AFTER moving to London in 2001, Chef Tong Chee Hwee has continuously showcased just how good contemporary Chinese cuisine can be. From winning a Michelin Star after just one year as Head Chef at Hakkasan, to launching his own high-end restaurant, Gouqi, the sky is just the limit for this taste explosion deliverer.
Chef Tong Chee Hwee
What were your biggest influences and inspirations behind launching Gouqi?
The launch of Gouqi Restaurant marks my return to the London restaurant scene after leaving Hakkasan Group as Executive Chef of 18 years in 2019.
The simple and modern style of Gouqi Restaurant is located opposite the Canadian Embassy in Trafalgar Square. I have incorporated the essence of my experience and hope to bring a new era of innovation in contemporary Chinese cuisine.
The fine dining Chinese restaurant is inspired by the Gouqi Island in the East China Sea, just south-east of Shanghai and east of Hangzhou. It is the second largest island in Shengsi County, Zhoushan City. It was also once a thriving fishing settlement until the small bay couldn’t support the ever-increasing number of fishing boats. In only a few decades, the village has turned into an abandoned paradise reclaimed by nature with green ivy swallowing every former home.
The name “Gouqi” derives from the plant which grows on it, Gouji (Goji; Wolfberry). Gouqi is traditionally viewed as a symbol of health and vitality and which informs the ethos of the restaurant.
What made you want to return to the London restaurant scene?
Since living in the UK for many years, I feel this is my home, and I have dreamed of opening my first restaurant in London for a very long time after travelling around Asia.
What made you leave in the first place?
I felt it was time to take the next step and explore other opportunities at another level, and overcome new challenges after 18 years at Hakkasan Group.
What did you learn from your time working with Chef Chin Hon Yin?
Chef Chin Hon Yin was my mentor, and I followed him throughout Asia for 14 years developing my culinary skills and techniques. I started as a Commis Chef and worked my way up to Head Chef at the 5 Star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Singapore.
He taught me that cooking is a way of life, and every dish must be cooked with passion to offer the best possible dining experience to our guests. I learned to work with integrity, initiative and embrace every aspect of cooking.
How do you utilise these skills today?
I still practice all of those lessons today, and share my passion, skills and knowledge to develop my kitchen team. I am very proud of what the team has achieved since the opening of Gouqi in February 2023.
What are the most recognisable differences between traditional and contemporary Chinese cuisine?
Traditional Chinese cuisine is the authenticity and simplicity from the selection of raw materials, the preservation, preparation, the cooking, and the presentation of the dishes. Contemporary styles can be used to adapt dishes whilst maintaining the traditional ingredients and flavours.
What do you think Alan Yau saw in yourself that set you apart from the other chefs?
Alan Yau interviewed around 60-70 Head Chefs, and I felt very lucky that he chose me to be the Group Executive Chef of Hakkasan. He trialled my cooking 3-4 times and he recognised my potential and consistency. I am very grateful that he believed in my ability and that we shared the same vision, and work ethic.
Did you have any doubts when initially moving to London? What did you predict your main challenges to be?
I was not familiar with Western culture or prepared for the cold winter seasons. It took me 4-6 months to settle down in London. My main challenges were my lack of contacts when I first arrived, and the language barrier – however I was very lucky to have a lot of support around me and I was motivated by the new challenge when I moved here.
How did it feel to be a part of the UK’s first Chinese restaurant team that was awarded a Michelin star?
It was one of my biggest accomplishments in my professional career to receive the first Michelin Star in UK at Hakkasan Hanway Place. I was very proud that the hard work and passion of the team had been appreciated by a different culture and it lead to the expansion of Hakkasan Group in London (Hakkasan Mayfair, Yauatcha Soho and City, and HKK) and then globally.
One day I came to work as normal, and there were a lot of photographers in the kitchen. I was initially confused as nobody informed me that we had achieved this accolade. At the time, the Michelin Guide was not launched yet in Singapore or Hong Kong so I didn’t expect this to happen. I feel very grateful and humbled.
What are you most excited about for the future of Gouqi?
I am most excited that I am still able to imagine and create new dishes to a high standard, and cook for our loyal guests. The Chinese name of Gouqi Restaurant, 唐舍 [Táng shě] directly translates to “Tong’s House”, as I would like all our guests to feel as if I am cooking for them at home. I look forward to the future of Gouqi as this is just the beginning of a new chapter.
by Alicia Tomkinson