As we steamroll our way into the Year of the Pig, barely holding onto our starry-eyed, “live and eat healthier” new year’s resolutions and sheepishly watching them slip, one by one, through our clammy grip, there’s one bright star looming persistently on the horizon that gives us hope to carry on: the opening of VEDA, celebrated vegetarian chef Hetty McKinnon’s first foray into Asia.

Housed in the recently revamped Ovolo Central hotel, VEDA is Hong Kong’s first vegetarian flagship restaurant presented by an international hotel group. Diners can expect to encounter global flavours on the menu, with dishes ranging from red lentil dal and cauliflower aloo gobi to miso ramen and nargesi, a Persian spinach and egg dish.

We gleaned our first taste of what to expect at VEDA when Chef McKinnon visited Hong Kong in December last year, bringing with her an exclusive sneak peek of the menu. With VEDA now officially open, we picked this vegetarian brain on her vision for a plant-based future.

Soba noodle salad, VEDA Vegetarian Restaurant at Ovolo Central

Soba noodle salad

What unique perspectives are you hoping to bring to Hong Kong diners? How are you planning on enriching our city’s culinary scene?

The culinary scene in Hong Kong is fierce and a true force! Asia as a whole is such a trendsetter in the food world right now, and Hong Kong diners embrace food and new trends with such fervour. Interestingly, at VEDA, I am actually trying to step away from trends; rather, I’m bringing a touch of home to a restaurant setting. As a home cook, first and foremost, I want every diner, whether they be locals or travellers, to feel like they have eaten a nourishing, home-cooked meal.

When I create a recipe, I am always thinking about the flavours, textures and ingredients that are going to connect with the people eating the finished dish – this is a very unique perspective I have when it comes to my food. I am always asking the diner to stop and think about the food they are putting into their bodies, to feel connected to the food they are eating and the people they are eating with. If this happens at home, I believe this can also happen at VEDA.

The menu at VEDA is very much inspired by the all-day café menus in Australia that offer, in my opinion, some of the best, most effortlessly inventive food in the world. Eating fresh food with bright flavours is a way of life in Australia, a cultural rite of passage. I have married this idea with the indelible food influences of my Chinese upbringing, while also paying homage to the global flavours of my travels and my adopted home town of New York City. Now, my take on food is very international, which I hope is perfect for a metropolis like Hong Kong, which is also very universal in its approach to food and life.

What is your vision for VEDA?

My vision for VEDA is very simple: hearty yet healthy food that nourishes and comforts. The need to nurture underscores every single recipe that has been created for the VEDA menu. I am also bringing my unfettered love of vegetables to VEDA and showing diners how vegetables can be so deeply satisfying. I want to show all the possibilities of vegetable-forward dining and celebrate all the inventive, satisfying ways vegetables can play a leading role on the plate.

Red lentil dahl, VEDA Vegetarian Restaurant at Ovolo Central

Red lentil dal

What are some of the challenges you see introducing a vegetarian concept to Hong Kong?

This is an interesting question, because I’ve heard that Hong Kong diners are some of the highest per-capita consumers of meat in the world. Despite this, and understanding that Chinese food served in restaurants in general tends to be very meat heavy, I remain undaunted in my vision to win diners over with the other major food group: vegetables! I think it’s a matter of communication – even though the food I create is vegetarian, I want people to understand you don’t have to be a vegetarian to eat it. My food is inclusive, it’s for everyone – carnivores and herbivores alike. My recipes are not centred around the “without”; rather they are 100 per cent focused upon the “with” – with food, with flavour, with texture, with creativity, with thought.

Hong Kong is a sophisticated, food-loving city with truly international people, so I strongly believe that they will embrace this new, healthier way to eat. I applaud Ovolo for their forward-thinking approach to the future of food. A predominately plant-based diet is the way of the future – without getting too political, eating meat-free is one of the single biggest ways to reduce your impact on the earth. Frankly, it’s the smarter way to eat, for your body and the planet.

There’s a large focus on family and community in all that you do. How do these things factor into your concept for VEDA?

Family, community and being connected with the food on your plate is at the cornerstone of all that I do, including this menu for VEDA. The menu I have created is not what you normally find at a restaurant – it is homely and deeply nurturing. It offers flavours that may remind you of home, a dish your friend cooked for you or aromas of travel. The dishes are evocative of the world all around us, with a distinct global feel that is also somehow intensely personal to me. In most of the dishes, I incorporate small memories from my childhood or a flavour that reminds me of a certain time or feeling. Creating food that is personal to me, and sharing that part of myself on the plate and around the table, is how I connect with people. I think it’s important, even in a commercial setting, to always remember how important food is as a connector.

Everyday green salad with yoghurt ranch dressing, VEDA Vegetarian Restaurant at Ovolo Central

Everyday herb green salad with yoghurt ranch dressing

Will you be incorporating any plant-based meats and proteins such as Impossible meats and JUST Egg into your menu?

While products like Impossible meats and JUST Egg are very trendy in the food scene right now, they will not feature on the launch menu at VEDA. My food philosophy is very much focused upon showing the full potential of everyday vegetables and wholegrains; our recipes don’t need meat and protein substitutes to add heartiness or flavour. The VEDA menu features vegetable-forward recipes that harness the flavour of natural ingredients. We pair fresh vegetables with spices to bring out flavour and utilise multilayered sauces and dressings to bring the story of the dish together. I take great pride in creating big flavours with everyday ingredients, and this is something we are showcasing at VEDA.

Tell us a little bit about your own culinary journey and how you’ve arrived where you are now. What’s your background?

I grew up in a Cantonese household in Sydney, Australia, where my mother commanded the kitchen like a Michelin-starred chef. Like many Asian mothers, she cooked all day, every day, and presented her family with a feast every night! My love of food and much of my knowledge about flavours and technique stem from my mother’s dining table.

For much of my life, I worked in lifestyle PR, in both Sydney and London. After living in London for four years in the mid-2000s, I returned home to Sydney and started a family. After the birth of my third child, I started to yearn for a project that was more domestic, something that would keep me rooted in my community and close to my kids. As a long-time vegetarian with a deep, almost crazy love for fresh vegetables, I wanted to share this passion with my local community of Surry Hills in Sydney.

In early 2011, as an experiment, I started cooking vegetarian salads, packed them into boxes, popped them into the back of my bike and cycled around my neighbourhood, delivering to hungry locals. Orders were placed by email – it was all very low-fi! Through word of mouth, the business grew, and soon I was sold out every day, single-handedly delivering 80 salads a day, which were all cooked in my home kitchen. I continued to deliver salads on my bike to my community for four years.

In 2013, I released my first cookbook, COMMUNITY, which was originally self-published by a small team of friends as a passion project. I made this book for the locals in my community, the people who ordered my salads every week, and it was never meant to go beyond that. However, unbeknownst to me, the book went viral (which wasn’t really even a thing back then!), and I sold out of books in three weeks. Remember, there was no publisher involved at this time, just me selling books online.

To my surprise, I was approached by Plum Books, the food imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, and they published the book nationally in Australia. COMMUNITY has remained on Australian bestseller lists since its launch in 2014 and is one of Australia’s most-loved cookbooks of the past few years.

In 2015, we moved the entire family to Brooklyn, New York. It had been a dream of mine to live in New York City, but I was also interested to see how moving to a new city would influence my approach to cooking.

My follow-up book, NEIGHBOURHOOD, was released in 2016, chronicling this move to Brooklyn and celebrating the flavours of the world around us. In Brooklyn, I work on diverse food projects. I co-own a beautiful kitchen studio called Neighbourhood Studio, which is my home base. From here, I test recipes, photograph recipes, create content for brands and also run pop-up food events. I also publish and edit an independent multicultural food journal called Peddler, and I now write recipe columns in The Guardian and ABC in Australia.

Cauliflower aloo gobi, VEDA Vegetarian Restaurant at Ovolo Central

Cauliflower aloo gobi

Hong Kong imports about 90 per cent of its food supply and local farms are scarce. How are you planning to source your produce?

Being from New York, this new project in Hong Kong has certainly been a learning process. Even though local farms are scarce, Hong Kong is blessed with access to all the best produce from around the globe. At the moment, most of the produce we use is from overseas. We try to use local ingredients where possible, but as we grow as a restaurant, we will develop closer relationships with the local farming community, and hopefully, one day, the majority of our ingredients will be from Hong Kong and neighbouring lands.

Any plans for the next cookbook?

My latest book, FAMILY, was released just this year [2018] in Australia. FAMILY is filled with vegetarian comfort-food recipes and encourages the home cook to find joy in the simple act of sitting around the table, sharing food, experience and conversation. FAMILY will be released internationally in April 2019.

What’s your favourite place to eat here in Hong Kong?

I haven’t been to Hong Kong since I was a young child. But I can’t wait to find some gems!

Avocado toast, VEDA Vegetarian Restaurant at Ovolo Central

Avocado toasts

What’s your favourite thing to cook for your family?

It’s hard to narrow it down! Clearly, my kids love pasta night, so much so that I’ve dedicated a whole chapter to this in my new book, FAMILY. But, honestly, I love cooking salads for my kids! Now that they are older, they are very good eaters, so, for me, a salad embodies ultimate nurturing – to feed your family with a thoughtfully prepared dish, brimming with vegetables and flavour, that is also healthy… this is the ultimate act of love!

Please name three must-have ingredients that are always on hand in your kitchen.

You don’t know how hard this question is for me to answer! But if I had to narrow it down, it would be the very basis of almost everything I cook: olive oil, garlic and sea salt.

VEDA, Ovolo Central, 2 Arbuthnot Road, Central, 3755 3067, book online

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