Linking film with carefully crafted multi-course meals, Alison Tan co-leads Savour Cinema, a food pop-up club driving emotion with our eating in Hong Kong

Alison Tan goes by the fantastical name Sapphire Ketchup both online and offline, a title self-bequeathed in her youth spent around Singapore. “As a precocious teen with lots of privilege, I formed this alter ego when I would eat and drink in the city. I became Sapphire Ketchup.”

In an interview with Foodie, she can’t recall what the name means, nor if she has a preference towards the condiment, yet many in Hong Kong have related to this alter ego, a leader in the food pop-up space.

Co-founding Savour Cinema with food enthusiast Amanda Kwan, the duo have led a series of cinema-focused food pop-ups since mid-2020, directing mouths and eyes in Hong Kong to a new format of dining involving the consumption of visual and culinary art.

The Kansas-born American “had a great childhood in Singapore,” enjoying fruitful trips to hawker stalls to party over food with friends. “We were eating stingray at 16, fantastic Malaysian, Indian, and Peranakan food. Some people are born obsessing about their next meal. I live to eat.”

Alison Tan food popups
Photo credit: Stephanie Teng

In her teens, Alison’s enjoyment for communal dining mirrored her full-time job and pop-up project in Hong Kong. When her parents left town, she would host 15- or 16-course dinner parties with friends. “My family never ate out at formal places, but we enjoyed a plethora of amazing street food and casual dining spots in Singapore.”

In 2015, her mother fell ill with cancer, and she moved to Hong Kong to accompany her on her chemotherapy journey, joining a design agency. In a matter of coincidence, in 2016 Alison attended a talk by eating designer – “an emerging title in the design and hospitality space” – Marije Vogelzang at Business of Design Week, a talk that altered her life journey. 

Marije spoke about her project Eat, Love, Budapest, held in Hungary’s capital, which involved a local theatre troupe of Roma women within an installation where the viewer would come into a tent to be fed, listen to stories about the gypsy people, sing, and connect. “It was such a moving experience for this Hungarian audience, who may have never befriended a Roma person.

“Anyone that works with food takes design into consideration, but [Marije was] someone whose focus is not on a tasty meal, but the entire designing interaction and reframing food for diners.” The impact was integral to Alison. Tired of her design job, she journeyed to find a career with meaning. 

She applied to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok, but the pandemic prevented her from learning culinary arts. “I owe my entire career to COVID!” Alison’s 180-degree life pivot brought her to an expansive loft in Chai Wan that suited hosting private dinners during the quiet months of Hong Kong life under border controls. 

Alison Tan food popups
Photo credit: Jennifer Tang

Manned with recipe books and boundless creativity – arguably greater than your typical restaurant with budget constraints – she hosted her first event, a Chinese New Year company party for Marriott stocked with a gigantic lo hei (tossed raw fish salad), a zen garden of sesame with salad on top, and a dumpling dish with randomised fillings to elicit new aspects and hopes for the coming year.

Symbolism is central to Alison’s delivery of culinary experiences. She tends to anchor moments not captured in traditional dining spaces in Hong Kong. Her first rendition of a supper club arrived in December 2020 with Otium, hosted with the Israeli founder of Conspiracy Chocolate, Amit Oz.

Meaning “deep rest” in Greek, their first Otium dinner was set during a Christmas when “no one was leaving Hong Kong [in 2020]. We all lost distance with our loved ones far away. We wanted to bring some punctuation to the end of the year. We designed our first dinner with three different rituals, beginning with a meditation.

“We asked our guests to think of a loved one. Could they imagine the moment where you knew that they would be in this person’s life forever and imagine them across from you? We found that this meaningless distance between us in Hong Kong and loved ones abroad vanished over this ritual.

Alison Tan food popups
Photo credit: Stephanie Teng

“We lit candles to represent the present, and the room would slowly become illuminated with the symbolic warmth of all these connections we have.”

The menu was designed by Amit and inspired by his Israeli background, with elements of Japanese cuisine fused within each course. Aubergine smoked with cigars was served, inspired by Amit’s Jerusalem connection. North Atlantic scallops dressed in vinaigrette and orange-blossom water, kombu butter, and caviar capellini and wild, humanely raised Hereford beef graced the table. 

In the spirit of theatre, Alison and Amit asked their guests to set alight a note marking what things they were willing to leave behind in the year, turning into ashes before being sent home with a lily bulb to plant, symbolising the solipsism of the experience.

Their second experience was hosted in April 2021 as an ode to spring, focusing on fermentation and aphrodisiacal foods. “As we presented bottles of mead in the dinner, which require warm and moist areas to ferment and grow alcohol, we compelled our guests to stuff [them] down their body to ensure the drink could mature. Whilst our guests were initially weary [of the act], they enjoyed the playful experience.”

Alison’s commitment to pouring emotion and experience over plates does not come at expense of budget, rather an ever-expanding ceiling on the extent of creativity and inventiveness. “I want to do things that other restaurants can’t afford to do because, surprise, in Hong Kong it makes you no f*****g money.”

Alison Tan food popups
Photo credit: Jennifer Tang

No restaurants in Hong Kong host movie clubs with specially designed course meals, yet Savour Cinema is the answer to an experience that the city didn’t know it needed. The pop-up series involves a long table of guests sat pouring over a film, with a decorated multi-course meal served by Alison, Amanda, and her team.

The first film Alison and Amanda worked on was Spirited Away. “We select films that are not always about food but are very beautiful and luscious,” she says. Each film selected by the duo is paired with up to 12 courses and cocktails served inside her Chai Wan venue.

The dishes and drinks at the first feast for Spirited Away included a whisky-basked woody cocktail, a braised and steamed meat platter, onigiri, and a sushi bento box. The service is meticulous, presenting dishes at specific times to coincide with scenes in the film that complement the flavours.

The following dinners featured the films Beetlejuice, Jumanji, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Joy Luck Club, Midsommar, Chungking Express, The Fifth Element, and – the latest edition in April and May 2024 – Tampopo.

“For better or for worse in Hong Kong, people crave newness, and I would say that’s bad for a lot of restaurants, but very good for these pop-ups, because the menu is different every time. Those eager to try something new and something exclusive can enjoy this experience at Savour Cinema. We don’t run events twice.”

Alison Tan food popups
Photo credit: YC Kwan

“The only way we can change the consumer is by focusing on the emotional element of dining. A lot of love and care go into crafting the culinary and design elements of the dinner.” These pop-ups are typically hosted four times a year, pending availability in the pair’s schedules.   

Alison’s most recent food-art project came in Art Month 2024, when she collaborated with Chinese artist Michele Chu on her experimental art exhibition You, Trickling at a Delfina London event. Seen as a way to process and pay homage to her mother undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, Alison saw a spiritual parallel to her family story. “We began speaking and planning to translate her sculptures [designed for the exhibition] into edible installations for a group of collectors at Art Basel.”

Supported by M art Foundation, ArtReview, and Sprüth Magers and held during Art Week, Alison created a 40-metre-long edible umbilical cord filled with jellified Chinese confinement soup. Attendees were encouraged to cut off a segment and eat the fillings, such as snow fungus papaya soup and black vinegar pork trotter. Symbolic of life and death, the pair crafted sugar-printed edible photographs of Michele and her mother. 

Hong Kong craves experiential dining, and beyond her full-time job delivering food parties, Alison is transcending food with emotions rarely found when dining at Savour Cinema. 

Keep an eye on Savour Cinema’s Instagram page to check out future food pop-ups to feed your heart and belly.

Rubin Verebes is the Managing Editor of Foodie, a culinary connoisseur, and guiding force behind the magazine's delectable stories. With a knack for cooking up mouthwatering profiles, crafting immersive restaurant reviews, and dishing out tasty features, Rubin tells the great stories of Hong Kong's dining scene.

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