Top photo credit: Tanarak Photography

”You are what you eat,“ says Stephanie Wong, the chef-owner of lunch-delivery service Roots Eatery. Stephanie spent nine years as a banker at HSBC before changing her career. She now boasts a culinary arts diploma from world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse and has worked at Michelin-starred restaurant Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint-Emilion, France, as well as at local stunner Amber.

Read on to find out how she cooked up the perfect lunch-delivery service.

Tell us more about your culinary journey growing up. How did you explore food and what were your favourite dishes?

My parents were working during the day, so my grandmother took care of me, and we spent a lot of time with each other. Growing up with her was always about food. I would play or hang around near the kitchen and watch her prepare our meals. When I was about eight or nine, I saw her stir-frying vegetables and asked her if I could try it as well because it seemed easy then.

My family wasn’t that big, but we were really tight-knit. There were 10–12 of us, and I remember our family dinners during special occasions such as Mid-autumn Festival and Chinese New Year. My mum and grandmother would hustle for the whole day filling the table with food. It was a huge meal. My memorable childhood dishes are salt-crusted chicken and lobster fried with ginger, scallion and Shaoxing wine. I also loved steamed grouper in soy sauce, which must come with a generous amount of scallions on top.

I’ve also learned to appreciate dishes I didn’t quite like then. Twenty years on, dishes like rabbit fish (泥鯭) have worked their way into my system. I like it two ways – either steaming it with aged orange skin or cooking it with congee. Bitter melon is another dish that I used to hate as a kid, and they’d cook it with either beef or egg. Now I feel that it is one of the most interesting vegetables, and the more bitter the melon is, the more it tastes like gold. It’s now incorporated into some of the lunch options on Roots Eatery’s menu.

Our meals were also based on a Cantonese philosophy: it has to be about the freshness, about the original taste of the ingredients. If the food wasn’t fresh, we would fuss about it. It wasn’t so much about the cooking as the dishes were created simply, like steamed fish or a ginger-scallion stir-fry. My family were foodies in our own way – being picky about ingredients. It just stuck with me all these years, particularly when I visit restaurants.

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Photo credit: Tanarak Photography

You were a banker at HSBC. What were your food experiences that encouraged this change in your career?

Both my parents have been in finance and were CFOs in different companies. They were very deeply ingrained to be very pragmatic – everything has to come with a plan.

But I’m a dreamer. I wasn’t really into my studies. I was disengaged and would often run off to New York because it was so exciting and stayed with my mum’s best friend who lived in New Jersey. One day, her husband (my uncle) was driving me into town. He asked me what I really wanted to do and I told him that I actually wanted to have my own restaurant! It didn’t cross my mind that I wanted to be a chef then, but I knew I wanted a place where everyone could sit together and enjoy good food.

I didn’t remember our conversation until he mentioned it a few years ago, and it all came back vividly. But it wasn’t a conscious thing. Food itself was already ingrained in me. I gravitate towards going to restaurants and was exploring different ways of cooking different things.

I also cooked a lot in college. We would share groceries, and I’m always happy to run to the grocery store and do the shopping. It was my thing. I was definitely more interested in doing all these than studying. It’s a surprise that I did graduate from college!        

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Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

Why the takeaway concept? 

Working in banking gets you so busy that the only thing you can eat is takeout. Sometimes I would go to Simplylife at Citibank Tower. It was good, but I got bored with the selection. The other options would be to visit the canteen or have Maxim’s. You could feel that those were not very good, but you pushed through to feed yourself, because you needed to run back to work 15 minutes later.

So during my last two years working at HSBC, I decided to make an effort at night to cook and would prepare two days’ worth of food for my lunches. I realised that I enjoyed it a lot more than eating out with my colleagues. I mean, I love the company, but when the food is so bad and yet you are paying $200 or $300 for it, I get really upset. I know that they are charging this because of the rent, but this is such bad food! Since it was so hard to find something good, I decided to make the effort and cook myself.

Banking is a high-stress environment, but it is a fun job and you get to work with smart people. But it is so paradoxical when you have all this money yet don’t have the time to take care of yourself. That’s when I thought: I really want to do this. 

How was Roots Eatery conceptualised?

I quit banking in 2015 and went to culinary school in 2016. It was a culinary arts diploma course, where we were taught cooking fundamentals such as soups, stocks, sauces, cuts of meat, fish and even grains.

Vegetables were like a celebration in France. I spent four weeks learning about vegetables, cooking vegetarian dishes and exploring vegan recipes. The taste was so great that you wouldn’t think that you were compromising if you didn’t have meat for the day. All you could think was: these dishes are amazing. And this is how vegetables became the basis of inspiration in everything at Roots Eatery.

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Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

Describe your typical day as a chef.

My day begins at around 8am when I head to the wet market. Wanchai market is amazing, and I think it’s one of the best in Hong Kong. Some of the French herbs you find here are not even available at city‘super! I go to five or six different stalls for different vegetables – tomatoes at one, cauliflower and carrots at the next, kale and aubergine at another and cherry tomatoes and herbs at a different place. I have suppliers that I could order from, but marketing allows you to hand-pick everything.

I get in at BiteUnite at around 8:30am and have most of the things prepared by 11am, which allows me to ensure everything is all set and ready before we start delivery at 12pm. Our last meal is delivered by at most 3pm, and then we clean up for an hour and wrap up the day at 4pm – and then plan for the next day. In the evening, I head to the gym for kick-boxing classes and then head home to cook dinner. I sleep at 10 or 11pm. At the weekend, I may also be catering for special occasions.

When I was at Amber, I would work 14- or 15-hour days, which is traditional in the restaurant business. It was intense. Most chefs work very hard and don’t have time to take care of themselves. At the end of the day, you become so tired that you don’t care, and it goes into the food. At Roots Eatery, I like to maintain a much more relaxed, focused and balanced routine. It’s a disciplined life, structured from Mondays to Fridays.

What are some of the dishes you’d like to recommend to our readers at Foodie?

The slow-cooked chicken is unique to Roots Eatery and it’s one of my absolute favourites. I use the breast meat of a French chicken because it not only tastes different, it’s also so tender after cooking it. The skin is crispy and I top it with chicken juice before cooking for two hours at 61°C. This is accompanied with vegan fried rice, which has bitter melon, cherry tomatoes, tofu, butternut squash and chilli. It’s an explosion of flavour because you taste, bitter, sour, sweet and spicy in this dish. This dish requires the most work to do, but it is so interesting and I love it to bits.

Slow Cooked Chicken:Slow Cooked Free Range Hormone Free French Chicken with a Vegan Fried Brown Rice
Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

The other signature dish is the flank steak with broccoli, mushrooms and barley. Barley is something I learned to love in France when we were studying uncommon grains. I love risotto, but it can get too heavy and starchy, so I used barley so that you feel light and clean after eating it. I also incorporated cherry tomatoes for a bit of tartness to spruce up the palate. The flank part of the cow is very flavourful, but it can be quite muscle-y and tough. Our cows are corn fed for a year and the meat has a lot of marbling, which makes it tender, like Wagyu. You’d never realise that it was a flank.

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Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

We noticed that you also cater for an in-house dining experience, Chef’s Table. Why you are including this in Roots Eatery? 

I was always debating whether it would be a private kitchen or a lunch service in setting up Roots Eatery. At HSBC, I used to host extensive dinners at the weekend. The process of being creative in the kitchen is both fascinating and exciting, researching new recipes from scratch, designing four or five courses. Feeding people is also about the experience, and I still want to incorporate this to diners who are interested.

I host Chef’s Table at BiteUnite, a kitchen co-working space, and cater for about 10–14 diners at a long table. Sort of like a French old-school type of dinner setting in candlelight. These weekend dinners are dependent on my schedule and can be privately arranged.

What is a typical menu we can expect to see?

I would do a five-course meal comprised of a cold starter, hot starter, two mains and dessert. The starters feature different seasonal vegetables and seafood, depending on the interesting discoveries I find at the market. One of the seasonal starters I’m preparing for the next couple of months is oysters from Fukukoa, which are paired with poached grapes and lemon. The mains include lobster fettuccine, which pays homage to my grandmother, and a meat – either a chicken or a beef dish. I like to think of it as surf and turf with an Asian spin. The last course, dessert, is a chocolate tart. It’s conventional, but it’s more fulfilling compared to a light sorbet mixed with fruits. You have to end the meal on a high note!

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Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

Now that you have achieved your dream as a chef, what are your next steps? 

Currently, it’s day to day, but at some point, I would like to scale the business. I take joy in being a chef. Even after the business grows eventually, I still see myself in the kitchen. I’m a very hands-on person and don’t believe in taking too much of a back seat.

What do you think is important for aspiring chefs?

Always have an open mind. And learning doesn’t always have to come in a formal form.

Culinary training was something that I’ve always wanted to do, an item to tick off my checklist. It’s something that I wanted to achieve. I learned a lot at culinary school, but I realised that I also learned a lot on my own. I watched YouTube, Food Network in Canada and then tried on my own at the weekend. People love talking and showing the process, so it’s about observing the hand movements, understanding principles and lots of practice.

So if you love what you love, you can still do it as long as you don’t stop learning. There’s always someone cutting it in a different way that you didn’t know.

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Photo credit: Roots Eatery and BiteUnite

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