Eleven Thousand Bowls of Soup
What happens when Michelin recognizes street food
It was almost noon on a Friday in the working-class Hong Kong neighborhood of Jordan, and Chiu Wing Keng was tired. The 28-year-old chef had been up until 6 that morning prepping ingredients in anticipation of a busy weekend at Kai Kai Dessert, his family’s two-floor storefront on Ning Po Street. Chiu’s father, Chiu Wai Yip, started Kai Kai nearly four decades ago, having learned the craft from his uncle. The family specializes in the kind of traditional Cantonese dessert soups that my mom, who immigrated to New York from Hong Kong in 1969, made when I was a kid: sweet red-bean soup with lotus seeds, silky egg-custard pudding, glutinous sesame rice balls drowned in ginger syrup.
In 2015, the Michelin Guide almost caused the family business to close. Kai Kai Dessert was one of two dozen establishments honored in the prestigious culinary guide’s first-ever listings for street food, introduced in the Hong Kong and Macau guide. It’s a nice idea: giving international attention to a longtime local shop so it can bring old-fashioned, painstakingly crafted flavors to a new audience. But the downside came quickly. Customer traffic went up 30 percent in the first month, and a few weeks later, the Chius’ landlord more than doubled their rent, to $27,000 — the equivalent of about 11,000 bowls of soup. That’s more than half the restaurant’s total monthly income.
High-end restaurants across the globe fret over the perks and perils of inclusion in the widely recognized Michelin food bible. How can I take advantage of the attention? Can I handle the increased business? Do I hire more people? Do I expand? Do I franchise? Do I do something — anything — different? But the new street-food category can threaten a restaurant’s very survival: For a hole in the wall serving $3 soups, a rent hike is disastrous. (There is no rent control in Hong Kong, and astronomical property costs make it the least affordable city in the world.) Kai Kai wasn’t the only Hong Kong shop endangered by Michelin — fellow street-food awardee Cheung Hing Kee, a Shanghai-style bun shop in the Tsuen Wan district, received its own crippling rent-hike notice and had to reopen elsewhere.
When describing his year after Michelin, Chiu is wry. “I think the first year,” he told me, “is the most dangerous.” In the midst of a frantic, fruitless search for affordable real estate, a loyal customer offered his commercial space to the Chius, and the 38-year-old business moved around the corner to its present, smaller location. (The current monthly rent works out to a more manageable 4,500 bowls of soup.)
Chiu is slim and boyish, with rectangle-framed glasses, strategically mussed bangs, and a shy smile. As the third-generation steward of his family’s craft, Chiu knew from an early age that he would work for the business, but he had concerns about its future. “This dessert is old-school,” he said, pointing to the 20-odd menu offerings posted on the wall in Chinese (Kai Kai also offers an English-language menu). He worried that the dishes would lose popularity with the younger set; Michelin helped, he said, with an injection of customers from the West.
Chiu led me back to the cramped rear kitchen. Ceramic bowls of golden egg custard lined the counters, and neat vats on the shelves and floor were filled with ingredients: toasted jet-black sesame seeds, white drifts of sugar, lotus seeds soaking in water. Tall steel pots bubbled on the stove, and the air bloomed with the full, fragrant scent of ginger. Chiu’s mother stuck her head into the kitchen and cautioned us about the freshly mopped floors. Chiu, his father, and his mother still do all of the cooking, and many of the dishes are labor-intensive. Chiu the elder, 58, a garrulous man with a shaved head, works only mornings now, preparing ingredients until opening at noon. When I arrived, he greeted me wearing no shirt and a big grin, and asked if I wanted a bowl of hot soup.
The Michelin recognition came as a surprise to the family. “We always thought the Michelin award was for fancy, high-class restaurants, not our kind of food,” Chiu the younger told me. The announcement of the street-food category — “a first in the history of the Michelin guides,” said Michael Ellis, the guides’ international director — also surprised many in the food world. Historically fine-dining focused, Michelin has been criticized in recent years for lacking relevance in a world where meals are exhaustively documented by the likes of Yelp, Eater, and any number of opinionated online food guides. Ellis explained the launch as specific to Hong Kong: “Street food is part of the local way of life. The city never sleeps, the streets are constantly bustling, and Hong Kong residents love to eat out, without necessarily sitting down and spending a lot of money.” Some observers, like the guide Lifestyle Asia, accused Michelin of getting gimmicky with “a ploy to show that they actually are in touch with how Hong Kong eats.”
In many ways, the listings are a natural culmination of the worldwide fetishization of street food: Places like Kogi BBQ, the L.A. taco truck that launched the Roy Choi mega-empire, have elevated humble foods to the status of haute cuisine. But they also reflect Michelin’s savvy investment in Asia. Originally focused on Europe, Michelin now has guides covering nearly 50 regions around the globe. The 2017 debuts include guides to Seoul and Shanghai, also street-food meccas, and the street-food category has expanded to Singapore.
Chiu told me that the street-food designation doesn’t bother him, mostly because he doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to mean. “Does ‘street food’ mean a lesser thing?” he asked. In any case, he said he would never dream of getting a star — it’s too much pressure. When I visited, the mood at Kai Kai was one of cheerful relief; two days before, Michelin had handed out the second year of Hong Kong street-food awards, and Kai Kai had made the list again. “Now I wonder about what happens if they stop giving it to us — that people will say, ‘What happened? They must have done something wrong.’”
The main change in the business, Chiu said, is that he works more — and worries more. During the evening rush, customers wait patiently outside, queuing up past the bamboo construction scaffolding of the building next door. Up until closing at 4 a.m. and for a couple hours after, Chiu keeps busy in the kitchen: toasting, washing, and hand-grinding sesame; stewing papaya; cooking down sugar syrup. “If Michelin never comes here again, it would be unfortunate, but it probably wouldn’t make that huge a difference,” he told me. “It won’t kill me.” He paused. “But the fact that they came the first time, that’s the thing that almost killed us.”
When I asked him what he thinks makes his family’s traditional desserts so special, he paused for a long while. I could hear the quiet slurps of the customers seated at the wooden communal tables behind me. Finally, he said, “It’s food for your heart. Why is it so good? It’s because we do everything ourselves. Now people ask us, ‘Do you want to go to Taiwan, do you want to go to China? Do you want to open more shops, a franchise?’ I say no. This bowl of food that I make and bring out to you, with my own hands ….” He shakes his head. “It wouldn’t be the same.”