Under the Knife: Andrew Wong on Kym's

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

 Andrew Wong on Kym's

Related tags: Andrew Wong, Chinese Food, White Rabbit Fund

In the first of our Under the Knife series, sponsored by Nisbets In Place, we speak to Andrew Wong, whose new City restaurant Kym’s is a play for more mainstream territory and will see the Michelin-starred chef explore the ancient art of Chinese roasting.

The inspiration for Andrew Wong’s new restaurant Kym’s is an etching found on an ancient Chinese wall that depicts people roasting meats. It’s some 2,500 years old. “Chinese roasting is a magical set of techniques refined over thousands of years. I don’t think many people appreciate just how sophisticated it is. I’m hoping to change that,” says the chemistry and social anthropology graduate turned Michelin-starred chef.

“Take pork belly for example. It’s half ham and half roast pork with perfectly rendered fat beneath crispy skin that won’t break your teeth when you bite into it. Sure, a western chef could achieve that by deconstructing and then reassembling it. But in China it’s one piece of meat.”

Wong’s Cantonese-style crispy pork belly is made in the traditional way that involves making thousands of tiny holes in the skin using a spiked hammer, treating the skin with a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice and bicarbonate before hanging it to dry in front of a fan.

The roasting process starts off gently – the aim is to soufflé the skin – but then the heat is increased to levels rarely seen in a western kitchen. In fact, the oven is so scorchingly hot it turns the skin black. The burnt stratum is scrapped off and the belly is cooked a second time to render fully the fat in the meat and achieve a thin but very crisp layer of skin.

Soy chicken – which is part of the Chinese roasting canon despite it never going near an oven – utilises low-temperature cooking, predating the modern water bath by several Millennia. Small head-on birds are blanched in water before being poached in a powerfully flavoured mixture of soy sauce, rock sugar and spices. “It’s an unbelievably clever technique. You have low-temperature cooking but you also have brining. The mix is so salty that the chicken stays perfectly moist as it cooks,” says Wong.

Kym's-Spread

Wonton cruelty: Kym's does not do dim sum

Heading east

Kym’s opens early this month in the City and is a follow-up to the 36-year-old chef’s critically acclaimed A Wong in Victoria​ (it’s been ranked number three on Restaurant magazine’s list of the top 100 places to eat in the country two years running). Wong opened the latter in 2012 with his wife Nathalie on the site of his parents’ Anglo-Cantonese restaurant following the death of his father.

That restaurant was also called Kym’s but Wong’s new place in the towering and unapologetically modern Bloomberg Arcade development – his neighbours include Koya and Brigadiers – isn’t a homage to his parents’ old place. Yet it is a play for more mainstream territory and is to some extent a contemporary re-imagining of the standard Chinese restaurant model.

Kym’s was originally designed as an ultra-specialist Chinese roasted meat restaurant with just a handful of dishes, but has evolved into a broader offering. That said, the menu is tiny when compared to most Chinese restaurants with about 40 items in total.

“If my dad was still alive he would have taken one look at the menu at the new Kym’s and told me that it would not work,” says Wong. “My parents’ generation can’t get their heads round smaller menus. Twenty or even 10 years ago, they may have been right. But people are increasingly understanding of the fact that a smaller menu usually means better quality.”

The curse of big menus

Smaller menus solve one of the principle challenges of running a Chinese restaurant in 2018. Chefs skilled in cooking Chinese food are as difficult to find as they are expensive. Traditionally, Chinese restaurant kitchens have several specialist sections that each require highly skilled staff to cook within them and – in busier restaurants – a support team of prep chefs and expeditors.

A standard Anglo-Cantonese restaurant also relies heavily on the wok, a skills and time-intensive form of à la minute cooking that has the potential to cause bottlenecks and restrict the amount of covers a Chinese restaurant can do. Hakkasan, for example, does hundreds of covers a night, but this requires an enormous back of house and legions of expensive wok chefs.

Roast meats are a much better fit for a high-volume operation. Focusing on that product category will allow Kym’s to serve up to 300 people a day from just three sections: roast meats, wok and cold food. “It’s the solution to the skills crisis Chinese restaurants are facing,” says Wong, whose key hires at the new restaurant include two experienced roast meat chefs. “While my dad would have had his reservations about the menu, he would have loved the volume we can do here. Old school Chinese are all about the numbers.”

Lunch is designed to be a fast, almost hawker market-esque, experience. “People in the City are generally looking for a quick meal at lunchtime,” says Wong, who hopes to get people in and out in as little as 30 minutes. Food will be ordered on individual trays containing a meat, rice, Chinese greens and pickles.

PorkBelly

Canteen style: most lunch dishes will be served on trays

The same quick turnaround experience will be offered in the evening but a more expansive menu opens up the possibility of a more involved meal. The menu is contemporary in style, arranged into small plates, skewers, fritters, sharing dishes, sides and sweets.

Dishes include lemongrass salad with peanuts, lettuce, chilli and lime; silken tofu, 100-year egg, garlic soy; crispy duck with pancake and plum; Uyghur fries with Thai shallot and mango powder; and Hong Kong pineapple bun with custard. There are a handful of plates that are versions of A Wong classics too, including the Xian City lamb burger with pomegranate, sesame and peanuts; Iberico pork char siu; and Sichuanese-spiced aubergine. Kym’s is affordable for the area with most small plates around the £6 to £8 mark and larger plates averaging at about £15.

The food at A Wong is probably best described as modern Chinese. Wong takes dishes from all over China and tweaks them, in some cases adding technical and modernist flourishes, but not to the extent the dishes cease to feel authentically Chinese.

By contrast, the food at Kym’s will generally rely more heavily on traditional Chinese recipes. Wong says that many Chinese restaurants skip some of the more labour-intensive and costly stages of roast meat preparation. For example, after soy chicken has been poached, it’s traditionally glazed with maltose and Chinese rose wine. But the wine is expensive and brushing every single bird with the glaze is time consuming. “We’re actually rethinking standard practices in restaurants today by looking at older recipes,” says Wong.

Some of the snacks and small plates will be more reminiscent of A Wong, though. “There will be a bit of tweaking. Some things will be more 2018, and, dare I say it, more Instagram-friendly.”

Like A Wong, the menu will strike a balance between the familiar and the less so. “The reality is that some people still order Chinese food by number. I don’t want them to come in and not know what’s going on. But we make a point of preparing the more obvious dishes in the proper way. Our sweet and sour ribs aren’t the bright orange things you find in some restaurants, they’re Sichuan-style and coated in a caramel made out of red vinegar, rock sugar, star anise and herbs.”

And then there are the spring rolls. Wong was originally going to avoid this particular staple which – along with prawn toast – is often the low point of a Chinese meal because they’re almost always bought-in frozen. There’s even a newspaper article online about Kym’s entitled ‘Andrew Wong on Chinese food and why he won’t serve spring rolls’, but he has changed his mind.

“I have very specific criteria about what a good spring roll is. It needs to contain mung bean noodles, wood-ear fungus, carrot, shredded cabbage and perfectly crisp bean sprouts. You also need to use an additional layer of pastry to get that extra crispness. With the numbers we’re hoping to do it’s going to be an unbelievable amount of work.”

Aubergine

A Wong classic: Sichuan-style aubergine

Unfamiliar demographic

There is a fair bit of buzz about Wong’s new place but with an unfamiliar demographic, a new market segment and a totally different style of operation, Kym’s certainly has the makings of a tricky second album for Wong and his business partner Terry Kuet. Yet there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the project, which is technically the chef’s third restaurant outing (he quietly consulted on a restaurant in New Delhi called Baoshuan last year).

First and foremost is Wong’s unquestionable talent, but a close second is the involvement of investor Chris Miller. His venture capital business White Rabbit Fund backs some of the capital’s most exciting restaurant groups, including new-wave Indian outfit Kricket and Island Poké.

“I’m just concerned with the creative,” he says. “All that other stuff at A Wong that I try to fob off to my wife gets done by a big team of specialist people. The things they account for is extraordinary. When we opened A Wong, we just bought some chairs and tables. At Kym’s, we’re having discussions about optimum table heights. My mum does not get it. The Chinese approach is to just get a table and put some people on it.”

She also can’t fathom why her son has staff working in the restaurant three weeks ahead of the opening. “When my parents opened the original Kym’s they got the keys off the builder on Monday and opened on Tuesday. She can’t understand why we’d have chefs here cooking before the doors open. But there’s a lot riding on this opening. People won’t be as forgiving as they were last time,” says Wong, who received a highly favourable early doors write-up from Evening Standard critic Fay Maschler despite the restaurant being very much a work in progress.

The critics and customers are likely to be less tolerant of mistakes the second time round, especially in a less personal, high-volume restaurant that has been designed to generate its investors serious cash. Wong says he doesn’t know if further Kym’s restaurants will open, but given his involvement with a company that has a track record of scaling up businesses, it seems likely there will eventually be more than one.

Kym’s has an open kitchen to the rear that pretty much spans the length of the restaurant and a sunken bar to the left that partly obscures the grab-and-go counter. The focal point of the restaurant is an up-lit blossom tree that is positioned over a curved staircase that leads up to a mezzanine area that can be used as a semi private dining room when required.

The design playbook is eclectic with subtle Chinese references including reclaimed turquoise terracotta roof tiles and textured natural plaster walls.

Kyms-Interior

In the spotlight: Wong can expect more critical attention this time round

Eyeing up grab-and-go

In the run-up to the opening of Kym’s it seemed likely the restaurant would have a delivery element, however, access issues at Bloomberg Arcade mean couriers can’t come and pick the food up.

Earlier this year, Wong and Miller launched a delivery concept that traded side-by-side with Kricket’s delivery brand Namma and Island Poké within the Deliveroo Editions kitchen in Whitechapel. Called The Chinese Takeaway, the service traded under a licensing and royalty agreement with White Rabbit Fund’s delivery offshoot Hutch, with Wong responsible for creating the menu and Miller’s team handling day-to-day operations. Hutch wound down its operations at the site in August.

Though it was not billed as such at the time, Wong says The Chinese Takeaway was always intended as an R&D exercise designed to inform the takeaway offering at Kym’s. Miller is on record as describing the business model at Deliveroo Editions sites as “not that exciting for us” (the company funds the bricks and mortar and fits out the kitchen and is understood to take a cut of around a third) so this seems likely to be the primary reason for the short-lived nature of the project.

Like any self-respecting Anglo-Cantonese restaurant, the original Kym’s offered the entirety of its menu to takeaway and also via delivery. “Some things look and taste very different after steaming for 20 minutes in a foil container,” says Wong. “My parents did not think they needed to alter anything to make the food more transportable. We’re at the stage now where we know that’s not the case. Chinese food is tricky because it’s quite varied. Some dishes are fine but items that rely on having a specific texture don’t tend to travel well.”

It is for this reason that Wong put a stop to takeaway at A Wong soon after opening after it became clear the restaurant’s dishes did not travel well. “Hutch was invaluable,” continues Wong. “We did a lot of work on how roast meat travels. We don’t want to spend a day and a half making sure the pork skin is perfectly crispy for it then to arrive limp.”

Kym’s will offer grab-and-go only but, with its own dedicated counter, it is expected to be an important part of the business. Wong is hoping to partly recreate the chaotic atmosphere of a busy Hong Kong restaurant with staff bellowing out order numbers and a somewhat abrupt service style.

“When I think back to the meals I’ve had in Asia, that hustle and bustle and controlled chaos is an important part of the food memory,” says Wong, who admits that when he was staffing up the for the grab-and-go counter he was basically looking for someone like his mum, whose matriarchal and somewhat combative approach to customer service at the old Kym’s was legendary. “Increased professionalism has the potential to make restaurants feel a bit sterile. I want Kym’s to have a bit of that old school, raw feel and that curtness that Chinese restaurants are so famous for. But it’s not something we can force. I might get my mum to come in and do a couple of lunch shifts, though.”

The grab-and-go menu costs just £10 for a main dish – options include slow-poached soy chicken with ginger relish; and Sichuanese spiced aubergine – and a side. Extras including spring rolls; and crispy seaweed can be added for £3 a pop.

Kyms-Int.-with-Tree

Branching out: Wong is confident he can maintain standards at A Wong

Two Wongs make a right

Wong is not overly concerned with the transition from one to two restaurants. He remains a regular presence at the pass at A Wong but, since the project in India with hotel giant Oberoi, he has become more comfortable with the idea of running a restaurant remotely.

“I like to think that I’m really important and without me it would all burn down, but that’s never been the case really. The main lesson from A Wong and Baoshuan is that if you’re meticulous about getting the right team in place, it will be fine. The two roasting chefs we have at Kym’s are incredibly talented. I could not do what they do and roast for big numbers within a rolling seven-day operation. A Wong and Kym’s are only 18 minutes away from each other on the District and Circle line. It’s a cliche, but I’ll spend as much time as I need to in each place.”

A Wong won a Michelin star in the 2018 edition of the guide, an accolade that many in the industry felt was long overdue. While he welcomes the recognition, it hasn’t made much of a change to the business. “If we were somewhere like Nuneaton where my grandad first got off the boat, it would have had a much more noticeable effect, but we’re in central London. For me the star was like the run-up to my wedding; the planning for it and looking forward to it was better than the event itself. Life is pretty much the same, only slightly better. The most positive thing about the star is that it makes diners more likely to embrace the fact we’re doing something a bit different.”

The last time Restaurant profiled Wong he said he was toying with the idea of going tasting menu-only and decreasing the number of covers to allow him to make the food even more ambitious. While he hasn’t quite ruled this out, the passage of time and his experience creating Kym’s has given him pause for thought.

“As I’ve got a bit older, I’ve become more pragmatic. First off, I don’t want to ruin a good business by becoming too esoteric. Secondly, I didn’t listen that much during my degree in anthropology but one thing that really stuck with me was the importance of commensality.”

As the offspring of Chinese restaurateurs, this is something that Wong largely missed out on as a child. Evening meals were wolfed down at the bar at Kym’s before homework, followed by more homework.

“But now I have children of my own I’ve realised how important it is. People like to order dishes to share and currently much of the tasting menu is served family-style. I don’t want to dilute the dining experience by being more prescriptive about what people eat and serving food in smaller individual portions. I’m not sure how it will unfold yet, but if I can work out a way to serve ambitious Chinese food while retaining that feeling of commensality, I will have hit the jackpot.”

The prospect of the building that houses A Wong being redeveloped has made Wong think more carefully about the future of the restaurant and what he wants to achieve than he might have otherwise. “We have a minimum of five years here so it’s a way off. Nathalie and I do have a strong emotional attachment to the building. It’s where we met (some 16 years ago when it was Kym’s) and we literally built A Wong together. But we’re not looking to create a dynasty here. I don’t want my kids to work in and eventually inherit the restaurant. So I look at having a deadline as a positive. It means that if I want the restaurant to achieve this or that I need to get off my arse."

Andrew Wong on the cooking equipment that makes his kitchens tick

Nisbets

Wok (and high-powered wok burner)
“As a Chinese chef, the wok is the single most important thing. It’s the perfect piece of equipment. At a push, you could perform every cooking technique that’s required at Kym’s with it – apart from the roasting. The wok is a simple and very affordable piece of cooking equipment. The snag is that it can’t be used properly without a high-powered burner, which needs to be several times more powerful than a traditional western hob. The fierce heat is essential. The food won’t be the same without it. We have the power at Kym’s and A Wong but we still cook food in small portions in small woks to ensure we get enough power. Powerful burners also help with throughput. Just a few tosses and it’s done.”

High-powered Chinese roasting oven

“This is the key piece of cooking equipment at Kym’s. It’s probably best described as an oversized tandoor, capable of handling whole ducks. And we can lower strips of pork belly in on skewers. It’s been a challenge to install: we’ve had to increase the size of the gas inlet to get the temperatures we need (around 370°C) and when we first turned it on, it melted the floor beneath. We’ve had to prop it up on ceramic tiles. Because of Chinese genetics, we’ve also had to invest in a little plastic step to allow my two roasting chefs to reach into it.”

Knives
“I use a mixture of traditional Asian knives and western knives, although some of the latter are actually made in the Japanese-style by a company called Glestain. The whole range has a scalloped edge to stop ingredients sticking, which I like. Traditionally, a Chinese chef has just one knife: a large cleaver that is used for everything from hacking bone and finely slicing spring onions to spreading out dumpling wrappers and smashing cucumber. It’s an incredibly versatile piece of equipment. There’s also a big benefit to chefs using the same tool day, in day out. Different parts of the blade are used for different jobs. The heel of the knife is used to bone out meat, the middle is used for hacking hard ingredients such as bone and the top of the end of the blade is used for more intricate work. It’s a heavy piece of kit but you can still be delicate with it. When I do use a western knife, it’s a standard chef knife or a paring knife. I find myself using the later a lot at A Wong because I’m generally on the pass where I do a lot of last-minute little garnishes.”

Salamander grill
“This is a piece of kit you’d never see in a traditional Chinese kitchen but I find it a really useful tool to regenerate some items and to use as a back-up when other kit goes down. We have one at A Wong and now Kym’s too. We were going to be cooking our skewers on a small yakitori-style grill but the people in charge of the building did not let us use it, so we’ll probably be using it for them in tandem with a blow torch.”

Kit parade

Chinese roasting oven ◆ ACK dual wok burner range ◆ Large rice cooker ◆ Convotherm steamer ◆ Rational Combi ◆ Falcon stock kettle Lincat salamander ◆ Lincat induction hobs ◆ Foster refrigeration (including walk-in fridge, draw units, upright fridges and freezers, and a blast chiller) ◆ Winterhalter warewasher

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In Place is an advice hub to help support restaurants to tackle issues today’s market. Starting with the all-important topics of food safety, equipment efficiency and presentation. Through thought leadership, influential stories and expert inspiration, we’re demonstrating practical solutions that improve efficiency, eliminate risk and boost productivity and pride.

Related topics: Venues, Under the Knife Series

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