A Day In The Life… Chef ArChan Chan

Imagine a chef at work, and you might picture someone in starched whites slaving away in front of a hot stove all day. But the notion that chefs’ only task is to cook is about as realistic as thinking they only eat fancy fare at home (they don’t). After factoring in the roles of personnel manager, businessman, inventory accountant, supply chain manager and more, there’s just about enough time in the day to get the creative cogs churning for menu creation and leading service. In this new series, we ask our chefs to let us in on a day in their life, from first thing in the morning when they hit the snooze button until it is lights out.

Chef ArChan has long held a deep love and appreciation for Cantonese cuisine. Despite spending the bulk of her culinary career abroad, ArChan has always felt the nostalgic pull for the food of her hometown, even penning her first cookbook as an ode to local Hong Kong foods while she was working and living in Singapore.

Now, displaying her culinary chops for the first time ever in her hometown, Chef ArChan calls it “serendipitous” that her homecoming, sparking the next chapter in her culinary journey would fall so perfectly in sync with the next evolution of Ho Lee Fook. Taking up the mantle as head chef, Chef ArChan faces her greatest career challenge yet: finding creative ways to reimagine a beloved Hong Kong institution, while retaining the irreverent nature and playful spirit that has become synonymous with Ho Lee Fook. Boasting a sophisticated new look and revamped menu with stronger ties than ever to the restaurant’s Hong Kong roots, Ho Lee Fook recently threw open its doors on Elgin Street; below, Chef ArChan takes us behind-the-scenes of opening week.

9am: Wake up, make my coffee, check my phone and emails, look through today’s agenda, and read some industry news sent through from our Comms team. Tonight is special as my parents will be joining us at the restaurant.

9:30am: Reflect on last night’s service and guest feedback, and think of how to improve service flow and quality of the dishes tonight. Some feedback we received the night before: salt & pepper tofu not crispy enough; honey on the char siu glaze too floral; razor clams could be more tender; prawn roe stirred noodles a bit hard to share as the noodles are too long; difficult for some team members to make the sugar floss on top of the sweet & sour pork.

Research and think up some methods of improvement: move the tofu to another section and try a different coating method; use a less floral honey and also mix half honey and maltose for the glaze; test how far we can push down the cooking timing of the razor clams; cut the noodles before serving; try adding a glucose element to the floss for better results.

Communicate the changes we are trying with the team tonight.

10:30am: My admin time. Reply Comms team on some questions about the menu, communicate to design team on the upcoming menu changes as we are adding dishes to the menu as we progress. For the first week, we have a few old favourites on the menu and new dishes like steamed seafood and wok-fried vegetables. Now we are ready to bring back our signature roasts such as goose and crispy skin three yellow chicken (which takes a few days to prepare), as well as wok-fried cheong fan with XO sauce.

Follow up with my kitchen equipment supplier as we have ordered a new vacuum pack machine as well as CVap machine. Also follow up with our kitchen contractor to see when the rack will be installed so we can hang our lovely roasted meat next to the window.

11am: Look through reservations for today: there’s a guest with a nut allergy, as well as a no seafood guest. Send a message to my kitchen team to remind them to avoid cross contamination on nuts. Tonight, we have some return guests, as well as another guest who pre-ordered the live lobster with yi mein which she tried and loved during our pop-up.

11:30am: Time for shopping! First, I stop for dried seafood ingredients at Wing Luen Marine Products in Sheung Wan. I love this place as there are so many different varieties of the same product—you can smell, try and ask questions. They have dried prawns from Cheung Chau which we use for our Stir Fry King; it’s sun-dried raw, resulting in a very sweet aroma. Today I’m also getting prawn roe for our stirred noodles, dried scallop, dried shrimp and sakura prawns for our Ho Lee Fook XO sauce. It’s very dangerous for a chef to walk into this store—just like a kid walking into a toy store! I also purchase some dried whelk to try with our supreme broth.

12pm: Second stop is Sheung Wan Market. Stop by 中大行 noodles shop to get fresh egg noodles. Then do a quick walkaround to survey the vegetables from every stall; today the dou miao from May Lan vegetable stall looks the best, so I purchase 1.5 catty (900g). Spot a really fresh-looking packet of peanut sprouts, get that as well as it might work well in our Stir Fry King.

On the way back I like to stop by Stazione Novella: Josh is my favourite barista; not only does he make a great coffee, he draws a different animal every time with his latte art, and he has the best smile that you can see even behind his mask. That’s the best way to start my shift.

1pm: Back in the kitchen I put away my shopping, greet my kitchen and front-of-house team, and have a chat with our construction workers to see how things are going. They are working on some finishing touches: gold handles on the glass doors shaped like fortune cookies (how cute is that?).

The new dining room is looking amazing with nice comfortable banquettes, soft lantern lights, and my favourite part, black mahjong tiles with ‘hidden’ winning combinations (all the fun touches you’d expect from Ho Lee Fook). Of course, we’ve brought back the wall of waving good fortune cats.

In the kitchen we have an extra wok and oven for our double boiled soup and steamed live seafood—classic Hong Kong dishes. The BBQ meat section is now next to the window so we can display our goose and crispy skin chicken.

2pm: Check the quality of produce delivered by our supplier: live razor clams, tiger prawns, clams, whole fish catch of the day, and our special live Australian lobster. Have a chat with each section head and see how prep is going. Double-check reservations to see if there are any changes on dietary requirements.

3pm: Start making my Welcome Home Soup. Inspired by my mum, who always made soup for me when I returned to Hong Kong, this daily-changing soup is sent to all our guests as a sort of ‘welcome back’ to Ho Lee Fook, as well as to warm them up in this chilly weather. Tonight’s soup is one of my favourites: chicken and coconut soup with corn and dried dates. It’s a soup my mum often cooks for me, and it’s my first time to make this soup for her. Hope she’s happy with the taste!

4pm: Family meal. We have a kitchen roster for who cooks family meal every day. Today our Korean interns have made us a home-cooked Korean meal; it’s also a great chance for them to try using the woks in the kitchen.

5pm: Make sure each section is ready for service, help out where needed and check on item counts.

5:15pm: Meet with my superstar FOH team: Lauren, Rebecca, Amy, Brian and Nathan. Brief them on today’s Welcome Home Soup, the catch of the day and cooking style, share stories of the dishes, remind them what we discussed during last night’s debriefing, and mention a few off-menu dishes we’ll send to our repeat guests.

6pm: I make sure all sections are ready and set up, and check on plates. Make sure I have a highlighter on the pass. Check if the docket machine is working. Give the entire area a wipe.

Once the first guest arrives, we are in focus mode. We have a really strong team in the kitchen: our head chef Jack, sous chef Jordon, Gabe and Mason on roast and fryer, Seema, who’s been with us seven years on pastry, and Gilbert to look after the steam section and float on wok when it gets busy.

We send out the Welcome Home Soup. First order comes in for salt & pepper tofu, Chong Qing chicken wings, Chiu Chow clams, pork & cabbage dumplings, and prawn toasts—great way to start the meal! As the night progresses, most tables will order some seafood dish; the steamed razor clams are my personal favourite as it’s not easy to get live razor clams. Many guests also opt for an order of roast meat or the whole fish catch of the day.

My parents arrive and Brian, one of our FOH managers, who met my mum at the pop-up, gives her a big hug. So cute. It touches my heart when I can finally cook for them.

Meanwhile, our head chef Jack is cooking the specially ordered live lobster with cheesy sauce, seaweed butter and e-fu noodles that we served at the pop-up.

9pm: Make sure my team is drinking enough water, especially those on the wok section! Inform my pastry kitchen staff that the dessert wave is coming.

10pm: Hot kitchen service slows down as pastry ramps up. Draft orders for next day based on the reservations. Go to the dining room, chat with tables and see how their night went, gather feedback, introduce myself to guests I’ve never met before, answer questions and share stories. Sometimes my FOH team will bring me shots to drink with the guests.

Make sure everyone is having a great time, including my team members.

11pm: Check there are no more orders. Kitchen should be done cleaning up, final check on ordering for tomorrow, get everyone in the kitchen a chilled drink (usually Tsingtao beer!). Gather all the laundry, switch off everything, say goodnight to my kitchen team. Text them the start time for tomorrow, and thank them for their hard work. Say goodbye to the last guest and thank them for joining us.

12am: FOH debriefing to get feedback and make notes on what went well and what we can improve on tomorrow. Thank all the FOH team members and say goodnight.

Walk (roll) home.

1am: Cook some dumplings. Shower, go through notes, reflect on the day, plan for the next day, plan the Welcome Home Soup based on dietary requirements, see what I need to get from the market tomorrow, write down lists for menu items, ordering, maintenance, admin work.

Set alarm and lights out.

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