The artist behind the chef: Howard Cai of Howard’s Gourmet

Updated on December 6 2016

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of enjoying a meal at Howard’s Gourmet would be surprised to know that the restaurant’s thoughtful and introspective eponymous chef, Howard Cai, hasn’t always been in the kitchen. In fact, he started out his career for many years as a civil servant and trained chemist, and only began cooking for himself and close friends when he was living in the United States and became dissatisfied with the quality of Chinese restaurants there.

Upon returning to Guangzhou, friends encouraged him to open a restaurant — a small, speakeasy-type place which has steadily risen to critical acclaim over the past decade and now counts many celebrities amongst its loyal patrons. In December 2015, Cai launched Howard’s Gourmet, his first restaurant outside the mainland, in collaboration with Lai Sun Group. We recently sat down with the well-respected food and whisky connoisseur to look back on the restaurant’s first year, discuss food as science and an art form, and talk about why a Michelin star isn’t likely to be in his future.

Note: This interview has been translated from Cantonese to English. 

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How did you eventually find yourself in the kitchen after starting off your career as a civil servant?
I didn’t take the traditional route to become a chef. I decided to go into cooking because it was something I enjoyed, particularly discovering new tastes, exploring good food and flavours and eventually making my own signature taste. I wanted to create a contemporary taste that fits with modern times, not constantly bring back vintage tastes and culinary methods. Twelve years ago, I opened a restaurant in Guangzhou, a small restaurant, and it marked the beginning of my cooking journey.

What made you decide to open your first restaurant?
Firstly, I couldn’t eat what I wanted to eat when I went out to dine. Secondly, the economic environment in America had changed. After 9/11, my fertiliser factory had to close and I had to find a new way to make a living — so why not be a chef? After all, I’ve had experience using the method of experimentation in labs in my factory. It’s crucial to know the basic formulas of cooking. It’s the chemical constitutions that make cooking tasty. That’s why I came to Guangzhou after 9/11 to start my own restaurant, which opened in 2005. 

Tell us about your vision for Howard’s Gourmet in Guangzhou.
I couldn’t buy a lot of ingredients to produce a huge variety of dishes on the menu. Instead, I observed how other fine dining restaurants functioned, those with seating under 50, where they had a set menu. Due to the finite seating, I wanted to bring the freshest ingredients and tastiest dishes for my customers. The beginning was tough, so how did influential people come to my restaurant? It was because I had a lot of media relations since I wrote for a lot of media outlets. I wrote articles on wine pairing, whiskies, etc.  This was how people came to know me and my cooking. I am super confident that once people have tasted my food, that’s all it takes to win them over, to recognise my cooking talent and ability.

Avocado with stewed bird's nest
Edible works of art include avocado with stewed bird’s nest.

How did you choose Hong Kong as the destination for your first international venture?
When people heard of Howard’s Gourmet in Guangzhou, people would purposefully take the train to come to the restaurant. Over the years, I’d cultivated a huge Macau-Hong Kong-Canton customer base, and within that I’ve come to know many different gourmands and epicureans. Peter Lam [Chairman of Lai Sun Group] advised me to branch out my concept into Hong Kong and I listened.

Take us through the process in executing a dish. How does science and chemistry come into play?
Because I’m not a traditional chef, I don’t cook following precise traditional steps. I follow the idea of reconstructing and recombining tastes and flavours. This is different to traditional concepts where you just cook something from raw to well done. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t take the road of many traditional chefs — they had to really master their craft under arduous circumstances, lift woks and be near hot flames constantly, but since everyone is talking about a healthier lifestyle now, I thought it would be better to cook in ways that are more precise and less heavy. Undoubtedly, this has strong Western influences, but the Chinese flavour is essential.

What to you is the difference between Chinese fine dining and Western fine dining?
In the past 11 years, I’ve been thinking about how to craft high-end Chinese dining. I believe it’s not about expensive ingredients but how good it tastes. If you compare my restaurant to Michelin-starred Western restaurants, we share similar aspects in terms of service and environment. What really differentiates us is the food, the authentic Chinese taste of the dishes and the choice of ingredients. I believe if you put your heart into seeking out the best ingredients and the best way to cook, creating your own culinary story,  this is how customers recognise what is delicious and what really makes us special. Pricey dishes do not equate to pricey ingredients; I use around 60% local ingredients in my restaurants because of the freshness of the ingredients, which is extremely valuable.

Howard Cai (2)
“Once people have tasted my food, that’s all it takes to win them over,” says the 50-year-old chef.

Chinese cuisine is traditionally doused in sauces and spices. How do you create a more refined, “less is more” approach?
This approach is a sign that times are changing for the better. In olden times, we were poorer, so our staple food was rice. This meant we wanted dishes with more sauce since we couldn’t afford to buy more ingredients to cook more food. Since times have changed, we need to go along this current and explore new options. A majority, say 70-80% of the chefs in Hong Kong, usually make too much sauce, since they’re used to old habits of making dishes. Me, on the other hand, I’m more precise with my quantities and flavour. I don’t need oversaturation in flavour but I want to get it perfect.

Favourite dish in the restaurant?
Guests always ask me if there’s a particular signature dish I’m best at making, but there’s not. Every dish I serve is the best that I can make and every day, we offer new dishes. Some customers may request a specific dish to eat again, so I suppose that is what becomes popular and well-known.

How do you feel about the celebrity following in your restaurants?
I feel that it’s pretty normal; sometimes I don’t recognise the celebrities when they come eat. Over time, I’ve become close with some of them and I’ve observed that most celebrities are all incredibly hardworking people with very high standards for food, much like me.

Do you identify as an artist as well as a chef?
I can’t say I’m artistically inclined, because I feel that food is too temporary, since it disappears the moment you eat it. However, I still think it’s art, such as you can pass on a recipe to the next generation and you can still sell cuisine for a high price. A good artist is like a good chef; they’re both able to evoke strong emotions from their audience. The difference between them is the way they appreciate their choice of ingredients for their ‘art’.

Hot & Sour noodles soup
Hot and sour soup noodles at Howard’s Gourmet.

What is your next goal? Any long-term ambitions, perhaps a Michelin star down the line?
I’ve only been in Hong Kong for one year, so Howard’s Gourmet is still a baby. It still needs to accumulate customers and friends, and appreciation for this cuisine. Right now, I can’t tell you about any plans for the future, but I definitely don’t have aims to earn a Michelin star. This is because my way of running my restaurant is different to the way Michelin assesses restaurants — I definitely think having a Michelin star will draw in more crowds, due to the market nature of Hong Kong, but I don’t follow the traditional route of Chinese cuisine so it’s very hard for me to qualify.  I just want to be myself and stay true to what Howard’s Gourmet stands for.

How would you define success and do you think you’ve achieved it?
I don’t really have a huge sense of success. I’m still in the middle, I feel that I’m a pioneer with regards to the way I’ve reinvented Chinese cuisine. I have yet to know if I’m an innovator or a failure even though I’ve been in this field for 11 years. It’s been a tough journey. I feel that I differ from traditional cooks as they like to complicate the simple things, but I’m the opposite; I like to deconstruct the complex and make them simple.

Howard’s Gourmet offers daily tasting menus, priced at HK$1,000 plus 10% for lunch and HK$2,000 plus 10% for dinner per person.

Howard’s Gourmet, 5/F, CCB Tower, 3 Connaught Road Central, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2115 3388, howardsgourmet.com