Chefs abroad: Brit Daniel Calvert on life and work in Hong Kong

‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,’ once wrote Marcel Proust. The French thinker had a point – travel has a knack for changing people’s opinions of the world. I can’t confirm Belon head chef Daniel Calvert had Proust in mind when leaving the UK in 2009, but his sentiments are much the same.

Daniel’s CV stretches back to 2004, when he became line cook at The Ivy. This before working among the brigades of Pied a Terre and Marylebone sister restaurant L’Autre Pied. Then, in 2009, Daniel left London to join Thomas Keller’s kitchen at Per Se in New York. A decision made, he says, because he wanted to ‘grow as a person’.

‘I left the UK because I wanted the experience of living and working abroad,’ says Daniel. ‘And to become more open minded and develop a better understanding of other cultures. One big advantage of being a chef is the flexibility to be mobile and work around the globe. I also have always had the utmost admiration for Thomas Keller and aspired to work for him.’

A different perspective

After several years in the US, and a stint at Le Bristol’s Epicure in Paris, Daniel packed his bags for Hong Kong, where he was to sous for Australian chef James Henry at Belon, later assuming the role of head chef himself. It’s here he found more of what he was looking for – a refreshing, dynamic food scene unlike the Western/European cuisines he was accustomed to. ‘Not only are there strong Western and Asian influences in Hong Kong, but a strong identity of its own with the local Cantonese food,’ Daniel says. ‘In London, I could not leave my apartment and have excellent Peking duck or curry or ramen within five minutes.’

London – not to mention the rest of the UK – might be a melting pot of world cuisine, but there’s still a lot it lacks. Especially the kind of Peking duck (preferably devoured in a poorly lit basement with cheap beer for the proper experience) Daniel’s referring to. This goes deeper than just the food though – the UK industry as a whole could take a few notes from what’s going on in this part of Asia. While we have our pop-ups in department stores and restaurants in re-purposed Chinese shipping containers, resourcefulness isn’t quite on par with Hong Kong’s. ‘The UK industry could look at how you can build a successful restaurant out of any space in Hong Kong,’ says Daniel. ‘It could be the 24th floor of an office building, or a tiny hole-in-the-wall under a busy bridge. We use the spaces we have, because we don’t have many.’

How we can utilise such space is more psychological than anything else. While we may think we Brits have an appetite for the unfamiliar, truly distancing ourselves from our comfort requires a bit more work. Something Daniel says is also important for Brits looking for employment abroad. ‘Don’t just surround yourself with like-minded people,’ he explains. ‘It’s nice to have a supportive community from your home country, however my most enriching relationships have come from my friends from diverse backgrounds.’

Travelling and being open to new cultures has obviously become a new way of life for Daniel since leaving the UK. But the extent of the impact on him seems largely unprecedented.

In an interview for another publication, and while working at Per Se, Daniel said he’d like to someday return to the UK. With a view, perhaps, of opening his own restaurant. But that was in 2012, and it seems his experiences in Hong Kong might’ve changed his mind. For now, at least. ‘I go back to the UK frequently to see my family,’ he says. ‘However, for now there is more in the world for me to see.’

 

Photos courtesy of Hugh Thomas

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