Monday, 18 June 2018

Review: The Quest of Alain Ducasse

Ducasse in the farm that grows vegetables for Plaza-Athenee in Paris
Yesterday I happened to see that the documentary, The Quest of Alain Ducasse was showing tonight and decided I had to go see it.

The French chef with 21 Michelin stars under his belt was just in the vicinity last week with the opening of his two restaurants in Morpheus, the latest over-the-top hotel to open in Macau.

So I wanted to know what made the 61-year-old man tick -- and although the film shows scenes of the French chef tasting numerous delicious-looking dishes from Paris to London, to Kyoto and Hong Kong, we don't really know much about Ducasse himself.

There are hardly any biographical details about him, how he was born in 1956 in Orthez, in southwestern France and that it was his grandmother's cooking -- the smells that wafted up into his room -- that got him interested in the kitchen.

Ducasse revolutionized French cuisine, doing away with heavy creams and butter and opting instead for light, rustic cooking that showcases the freshness of the ingredients. He's also gone a step further in making his Parisian restaurant Plaza-Athenee feature vegetables and seafood but no meat.

It is clear he is passionate about what he does -- he insists on servers pouring Champagne in front of guests and will personally rearrange the furniture too. He only has praise for his army of chefs around the world -- there are only minor details to be worked out in their new menu items. The dishes for him are practically perfect. Or is he saying this in front of the camera?

He looks over the Hong Kong skyline at the then Spoon
What was completely glossed over in the documentary was a plane crash he survived in 1984. He and four colleagues were flying in a small plane from St Tropez to Courcheval in the French alps when the weather turned bad. They could have opted to land in Lyon, but they decided to press on when through the clouds they suddenly saw a mountain in front of them and it was too late to divert.

He was thrown out of the cockpit into the trees, the only survivor of the crash, though he lost a lot of blood. It took him months to get over the trauma but it also made him look at life succinctly.

"It helped me to realize what is important and what is not," he has said in an interview. "It taught me to step back from the kitchen, and open my eyes to the vastness of the world."

And so The Quest of Alain Ducasse is a non-stop travelogue of him flying all over the place, constantly in search of new flavours, new ingredients, encouraging his staff and checking out possible business ventures (Mongolia, anyone?). He has even started a culinary school in Manila where some street kids are taken in and trained to become cooks, sponsored by the man himself. He is moved listening to the young women thank him for giving them an opportunity to earn money for their families.

Handing certificates to cooks at his culinary school in Manila
When he visits China, he takes several of his staff to see a sturgeon farm for caviar two hours outside of Shanghai. There's a giant fish farm, rearing sturgeon that are very large. One of the most jaw-dropping scenes is watching a giant sturgeon sliced open, revealing millions of black caviar pearls.

Ducasse has been advocating Chinese caviar for years and only uses them in his restaurants. In the tasting room they use mother of pearl spoons to scoop out large dollops and everyone marvels at how sublime they taste.

There are no scenes about his private life, only to note that he has four children, three of whom are young children.

After watching the film I wasn't hungry, which was disappointing, but also how little I have accomplished next to this man who has how many restaurants around the world?

But it's his relentless passion for food, curiosity about new things that make me realize that this is what keeps him going everyday. The old adage "Do what you love" definitely applies here and Ducasse is an excellent example.

The Quest of Alain Ducasse
Directed by Gilles de Maistre
84 Minutes

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Canada Goose Takes Flight in HK

For mainlanders this is the must-have winter jacket these days
Hermes, Chanel, Gucci and now Canada Goose.

The Canadian down jackets are a must-have for mainland Chinese shoppers, and while they have been flying off the racks in luxury department store Holt Renfrew, the US$900 jackets will soon be available in Hong Kong.

This past Christmas when I was in Vancouver, mainlanders descended on racks of Canada Goose jackets at Holt Renfrew, trying them on and snapping them up. I've heard stories of them calling up their friends in China and asking them what size and colour they want, and buying 10 to 12 at a time.

The Chinese are snapping up the jacket in Canada stores
How do they even pack them all into their suitcases?

The latest news is that a sign in Chinese in a Toronto store states shoppers can only buy two jackets per day, probably due to complaints from local residents unable to get their hands on the prized jackets.

Dani Reiss, president and chief executive of Canada Goose knows he's onto a hot product and is eager to expand to Asia.

"A lot of people from the mainland often go to Hong Kong to buy products. That's one of the reasons why it makes sense for us to have a store in Hong Kong," Reiss said. "Even though it's a warm-weather climate, [where the temperature] almost never goes under zero."

Dani Reiss plans to open stores in Hong Kong and Beijing
The Toronto-based company will have two flagship stores, one in Hong Kong, the other in Beijing, and an e-commerce presence on Alibaba's Tmall, and set up an office in Shanghai.

The Hong Kong store will be in IFC mall and is expected to open in the fall. An interesting fact is Reiss is the third generation to run the company that was started by his Polish immigrant grandfather in 1957.

There should be no problem in selling Canada Goose in Hong Kong -- it's subtle in its look, very functional and it's a status symbol to wear. What more do you want in this day and age when Chinese luxury spending has to be a bit more discreet these days?

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Fact of the Day: Star Ferry Names

The Star Ferry is a relaxing way to cross the harbour -- and cheap too
The word "iconic" is overused a lot these days, but when it comes to the Star Ferry in Hong Kong, it really is iconic.

It has been an integral part of Victoria Harbour for 120 years, ferrying people from Tsim Sha Tsui to either Central or Wan Chai and back, and it's still the cheapest form of transport in the city.

The ferry service started back in 1888 when Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala founded the Kowloon Ferry Company. Ten years later British businessman Sir Catchick Paul Chater bought the fleet of four ferries under the Star Ferry Company.

But did you know the original meaning of their names, Morning Star, Evening Star, Rising Star and Guiding Star?

They were all inspired by British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose poem, Crossing the Bar has the opening line: "Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!"

Friday, 15 June 2018

West Kowloon Rail Checkpoint is a Slippery Slope

The West Kowloon Rail station will be ready by the third quarter this year
After numerous discussions, debates and filibusters, the controversial border check point at the new West Kowloon rail terminal was passed last night at the Legislative Council. The so-called co-location bill went through following a 40-20 vote.

This means mainland Chinese immigration officials will have the authority to assert mainland laws on a part of Hong Kong soil.

While some believe this is the best way to solve the problem of having border checks in one location, this is technically a violation of the Basic Law according to lawyers at the Hong Kong Bar Association.

Debates about the issue were overturned by pro-establishment
That's because the Basic Law states no mainland law shall apply in Hong Kong except those relating to defence, foreign affairs and "other matters outside the limits" of the city's autonomy.

Any exceptions must be listed in Annexe III of the Basic Law before they can be applied.

However, the National People's Congress Standing Committee ignored this important procedure and endorsed the legal foundation for the checkpoint plan late last year, which resulted in pan-democratic Hong Kong lawmakers opposing the bill.

More than 70 amendments were submitted to Legco in a bid to delay Thursday's vote.

To counter the filibustering by the pan-democrats, Legco President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen capped debate time for the bill at 36 hours to ensure it would be passed before the legislature's summer break in mid-July. He also only allowed 24 of the amendments to be debated.

Legco President Andrew Leung limited debate on the issue
Now that this major hurdle has been cleared, the station can be completed and apparently will be in operation by the third quarter this year.

Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said the vote had opened a Pandora's box to further unconstitutional arrangements being imposed on Hong Kong.

"Its passage comes not only at the cost of our core value of the rule of law, but it also shows people the legislature is only a rubber stamp," said unionist lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung.

This was a contentious issue because it is about a lack of trust of China and what it will do next. It really does signal the start of a slippery slope that none of us knows will go next... except maybe Beijing.

We can only continue to safeguard whatever rights and freedoms we have left...