maître d’ - Ta Pantry, Hong Kong
Written by Nicholas Walton
With room for just a handful of guests per night, eclectic Shanghainese and Japanese menus, and a waiting list as long as your arm, Hong Kong’s Ta Pantry epitomises the city’s dynamic and colourful private kitchen scene.
It’s a restaurant with only one table, taking one booking a night. There’s only one chef and she also plays waiter. The kitchen is open and homely. But for fans of private kitchens, or for would-be dinner party hosts lacking the space to entertain, Wan Chai’s Ta Pantry is heaven-sent. With a dining table that seats no more than ten, a comfortable lounge and furnished terrace, this pint-sized kitchen is the domain of model-turned-chef Esther Sham (a.k.a. Chef Tata), who apprentices at Michelin-starred Amber by day, and runs her own intimate affair by night.
“I started Ta Pantry because I was frustrated with the dining scene in Hong Kong,” says the elfin-like Sham. “There are too many restaurants that are all about making profits, and which serve food that lacks originality and soul. And if you want privacy, you have to pay a premium at fine-dining restaurants.”
Born in Hong Kong to Shanghainese parents, Sham spent years studying in Los Angeles before travelling the world pursuing her modelling career. But her passion for food soon won over, leading to work experience at two-Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
Now she hosts dinner parties most nights of the week from her tiny Star Street eatery, where guests choose from either a Shanghainese or Japanese menu, inspired by the dishes of Sham’s childhood, and featuring the likes of foie gras tamago custard with Asian mushrooms; miso cod with sweet daikon carpaccio and tomato coulis; whole ‘melting’ onion duck, carved at the table; and the most popular, the clay pot ‘Not-So-Shanghainese’ foie gras Shanghai wontons, served in a rich Chinese mushroom broth.
“My dad is from Shanghai so I grew up with Shanghainese food. In this dish, I’ve incorporated traditional wontons with Western cooking methods and ingredients, and it’s a hit with many of my guests.”
These mouth-watering dishes are matched with a well-constructed wine list featuring Old and New World favourites of Andrew Sham, Esther’s wine distributor brother, with six-course set menus priced at a very reasonable HK$500 per person.
Hong Kong, China
As dynamic and fascinating as it is, Hong Kong’s private kitchen scene has evolved out of necessity. With some of the world’s highest real estate prices, and a food culture that’s as eclectic as it is diverse, cash-strapped chefs had little choice but to turn to cheap commercial buildings and tiny residential flats in which to create their unique establishments.
For some chefs, it was all about making a living, especially those from mainland China, who arrived in Hong Kong with little more than knowledge of the regional cuisine they had grown up on. Fortunately, increased interest in regional cuisine in an increasingly ‘Chinese’ Hong Kong has seen many underground restaurants open, serving up everything from Shanghai dumplings to fiery Szechuan hotpot.
Private kitchens also offer chefs a chance to be more creative, and to smash culinary conventions, without the overheads of a large showcase restaurant. Fusion cuisine, test kitchens for larger restaurants, and a new found enthusiasm for communal dining ensure these colourful corners of the city have a healthy, and well-fed, future.