Chef Chan’s success story – from a homecook to an extraordinary chef

Honeycombers

23 Nov 2021

If you’ve never been to Chilli Fagara, you should! Chef Chan has turned her love of cooking into a booming career that incorporates healthy eating with authentic Sichuan flavours, with plenty of vegetarian options!

Hong Kong never falls short of restaurants, but no matter how juicy your dim sum was or how warming your hot pot felt, nothing compares to friendly hospitality. Chef Chan and her daughter, Tracy Wong, from Chilli Fagara make you feel at-home and the warm welcome will have you coming back (or even making this a regular lunch spot!).

We talk to Chef Chan

A little about Chef Chan and Chilli Fagara

Chef Chan hails from Chong Qing and comes from a family of restaurant owners and people in the food and beverage industry. She is the head chef at Chilli Fagara, a Michelin-recommended Sichuanese restaurant that opened in 2005. Chef Chan and her daughter, Tracy Wong bring authentic cuisine that’s fierce, bold, and yet comforting!

You started cooking at the age of 10 and could only afford a meal worth 5 yuan. How would you say your early life shaped your career as a chef?

Almost every Chilli Fagara menu item is inspired by what I ate when I grew up in Chong Qing, with my father being my greatest mentor. I learnt everything I know about cooking from him, as I often used to watch him while he prepared food and always tried my best to imitate him. One of the most important lessons he taught me – and that I ensure is followed in our kitchen at Chilli Fagara – is to impart patience, care, and attention to detail in every dish preparation. It’s also essential that our dishes please the eye and attract guests with their vibrancy and aesthetic plating, before captivating every diner with marvellous flavours and aromas.

You come from a family of restaurant owners and relatives working in the food industry; how did this influence you growing up? Did you ever want to pursue a career in another field?

Coming from a family where restaurants were how we made our living, it felt natural to also follow my relatives’ footsteps and bring our traditional Sichuan cuisine and culture to the tables of Hong Kong. It has always been my dream to launch my very own restaurant and I’ve never wanted to work in another field. I always knew that this is where I belong and what I truly love – serving and reinterpreting my favourite family recipes, some with an innovative new twist – here at Chilli Fagara.

What challenges did you face growing up that you overcame in order to pursue your dreams?

Returning to Hong Kong and opening a new restaurant in the heart of the city – one of the most expensive places with an endless variety of restaurants – was and still is a challenge for me and my team. Whilst serving up authentic Sichuan delicacies, I also strive to push boundaries and cater to the needs and wishes of our modern, discerning customers while also exploring new F&B trends.

Every day is a new challenge, from planning the entire delivery schedule of our ingredients, to finding the right suppliers with the best high-quality products, to training the team and implementing new or elevated recipes. At the same time, each challenge is also a great opportunity, because with every meal I prepare, I can delight and surprise my guests with unique chilli-infused creations, which have been praised by many guests—and also earned Chilli Fagara a recommendation in the Michelin Guide!

Tell us about how Chilli Fagara started.

We first opened Chilli Fagara in 2005 on Graham Street in Soho and soon attracted a loyal clientele with our authentic, chilli-infused Sichuan dishes based on the traditional Chinese Ma La Tang concept for numbing (ma), burning (la) and neutral (tang) tastes of Sichuan flavours. This is what makes us so unique and has been exciting our guests since the very beginning on Graham Street and now on Old Bailey Street – our vast array of culinary possibilities, whilst staying true to tradition.

In what ways have you added your own spin to Sichuan dishes at Chilli Fagara?

Apart from serving the most authentic Sichuan cuisine, we also constantly strive to create vibrant new dishes that deliver unparalleled flavour. At Chilli Fagara we use old family recipes and add our own spin to suit this generation’s more health-conscious eaters. It’s our mission and unyielding passion to put together a vast variety of creative new dishes, including vegan and vegetarian options, alongside traditional seasonal specialties, like our latest claypot menu or new festive tasting menu this December.

How would you describe your cooking philosophy?

My cooking philosophy is to impart the most aromatic flavours and colours in every dish. For me, it is imperative to use only the freshest, brightest ingredients, hand-picked from local markets, as well as flown-in spices from a small network of trusted growers and producers in the Sichuan province. I am very passionate about constantly innovating and improving our menu to better cater to our guests, because they are one of my greatest inspirations when it comes to elevating dishes or coming up with new recipes.

What dish from Chilli Fagara would you say is closest to your heart?

One of the dishes that has the greatest meaning to me are the Chilli Dungeness Crab and Emperor Prawns – these are some of my favourites! The Dungeness Chilli Crab reminds me of my time in Canada, where I’ve been living for a very long time and where we still operate our Sichuan restaurant. We stir-fry jet-fresh crab and mix it with dried red chilli to give it our much-loved spice kick.

The Emperor Prawns are another favourite, as they have the perfect texture and are a fun challenge to cook and fry. Just the right amount of heat must be used to retain their naturally juicy flavour. They also absorb our homemade spice rub – made with hand-ground chilli powder – and combine so well with fresh Sichuan Fagara.

What’s the most challenging part of creating new dishes and what part do you enjoy the most?

One of the most challenging parts of creating new dishes and experimenting with new ingredients or food trends, like Karana or Impossible Meat, is that I need to be 100% sure that the new creations are what our customers like and are looking for when they come to Chilli Fagara. My guests are my greatest inspirations; finding out what truly satisfies them is what drives me and defines my new dishes.hat’s one of the most challenging, yet at the same time most exciting parts, of coming up with new recipes.

With over 50 years of culinary experience, what is your proudest moment as a chef?

Being recognised and awarded by the Michelin Guide was one of the most rewarding moments in my long career as a chef. This would not have been possible without the continuous support of my daughter, Tracy. Every day, we are grateful for what we have achieved together, building up our own restaurant – pursuing our dream. Guests often wait patiently to meet me and the team after their meal, just to express their admiration for our dishes and authentic cooking skills. These moments are also some of the most rewarding ones – I truly treasure them, as they show us what a great impact our cuisine has on our guests.