading about food politics and sustainable agriculture for years, but when I found myself talking more and more about it to my colleagues while working in five star hotels, it amazed me how little truth was known and how much was hidden from the public.

The concept only came to life a little over a year ago. I had dreams of opening up my own restaurant ten years ago but nobody knew it would be Grassroots Pantry! It took about 9 months from conceptualising to seeing the final product, but the hardest months were definitely the last three. I had SO much to do with SO little time… I lost so much hair and shed so many pounds – the realities of being a sole restaurant owner! Major props go to one of my closest friends of 20 years, who is also my marketing manager, Chevi. She fought out the toughest times with me and learnt everything about a restaurant operation from scratch, all within three months.

Which is your favourite dish at Grassroots? Which is the most popular?
They’re all favourites – that’s why they’re on our menu, however limited the choices may be! The most popular would have to be the mushroom linguine. I call it the converter dish and doubt any meat eater would have trouble giving up meat for ONE day out of a week devouring that dish!

What inspired you to start your ‘conscious eating’ lifestyle? Can you tell us more about it? Is it difficult to maintain in HK?
It all really sprouted from animal welfare and how deeply I felt about suffering and non-violence. It was 12 years ago when I stopped eating red meat, and slowly, through lots of research and writing papers at university, I found out that not only does meat consumption affect our health and wellbeing, it also links directly to political, economical, environmental and social issues. The injustice of it all really pushed me to go ‘vegetarian’. I do not like labels though and I will always support farmers who treat their work, their animals and produce with pride, respect and care.

Staying a vegetarian really isn’t that difficult if you learn to see things in the bigger picture. When you think about it, 97% of food supply in Hong Kong is imported… and then you have people complaining why sirloin steak or French cheese is so expensive in Hong Kong. Well because they’re imported!! We’ve relied way too much on this heavily manipulated economy and see way too little of what truly matters – food, shelter, community. If people would just try to understand the entire process of how food actually gets on their plates, they would become vegetarian too. On a different note, I cook my meals 90% of the time and eat out very rarely, and that’s also why it would be easier for me to stay a vegetarian compared to, let’s say, a financier in Central.

What were the biggest setbacks you faced in opening your own restaurant and how did you overcome them?
I had fears that what I practiced and what I had worked so hard for would not be accepted by the public. This includes my cooking, my intentions to bring good clean food to EVERYONE, and building a community that gives without asking for anything back. There are still people out there who have yet to understand, but with the amount of support and love we have received so far, that positive energy has definitely kept us going.

You designed all of Grassroots Pantry yourself; where are the best places to pick up some great knick-knacks, antiques and other vintage items?
Sham Shui Po. In between streets of fabrics are corner stores filled with ancient treasures, and for a very good deal too! Shambala at Horizon Plaza in Ap Lei Chau is a great place to find beautiful furniture and decor if you’re looking to spend. I also love Offspring and Mushroom for adorable vintage remakes. But I say always be on the lookout for antiques everywhere you travel – you may come across one-of-a-kind treasures for very affordable prices.

We’ve also heard you have a little rooftop garden. What kind of plants could those of us who have little/no outdoor space in our apartments attempt to grow?
Italian basil, lemon balm and mint are all very easy to grow in a typical Hong Kong home.

Where are the best places in HK for us to buy good quality organic ingredients?
There really aren’t that many options – Green Dot Dot for grains, Just Green and Health Essential for interesting ingredients you can’t find anywhere else, and right at the farms for produce. To be honest, there still is SO much to do with the organic market here in HK and on the priority list would be to eventually decrease prices on organic goods. It truly depends on the demand. Consumers get what consumers want and so I urge everyone to clear the supermarket shelves of organic products. If we learn to reward ourselves with good clean food instead of another luxury branded handbag, then in comparison, certified organic foods really aren’t that expensive.

What’s your earliest food memory? Have you always wanted to be a chef?
I grew up around Tai Hang and my late grandfather used to run a roast meat shop there before we were even born. So when he retired, he used to take my brother and I to this teahouse to hang out with his Tai Hang buddies. After tea, he would bring us to a local convenience store (which I can still remember the smell of!) and buy us each a Kinder chocolate egg. The highlight of my childhood.

That first flight we took immigrating to Canada was the first time I ever had packet cheddar cheese and crackers and completely fell in love with anything cheese from then on! My first fine dining experience was at a famous restaurant called Les Halles in Montreal, Canada and I remember having foie gras terrine and raspberry sorbet at the tender age of six. Those flavours still linger but what l can’t seem to fathom is how they would ever let three kids into a fine dining French restaurant…!

I only realised I feel most at ease in the kitchen two years ago. So I would never be able to take the honour of being called a Chef. Food and Beverage is without a doubt in my blood, but it’s the entire experience that counts.

What do you think is the key to being happy in Hong Kong?
The key to happiness in HK is to find comfort in being alone, to do things out of the norm. Travel to the outskirts and districts unheard of and get lost; ask for less when everyone else is asking for more. Let go of pride, embrace humility and learn that greeting the fruit vendor at the corner store on your way to work every morning can actually bring you so much joy!

Finally, any advice for anyone wanting to start their own business or restaurant?
Everyone wants to be a restaurant owner, but it takes years of knowledge, experience, physical (and emotional) pain and LOTS of sacrifice for one to even gain the slight bit of confidence to get to a managerial position, let alone run an establishment entirely on your own. Hard work and passion will pay off. Learn to be flexible and become a problem solver, not a worrier.

All photos in the That Girl article above were taken by the hugely talented Sabrina Sikora of Sabrina Sikora Photography – get in touch with her at [email protected].

Check out the rest of our That Girls here!

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