Chili crab in the Temple Street Night Market
FIFTH COURSE: BEAN-CURD DESSERTS AND CLAMS IN BLACK-BEAN SAUCE
Today, our last full day in Hong Kong, we are hung over as all hell. This is poorly timed, since this morning we face a hilly trek across Lamma Island, a hippie expat haven.
Though the bowl of diner-style beef ramen I tried to put down for breakfast helped during the quick ride on the subway, we are now sitting on a ferry, rocking sickeningly from side to side in stormy waters. Jamie settles in and starts telling me a story about the time he nearly capsized in Tulum, Mexico — but stops suddenly as the ferry sets out into the storm, violently slamming down on the wave crests. I eye the cracked windows and try to formulate an escape plan should I be inclined to toss my cookies on the couple in front of me.
Once we make it to Lamma, it's a different story. We've been dropped into a quiet paradise, lush with banana leaves and bright flowers and twisty vines lining the paths. We set off on the Family Trail, the main paved route up and over the mountains to the other side of the bay, stopping once for a few bites of slippery bean curd (served cold, please) laced with lightly sweet cane-sugar syrup. It's the only thing the older man running this huddle of outdoor benches serves.
As we buckle down into the hike, though, our hangovers come surging back. My heart is trying to beat its way out of my chest, and we're all sweating a little more than we should be. "Damn you, Janet Kim!" Jamie says, and we can't stop laughing since we've just caught a glimpse of the next hill — totally vertical — that lies ahead. Fred, who admitted to us during the ascent to the Big Buddha that he never works out, is huffing and puffing behind me. As Jamie launches into a story about the trouble he, chef Matt Jennings of Providence's Farmstead, and chef Chris Cosentino of San Franciso's Incanto got into during the James Beard Awards, we pass a tiny farm tucked off the main path, with neat rows of green shoots popping through the dirt.
By the time we're seated at the waterfront Rainbow Café, plowing through soft lobster and more clams in black-bean sauce and fried rice, watching the docked boats bobbing gently, our hangovers have subsided, and the only sound is the clanging of ship's bells somewhere in the distance and the clinking of clamshells as they hit our plates.
Fish for sale in Wan Chai
As any hardcore kid will tell you, a show is all about a fluid interaction between the band and the crowd. No pedestals, no barriers. As we sit, mulling over our last cups of tea and watching the water, I begin to understand the way Jamie runs his restaurants and plays a part in the culinary community. It's the mirror image to a bunch of kids, rushing the stage and screaming into a mic along with the band. He is his customers.
"I think that hardcore, straight edge, and being into that culture most of my life has really molded me into who I am," he says. "Being social at a show, having friends that were different than us was a part of it. The dichotomy in the hardcore scene is similar to the one in the hospitality industry — some of my closest friends in the restaurant biz are totally fucking different than I am."
"Like travelling in a new city as a hardcore kid, when we travel as chefs and restaurant professionals, we take care of each other," he finishes. I think back to the pictures of Andrew Zimmern in Ser Wong Fun.
There are more than 11,000 restaurants in Hong Kong, and after four days of literally constant eating — a meal here, a bite swiped from something in the market, a snack there — we've touched on less than an iota of them. Even Jamie, who has seen a good chunk of the world, admits he's never experienced such a wide swath of variety in one place.
>> PHOTOS: Jamie Bissonnette in Hong Kong <<
People in Hong Kong eat like food is a routine, a ceremony, and a treat, all at once. It came across to me, a Westerner who regularly partakes in the ever-trendy practice of food worship, as a razor-fine balance of necessity and indulgence — it is more than okay to be blown away by your food, but it's also okay to understand that it's just sustenance, so calm down already. This ideology happens to exactly align with how Jamie operates. Food is not an art, he'll tell you. It's a trade. All that matters is how it tastes.
Isn't taste in itself an art? Maybe, maybe not, but as Jamie leans back in his seat, puts down his chopsticks, and says, "I'm in fucking heaven right now" once more for good measure, I'm inclined to think it is.
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