Going private kitchen

All I had been thinking about for much of last week revolved around planning and preparing for my first private kitchen event.  I began entertaining the notion of doing such a thing about a month ago, when I discovered that there were a number of private kitchens in Hong Kong.  Dinner parties have always appealed to me; a lowkey, well-cooked dinner in a cozy atmosphere over one or several bottles of wine, in the company of people one enjoys, makes for an ideal evening any day of the week.  Since my experience with cooking is spotty, I thought hosting a private kitchen would be a great challenge, especially without my own kitchen space.  But I figured that the experience would also grant me a new perspective on food and a richer appreciation for it. And mostly, I just get a huge kick out of sharing my passion for food with others: of spreading the foodie love.

I wanted to create a menu inspired by my own palate, one that made honest attempts at coherence and creativity.  Disparate foods kept popping up in my head (salmon head and blue cheeseburgers, for example), but they all stood firmly on common ground as foodstuffs I thoroughly enjoy.  Slowly, ingredients, random ideas, and recipes came together, and in gratuitously circuitous fashion, I committed myself to this menu for the night:

appetizer: steamed salmon head over buckwheat noodles, served with soy-sesame-scallion dressing
course 1: bulgogi-rice patty ‘burgers’, served with sugared tomatoes and japanese cucumber relish
course 2: a variation on asian lettuce wraps, served with sweet potato noodles
course 3: classic blue cheese burgers
dessert: rice crispy treats with coconut milk

To my delight, I ended up with something that reflects my trifold fondness for Western, Asian, and somewhere-in-between cuisines. And while I hadn’t made a single one of these ‘dishes’ before last week, I felt relatively confident that my culinary genius (more like my heavy hand with seasonings and a generous dose of luck) would, at the very least, not flat out embarrass me.

On the big day, I managed to escape a potential predicament or two (rice stubbornly resistant to binding) and had a wonderful time with my private kitchen guinea pigs. It helped tremendously that they were an encouraging and supportive bunch, and I thank them heartily for their daring in agreeing to subject themselves to my experiment.

Here’s how the dishes turned out (thanks to g for being the fill-in food pornographer 🙂 ).

I wanted the appetizer to feature the absolute deliciousness that is salmon head, so I simply seasoned the heads with some salt and pepper and steamed them, then stripped off the meat and served it over a bed of buckwheat noodles. The dressing was equally simple: I heated until boiling a mixture of soy sauce, scallions, and sesame oil, and threw in a dash of ground ginger.  See that piece of meat sitting on top?  That’s the fish cheek — in my humble opinion, the best damn part of the fish.  It’s soft as a baby’s bottom, tender, and insanely succulent.  For me, this dish was all about channeling Mark Bittman’s minimalism, and I was extremely pleased with the outcome.

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The bulgogi patties were my Asian interpretation of the classic American burger, and though the execution on the rice patties was lacking, the bulgogi received thumbs up all around.  I loosely followed this marinade recipe, which served me well. I also think the sugared tomatoes, a traditional Northern Chinese preparation, were a strong complement to the bulgogi, as was the cucumber relish.

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For a riff on Asian lettuce wraps, I minced a bunch of oyster mushrooms and cabbage, some preserved Chinese sausages, and dried turnips. I also wanted to use bean curd skin, as I am partial to its chewy texture, so I threw some of that in as well. All this was sauteed with soy sauce, chinkiang vinegar, brown sugar, and sriracha. I originally used the brown sugar to dull some of the heat from the hot sauce, but it ended up being a bit overpowering. Nevertheless, with some tweaks, I think this one is a keeper.

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Then the BURGERS!!!  One food I have been consistently craving since coming to HK.  Though I wasn’t able to taste one, my guests robustly approved, which was good enough for me.  Again, I channeled some of MB’s minimalism, and just seasoned the beef with s&p (here I realized that high quality ground beef does make a difference) before tossing it with some mustard and an egg.  Having no grill, I opted to cook them over high heat on the induction cooker while the buns were toasting, and then finished it all off with a few minutes in the oven.  These ended up more cooked than I would have liked, as I was being overly cautious, but they looked and smelled fantastic.

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Finally, I decided to serve a classic American dessert, rice krispy treats, but substituted some coconut milk for butter to keep things interesting.  I tested out this whim earlier in the week, and ended up with soggy and overly coconut-y rice krispy treats, so I adjusted the proportions, and this time ended up with glorious results. The finished product is topped with toasted coconut and peanut m&ms.  Rice krispies are ridiculously easy to make, and at the end of a busy night, they really hit the spot.  I would just make sure to give them at least a couple hours to rest before digging in — your tastebuds will be duly rewarded.

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However time-consuming and draining it was, the evening far exceeded my expectations. I pestered my diners for suggestions (and got some compliments along the way), experienced a genuine sense of accomplishment, and felt deeply connected to both the people and the food in a new way. I am currently planning another private kitchen session in two weeks, and my hope is that this evening was only the first of many of its kind.

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Two pennies on private kitchens

From multiple sources, both online and in person, word is that private kitchens provide some of the best dining experiences to be had in Hong Kong, and they specialize in a variety of cuisines ranging from French to Shanghainese to Southern comfort.  Though I had heard vague references to the concept while living in New York, most of what I knew about it revolved around the hyperpriceyness and ‘haute’ connotations of such affairs, two things that really turn me off.

Still, I found the notion of private kitchens highly appealing for several reasons.  One is the very basic idea of sitting down for a high-quality meal at a home (albeit not generally one’s own).  You, the diner, directly interacts with the individuals who shop for and cook the food you eat, allowing for a heightened knowledge of the contents on your plate and a deeper appreciation for the person who has prepared your meal.  Sure, the producers of your food are a few steps removed — ideally, just one — but life isn’t perfect.  There is also the sense that those running the kitchen have designed and cooked the meal specifically for you.  As the experience brings both of you together, it ensures that the chef likewise feels a stronger connection to those for whom s/he is cooking, making it likely that more TLC will go into your meal and that your specific taste preferences will be taken into consideration (for example, see the first kitchen review mentioned in this article).  This personalization of the dining experience signifies something precious to me that seems sorely lacking in today’s restaurant culture, even at high end dining establishments.

I’ve been scoping out the private kitchen scene here (though have not tried any yet), and I’m glad to report that while prices vary considerably, they are generally much cheaper than their counterparts in the States (and I think I am justified in using NYC as a benchmark because both New York and Hong Kong Island are densely populated and cosmopolitan urban centers).  These kitchens seem to be an underground thing here as well, though I can’t be sure that they are free of the pretentions that defines my impression of those in New York.  In general though, food appreciation in Hong Kong is incredibly pervasive and more of a cultural attitude than a cultivated habit — it’s more democratic, in that sense.  My goal is to cook more often and save up the money to indulge in these kinds of places — while they’re cheaper, they aren’t cheap.  I’ve also realized recently that I will often go out to a nice restaurant only to restrict myself to a limited portion of the menu, because I’m being stingy, and thus not afford myself the dining experience I could have had.  I deeply dislike that feeling, that unhappy oscillation between guilt and regret, and I think my resolution will help me avoid putting myself in that undesirable position.