We dine and date with executive chef Justin Chan to get the inside scoop on the newest edition to the Naked Group, J House.
Justin Chan, executive chef and restauranteur of Naked Gurume Gyarari, Le Pho and newly launched J House, is a hybrid of Portuguese, Laotian, Chinese and Vietnamese influences. Having trained as a chef under a two-time Michelin-starred restaurant, Justin returned to Hong Kong from Wisconsin nearly 5 years ago. He is a man of all trades – at least where business, nutrition and restaurants are concerned. With degrees in nutrition, medical technology, health administration, and business marketing under his belt, not to mention ownership of three active restaurants in Hong Kong, we owed it to him for taking the time out of the kitchen to speak to us about his background and what brought on a diverse take on three different cuisines.
What brought on your interest for food?
My first major was in hospitality and tourism. It was food related. But later on I was more into the food aspect, so that’s why I studied nutrition. As time went on, every single Friday and Saturday I’d invite my friends over for dinner. It became serious enough that I had a 6-course tasting menu.
Where did you get your professional training from?
I was fortunate enough to get a job at a restaurant with two Michelin stars, Yokoso, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Initially my teacher touched my hand and said it was way too soft and that I wasn’t man enough to be a sushi chef. So I started as a server for a while, and basically every single day at the end of work I’d cook something new for him. After a year, the prep cook left and he let me try out the position. From there I learnt under him for 7 years.
Can you tell us more about the newest restaurant, J House?
At J House, we serve modern cuisine with a 10-course tasting menu. The restaurant seats only 11 people, and two time slots. We don’t want to label what type of cuisine we make because we don’t want to limit our creativity. From there, we trust our palettes. We also have to rely on seasonal ingredients.
I consider it as a testing kitchen. We’ll test things out, if it tastes good, we’ll launch it. It’s a premium place where you can get your first experience of our first creativities.
What about your other two restaurants Naked and Le Pho?
Naked: It’s Japanese modern cuisine. If we can’t find an exact Japanese product, we’ll use any kind of ingredient to relate it to Japanese culture. It’s very casual, not as fine dining. Grab a beer and order a few dishes to share. Once you enter up the stairs, you can either go left or right. On the left, there’s more of a restaurant dining scene area. On the right, we call the food gallery, with tons of paintings. We see food as an art piece.
Le Pho: High-quality fast-food noodle house. We do not skip any kind of process or lower the quality of ingredients when we make the broth. We’re quite selective. We will use Black Angus short ribs to replace beef brisket. We also add a lot of bone marrow, which gives the 5th element of flavour to the broth, which takes about 12 hours to stew. Northern Vietnamese broth isn’t as intense, and contains fewer herbs. But for us, we relate to Southern Vietnam where we focus on the use of herbs. Everybody has his or her own style of broth. But I studied our recipe for at least 8 years. When I first launched it, it took a lot of trial and error.
Which restaurant are you at the most?
At this moment, J House.
Seems you have a very broad palette, what with 3 different restaurants. Which type of cuisine do you most relate to?
My family is so diverse. My mom always cooked Portuguese and Mediterranean, and we always had family-style feasts.. but my favourite food has always been Japanese. I would say my background of cooking most relates to Southeast Asian, Mediterranean and Japanese.
Where do you source most of your produce from?
I do business with a farmer in Yuen Long. What’s so good about her is that if there’s anything I’m interested in, she will order it, try it, and then farm it. She already started growing mini watermelon for us!
Compared to other bigger restaurant groups, we’re so different. We always order and use what we need, whereas they might order larger cases from overseas. But I do understand why chefs wouldn’t want to use local produce, for instance, local tomatoes. The mineral substance from the water are so high, so the tomatoes in Hong Kong tend to be a lot more metallic in a way, not sweet. So that’s why they might be more selective. Of course sometimes we have to rely on foreign countries, because some produce aren’t readily available in Hong Kong.
Right now, according to the Green Council, food waste is a hot topic. What have you done at your restaurants for this initiative?
Every single week at most of our restaurants, we try to collect peels from vegetables in its most raw state, for animals to consume. A lot of the time we don’t need to throw away vegetable peels. We can throw it into the blender and drink it. Even with coffee grounds, you can put those in plants or use them as aroma for the house. We want to collaborate with a lot of different companies, like MANA! and Locofama, that have healthy by-products to turn into dog treats. Hopefully that can bring up a whole new health awareness for waste. We are trying to launch this campaign by November.
How do you encourage your customers to eat healthier, and to eat more consciously?
For my new menu at J House, we want to explain what these ingredients do for you, why they are sustainable, and why we chose them. I want them to take away a small booklet that explains all this and to educate them on the nutritional value of what they’re eating.
We want people to enjoy the show and have a full on experience. Combine your senses before you eat.
How do you give your menu items a healthier flair?
We don’t really deep-fry food and we use dehydration techniques. I will never cook vegetables at a 100-degree-Celsius because that will kill the fibres. That’s also why we use the sous-vide method. It keeps the most natural state of the protein and fibres without taking away flavours and textures.
Which are your favourite health-conscious restaurants in HK?
Locofama. I made their menu, so I know their menu inside out. I helped out with the group – with Locofama, Sohofama, and Supafood. I went to Supafood for the grand opening, and went there another couple of times afterwards – I loved it. For the value and the big, organic vegetables you get – I’m not hard selling them but it’s just so good. Grassroots Pantry is pretty good too. I like their creativity. They think outside the box all the time.
Any advice on eating healthy?
You just have to find a balance. For me, I don’t like to be an extremist. In life you have to find the harmony – that’s the most important thing.