Chef-owner of seasonal-based restaurant TABLE, Sandy Keung not only puts consciousness in her cuisine, but is also leading the way for a healthier, more sustainable way of eating.
Could you tell us about your background before opening TABLE by Sandy Keung?
I grew up in Hong Kong but moved to New York for school. I was a trained accountant and a hedge fund manager. I moved to Vietnam to do investment for the hedge fund before moving back here after three years. I became CFO for a listed company before leaving finance to open TABLE by Sandy Keung.
When did your passion for cooking begin?
When I was living in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, I had a large apartment with a gorgeous view and a beautiful kitchen. I would often entertain friends and colleagues and cook for them. I would get compliments for the dishes I prepared, and thought to myself, ‘perhaps this is something I could do as a profession’.
What made you decide to take the plunge?
I started to really enjoy cooking. So, I decided to test the waters. If things didn’t work out, I always had my finance background to fall back on. I volunteered to work in a French restaurant in Ho Chi Minh to see if it was really something I could adopt as a profession. In 2014, I left my career and CFO position and started Table by Sandy Keung.
What is the concept behind the restaurant?
When I started Table by Sandy Keung, I never had it in mind to define the cuisine by geographic location. I thought that would be restrictive – and it wasn’t reflective of my own upbringing and background. So, I thought, ‘why don’t I just focus on the ingredients instead’?
I decided to start an ingredient-based cuisine where we take ingredients that are in season and apply the best treatment and cooking method for them. I realise that this is quite a Hong Kong approach. After all, we are a melting pot of different things.
I think over the years people have gotten used to eating seasonal items from all over the world. To me, eating seasonally is also eating locally-sourced ingredients. I believe when you choose something that is in harmony with your environment, it contributes to your wellbeing – that is the true purpose of eating seasonally.
I guess as my culinary journey evolves, I’ve become more conscious about sustainability and going back to my roots – reflecting on what seasonality means, and what it means to eat seasonally. I explored traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and the principles of man and nature in harmony. In TCM, we believe that besides eating certain things that will contribute to our general well-being, there are also certain parts of the body – internal organs – that match with that particular season. For example, in summer it’s actually best for us to nourish the heart, so we should eat something that is cooling to combat the heat and lower the blood pressure.
What does this perspective mean for Table?
I’m taking Table a step further. Instead of just ‘Ingredient-based Cuisine’, I now define it as ‘Conscious Ingredient-based Cuisine’. It’s more than just the ingredients, we are more conscious of every step of the process involved, from intention to environment to the people. I realised that it is difficult to ask people to order a lot of vegetables, especially when you go to a seafood restaurant like mine. So, what I have started doing is incorporating seasonal local vegetables that Hongkongers have grown up with and are familiar with, such as bitter melon, winter melon and wax gourd (which are cooling for the body during the summer season) and added them into our daily soup or as part of an amuse bouche, so diners don’t really have a choice. [laughs]
This is not to say that we shouldn’t eat meat or seafood, but we do need ingredients that balance and nourish the right part of our body and mind, which is my way of gently pushing my guests to have a healthier and more balanced meal. Also, these are ingredients that you probably won’t see in a western restaurant. I like to think that this makes Table by Sandy Keung’s cuisine uniquely Hong Kong and uniquely Sandy’s.
“When I started Table by Sandy Keung, I never had it in mind to define the cuisine by geographic location. I thought that would be restrictive – and not reflective of my own upbringing” background”
Table by Sandy Keung treats its shellfish via depuration. Why is this important?
Depuration is actually a popular process of using non-thermal techniques to purify seafood naturally. This basically provides the shellfish with a cleaner and more appropriate environment, with the right temperature, pH level and salinity. This way the shellfish can naturally filter their metabolic waste and accumulated pollutants – offering cleaner and safer seafood for eating.
Considering that the city imports over 90 percent of live seafood from Europe, North America and other places far and near via “dry” shipping, for the time it takes the shellfish to arrive into the city, it is essential, in my opinion, that we do depuration upon arrival. Otherwise, it’s like not having a shower or going to the bathroom for three days.
Unfortunately, it is a process that isn’t well known in Hong Kong yet. Although they are used in modern swimming pools, such as those in hotels, or in high-end recreational fish aquariums, they aren’t used for food safety, which comes as a surprise to me since it is very common in Europe for water and shellfish treatment to improve food safety.
You also founded Good BBQ. Could you tell us more.
Good BBQ is a chain of siu mei restaurants (Hong Kong-style roast meat). I love siu mei and I would love to see this local favourite expand beyond our borders. We are actually opening a location in London in the near future which is very exciting, as I get to see this iconic Hong Kong dish reach other cities.
Do you have any advice for those planning to enter the F&B industry?
In any change you wish to make, ask yourself if this is something you can imagine yourself doing as a job. It’s one thing to enjoy doing something, it’s something entirely different when you have to do it for work. My advice is to try it out, before you decide.
Is there any particular memory that reminds you of your purpose as a chef?
There was one occasion during the pandemic when dining out was under strict restrictions. One of our regular customers had wanted to cheer up his elderly mother for not having been out for a long time. He had wanted to treat her to our signature crab rice on a Sunday, but because we were closed. So, he had asked our manager if he could pick up the dish the day before and be given instructions on how to reheat it instead. Instead, I told him to ask the guest, if he was truly serious about coming in on a Sunday, I would come in to cook the dish for him to pick up on the day. I feel joy and am grateful being able to be an instrument for a son to show love to his mother, or for people to share happiness through my food.
On a bad day, what is your go-to comfort food?
I like unwinding after a long day of service, especially after the Christmas rush, with some caviar. It’s like a little pat on the back for a hard day’s work.
What dish best represents Hong Kong?
I think siu mei dishes like roasted goose, roast pork and barbeque rice are iconic staples of Hong Kong and perfectly represents the city.
Interview by: Roberliza Eugenio; Photographer: Jack Law; Art Direction and Styling: Jhoshwa Ledesma; Videographer: Jackie Chan; Hair and Make up: Heti Tsang; Venue: Arclinea FSS and Officine Gullo Flagship Store @ESSERE