Hong Kong is a city full of fascinating international individuals, where people come and go constantly. Sometimes it feels like we’re always saying goodbye. But, being the incredibly exciting place it is, Hong Kong is a hard city to let go of. That’s why, once in awhile, when people leave, they come right on back.
Back in 2013, we welcomed Chef Edgar Sanuy Barahona onto the restaurant scene with our Foodie Forks Chef of the Year award for his work at SoHo’s BCN (now closed). He then went on to oversee the development of some of Maximal Concepts’ finest restaurants and bars, including Mott 32, Stockton and Mercedes me Store. In 2016, we were heartbroken to hear that Chef Barahona would be leaving Hong Kong in pursuit of new culinary adventures. But cut to early 2019, and the Foodie team were thrilled when we received news of the chef’s return and a brand-new opening, Pica Pica.
Pica Pica boasts a warm and open interior in the heart of Sheung Wan
Since opening six months ago, Pica Pica has become a popular spot for Sheung Wan locals. The tapas eatery’s authentic Spanish ingredients and vibrant open-plan design make diners feel right at home.
I headed to Pica Pica to sample some of Chef Barahona’s new summer dishes and to catch up with our Foodie Forks alum.
Heirloom cherry tomato salad, avocado, tuna belly confit in olive oil ($85)
How have things changed for you since winning our Foodie Forks Chef of the Year award in 2013?
Winning the award back then was actually super unexpected. We were new to Hong Kong and not very much into marketing or advertising. Suddenly being nominated for that award and winning – it was life changing. For me, personally, it gave me a lot of confidence coming into a new country. Actually, I have a funny story that not many people in Hong Kong know.
At the Foodie Forks party, I met Malcolm Wood [Global Managing and Culinary Director of Maximal Concepts]. That night, he gave me his name card, and then he says, “If someday you want to open a restaurant, contact me. I want to work with you.” At that moment I was working at BCN, but a few months later. I was looking for a change and wanting to explore other areas. So I say, “Remember that guy I met at the Foodie Forks?” I tried to find his name card, but I lost it. So I went to Foodie’s Facebook page, found his photo, sent him a message through Facebook and we met the next day. That’s how I became Group Executive Chef at Maximal Concepts for the next four years.
That’s amazing! All thanks to Foodie Forks...
So funny, right? Actually, his first approach was not to make me an executive. I went there [to Maximal] to open up a Spanish restaurant. But we couldn’t find a suitable location, and then he says, “OK, why don’t you help us open Fish & Meat? Why don’t you help us open Stockton? Why don’t you help us open Mott 32?” So I started doing all the openings and became involved in all the development at Maximal. And it all started at the Foodie Forks awards 2013.
What happened next?
After four years at Maximal, I got a bit tired of Hong Kong. I was blaming Hong Kong for all my stress, and I got an opportunity to work in Manila. Two months in Manila were enough to realise my problem was not Hong Kong – it was my approach to Hong Kong. It was my choice to do tastings and end up partying and getting caught up in that lifestyle. So I thought, maybe I can come back to Hong Kong in a more relaxed way. Then I met Sherman Tang [founder of Epicurean Group]. He gave me an opportunity to open a restaurant. So, one year after Manila, I came back to Hong Kong to open Pica Pica. This is our first concept, but my goal is to open more concepts with them and oversee all the culinary parts of that.
Chef Barahona in his very stylish Mercedes me Store apron
Since you arrived in Hong Kong, how has the culinary scene changed?
Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s changed or stayed the same. After eight years of experience, you see things with different eyes. In the past five or six years, the restaurant business has definitely become more competitive. Bigger groups are doing amazing things. At the start you had Dining Concepts, Epicurean... Now you have many new players – Pirata Group, Black Sheep – and they’re nailing it! So now opening a new restaurant, you have so many competitors to look at. I don’t think it was as competitive when we started; we didn’t feel the same kind of pressure. In the past few years, I’ve seen so many restaurants that I loved close. Hong Kong is not very easy, but it’s still a good market. We’re very happy with how Pica Pica is doing.
Do you find that Hong Kong diners are receptive to Spanish cuisine?
I’ve found a very big change between seven years ago and now. Seven years ago, I had to explain to some clients what Ibérico ham was. Some thought it was raw – I had to explain it was cured. Today, people know a lot more. The questions towards Spanish food are a lot more specific and specialised. People know specific regions, they know the ingredients. As a chef interacting with customers, it’s more fun because I can have deeper conversations.
What was your inspiration for Pica Pica?
It was a shared vision between myself and Sherman. Many times, the media focus on the chef, but I think it’s important to mention that it’s a whole team. We wanted to do something like what you get in Spain. We often get told that Pica Pica doesn’t feel like Hong Kong. Nothing wrong with Hong Kong – I love Hong Kong! But we wanted to be able to take someone somewhere else for awhile through food with original flavours and a casual environment with a lot of energy.
The red prawn hot dog ($120) is one of Pica Pica’s most popular dishes
Can you tell me a bit about the new summer menu?
We’ve become a neighbourhood restaurant. We’ve had many people come multiple times in six months. We realise that change is important, so we decided to change our menu every three or four months. What inspired this menu is summer– colourful vegetables, fruits, fresh flavours. We have three new salads, we have flowers, and it just looks like summer to me!
Which dish on the summer menu are you most proud of?
This is totally my personal taste – this dish is not better than the others – but I love the lamb. For this dish, we had the opportunity to bring in Ibérico lamb from Spain. The reason it’s called “Ibérico” is because the level of omega 3 is much higher than other lamb. It’s an intense flavour, quite gamy. It’s a beautiful product to me.
Slow-roasted Ibérico lamb short rib, romesco, apple aioli ($155)
What are three ingredients you can’t live without?
Extra-virgin olive oil, no doubt. Without extra-virgin olive oil, there is no Spanish cooking. Second would be rice – we eat a lot of rice in Spain. Third, probably bread. Carbs and fat! But healthy fat.
The proof is in the pudding: Chef Barahona’s dark chocolate, hazelnut, salt and extra-virgin olive oil ($70)
Have you found any difficulties sourcing ingredients in Hong Kong?
No. It’s so easy. It’s actually much easier than in Spain. The fact that Hong Kong doesn’t have any local production means that they’ve developed logistics all over the world. If you want Spanish products, obviously Spain is better than Hong Kong. But that’s all you get – you have limited suppliers. In Hong Kong, if I want Japanese fish, I can ask eight different suppliers. I want Ibérico ham, I have 20 different suppliers. I want anything from anywhere in the world, I can get it here. I don’t think there are many places in the world where chefs have as much access to products from all over the world as they do in Hong Kong.
Are there any Asian ingredients that have inspired your cooking?
My cooking in general, yes. But at Pica Pica, no. We stayed away from ponzu, soy sauce, ginger. We love them, but we wanted to take people out of Hong Kong for a bit. The only non-Spanish product we have is Wagyu beef. But, the way we cook it, it’s a Spanish dish.
Wagyu steak tartare on charred bone marrow ($170)
When you’re not in the kitchen, what are your favourite restaurants in Hong Kong?
I like Yardbird – I go to Yardbird all the time. First of all, because it’s very close, and I love the team. It’s comfort food to me. I recently tried Kakure. It happens to be from my company, but it’s not because of that. I keep going back because the Japanese chef makes the sushi just like how I had it when I was living in Tokyo. It’s super high-quality sushi without having to spend too much. For casual dining, I like Pici. I like Pirata Group a lot. I like simple, consistent food done with love. If I like something, I keep coming back to it. I keep forgetting to try new places!
Do you have any advice for chefs or restaurateurs starting out in Hong Kong?
It’s a very competitive place. There are hundreds of things you have to consider. If you think that by having good food or a bartender or marketing team, you’ll be successful – you’re wrong. You need a team. Hong Kong is a place to play as a team. In Spain, you can be a one-man band, but with the competition here, you need a team. Get surrounded by the most talented people you can find because you will need them.
Pica Pica pina colada ($80), made with real rum
Try out Chef Barahona’s new summer menu at Pica Pica now!
317–321 Des Voeux Road Central, Sheung Wan, 2811 988, book online
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