Monday, June 4, 2012

Food Hero Tuesday: Interview with Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry

Note from the Editor: Every Tuesday, TFT HK will bring you a post or article from/about one of our local or global food heroes. These are people who inspire us, and whose visions align with the values that TFT espouses and promotes. This week's post is an interview with Peggy Chan, rising star of the Hong Kong dining scene and sustainable food system champion. Chan, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute, Hotel Institute of Montreux, and Swiss Hotel Management School, is the founder, director, and chef manager of Grassroots Pantry--a new cafe and workshop that focuses on health through eating; green values; local and sustainable food systems; and plant-based cooking and eating--in Sai Ying Pun. Peggy, we at TFT HK salute you!
Chef Chan in the kitchen

Grassroots Pantry
Grassroots Pantry staff

Hi Peggy! First of all, thanks so much for being willing to share with us today. We’re very excited about your new project, Grassroots Pantry, in Sai Ying Pun. Can you tell us more about it?

Grassroots Pantry is a lifestyle boutique cafe dedicated to inspiring a healthier, cleaner and more equal world. About 85% of our ingredients are organic, the produce is mostly sourced from local HK organic farms, and 90% of our menu is plant-based. We are constantly changing our specials according to what we have in season, because our bodies naturally react better when we eat with the season. GP is located on a quiet alleyway off Third Street, between Western Street and Pok Fu Lam Road. I picked this location because the rent is much more affordable, the neighborhood is slowly reinventing itself, we have great access to both locals and expats of all different income levels, and I wanted my shop front to be free of vehicle traffic. We quietly opened last week on the 24th, and are planning our grand opening for the 26th of June.

We can’t wait to be frequent visitors to GP! When and where did your interest in food begin and how did you decide to be a chef?

I started cooking and baking as a little girl and grew up watching my mom prepare abalone and shark's fin feasts at home. We are all serious foodies at home. I was lucky enough to eat out everywhere and had my first French fine dining experience at age six (how they ever let us in is a whole other topic to discuss...). At 16, I started working part-time at the first Starbucks that ever opened in HK as a barista, and kind of found my niche. But I still had no idea that women could be “Chefs”. I went to first year of university studying fine arts. One evening a personal guardian angel of mine, while eating a meal I had cooked for him, suggested that I check out culinary school. The next day, I enrolled and that was when it all happened. But I do not like to call myself a “Chef”. I have worked with numerous amazing Chefs throughout the years, at multiple Michelin-starred establishments, and what I do does not compare to their accomplishments (and all the years they have worked to get where they are). I am simply a home cook who is also classically and professionally trained.

It sounds like you were destined to be in the food industry. How and when did you develop a commitment to sustainable values, especially as related to food/eating?

I stopped eating red meat 12 years ago, in consideration of animal welfare, and started reading a lot on food politics and sustainable agriculture. The inequality in our food system really struck me. Slowly I found myself writing more and more about food issues throughout Business and Hotel School, when I really should have been doing my thesis on “How to make money by providing good customer service”; but such topics felt insubstantial to me, in light of what I had learned. I have always been a conscious, healthy eater, and slowly, I became a full-on vegetarian. I see vegetarianism as the most sustainable way to live and to eat, and it just made sense to me. Through Grassroots Pantry, we hope to allow more people to understand this movement as well. People should internalize this knowledge—not for me, for you, or for themselves, but for the betterment of our planet and for future generations.

What do you love and hate about Hong Kong as a food city?

Love: You really do get a lot of variety, cooked pretty decently. Hate: The same F&B chains run everything, and the concepts get reworked over and over again. I believe every business and every trade has a responsibility to give back and to provide for people who are in need.

Who are some of your own food heroes?

Dr. Vandana Shiva: An Indian professor, philosopher and environmentalist who fights for an equal and sustainable food system. AND not to mention, a woman of true values.

Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver: both doing AMAZING things—teaching children about the origins of food, to eat better, and to give back to the planet. We are currently collaborating with schools and a children-run non-profit to do similar things in Hong Kong.

Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry: amazing food sustainability and agriculture writers.

Carlo Petrini: the founder of the Slow Food Movement and UNISG.

Are you noticing a shift in Hong Kong mentality, in regards to interest in food origin and sustainable food systems?

Definitely! This is why all these organic shops are popping up! Farming seems to be the new “trend” these days but agriculture is not a trend. It's an ongoing, labor-intensive industry. Every society begins with agriculture. Unfortunately, what is borne out of this welcome and necessary shift in mentality (i.e. expensive organic produce and dining options) does not always cater to middle-class and lower-wage families. And this is why, at Grassroots Pantry, we want to create a menu that is both affordable and nutritious. We want EVERY person and EVERY child to be able to eat healthy and organic.

Thank you so much for your time, and for being a TFT HK Food Hero! Can you share a simple recipe with our readers?

Brown rice has been my staple for years. This is a simple recipe I make at home, and it's very similar to the Japanese dish we have at GP:

- 200g firm tofu
- 20 mL tamari gluten free soya sauce
- 10 mL 100% pure sesame oil
- Black Pepper

- Seasonal leafy greens

- 2 cup brown rice
- 4 cups water

- 2 tbsp Tahini paste
- 1 tbsp White miso paste
- 10 mL Lemon Juice
- Black Pepper
- 5-10 mL Filtered water to thin out dressing

1. Marinate tofu for 15 minutes.
2. Steam brown rice for 35 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
3. Mix all ingredients for tahini miso dressing together. Reserve.
4. Steam leafy greens in steamer (or create your own!) Season with soya sauce.
5. Sear tofu until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes.
6. Serve with brown rice on bottom, leafy greens and tofu on top,  and dress with tahini miso dressing.

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