IN THE KITCHEN – EUROPEAN CUISINE
New European dining concept Salisterra at the Upper House Hong Kong
is one of the city’s most talked-about tables. Helen Dalley meets chef Jun Tanaka, who launched the restaurant from London.
REACHES NEW HEIGHTS
Was it always your intention to open a restaurant in Hong Kong?
No! It happened completely naturally. In November 2019, I was introduced to the director of restaurants at Swire through a mutual friend, and they were looking to change Café Gray to a new concept, as it’d been there for 10 years. They were looking at a lot of different chefs and didn’t even know about me at the time. I’d heard of the Upper House – it was where my wife had her hen do – so I knew their reputation and that piqued my interest. But I’d have to pitch against other chefs and it was a full-on brief! I remember the cut-off date was 18 January, and I just wondered if it was realistic. Every year, we go to Thailand to see my wife’s parents, so my Swire contact asked me to just come over to the Upper House to have a look at the hotel. As soon I saw the hotel and experienced the service, I was blown away. I thought it would be a great thing for my career and also it was a challenge – to launch a new restaurant in a different country. When these opportunities come up, you just have to grab them.
Tell us how you dealt with setting up a restaurant from 6,000 miles away
I started the project mid-March 2020 just before the lockdown. I began to think I might not get over there, so came up with the idea of doing recipe presentations for the dish, step-by-step photos of how to make a ravioli, or a particular sauce. For the more complex recipes, we did videos. All the Viennoiserie, for example, are freshly made every day, so we rented a kitchen in London then filmed ourselves making the different items. It was the best way to communicate a recipe. The hardest thing was conveying flavour, and not being able to taste the dishes, so we just tried to explain the balance of flavours. For example, the seabass should be salty on the outside with a delicate flavour of basil. Then for front of house, I did a video explaining the inspiration behind the dish, how it’s cooked and so on. I still haven’t managed to get to Hong Kong yet. I can’t wait to get out there.
How often do you hope to visit and how much input will you have into menus?
I’m hoping to go out five weeks every year, perhaps three times a year, to catch up with the team to build relationships and improve the dishes. We’re working on updating the menu constantly – we’ve already changed the menus and will do so again, and we’ll do the same recipe presentations for staff in Hong Kong. I’m always going to be very involved in the menus, alongside the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Chris Czerwinski.
Is there much synergy between your restaurant in London, the Ninth, and Salisterra or are they two very separate entities?
There is definitely familiarity in terms of the flavour profile, but as an experience, it’s completely different. The Ninth is a neighbourhood restaurant, relaxed and casual, whereas Salisterra is very refined in terms of presentation and style. I still wouldn’t say Salisterra is fine dining, though. We’ve never wanted to call it that, and there isn’t foams, jellies and powders on the plate because that’s not what we’re about. The food is relaxed but the Chinaware and the crockery is more upmarket but in terms of the recipes, they are essentially the same.
What did you find most challenging about setting up a restaurant in a pandemic?
Not being able to meet the team. That team spirit and that connection is very difficult when you’re doing it virtually. To try and get their trust over a screen takes longer, but I think we’ve done it.
Which restaurants do you hope to visit when you get over to Hong Kong?
I’ve got a list of places I want to go – Arcane, Shane Osborne’s restaurant, a little neighbourhood place called Jean Mei run by Tiffany Lo. Then Yardbird as I love izakaya food. I’ve never eaten in a three Michelin-starred restaurant, so Tang Court is definitely on the list too.
What lessons have you learned over the past 18 months?
That you have to put the welfare of employees above the welfare of the business. For many businesses, their kneejerk reaction was to lay off staff. But essentially, what is a restaurant? It’s a collection of people who work there to cook and serve the food, and without them all you have is a shell. The pandemic made me realise that businesses have to put people first.
Are there any positives to come out of the pandemic for restaurants?
People took restaurants for granted, but now they really do appreciate them. Before, you might just go to a named chain restaurant. But I think there’s going to be a lot less of that, and independent or unique restaurants may do better, because when people do go out, they’re going to put a little bit more thought into it and really enjoy themselves. Meeting up with family and friends is more special and it seems that people spend more time choosing where to eat than they did previously.
Do you have plans to open any other restaurants or is two enough?
At the moment, there’s no plan, but I’m always open to opportunities. As I said, I didn’t have plans to open a second! salisterra.thehousecollective.com