Arnaud, The Making of Fivelements Hong Kong

Arnaud, Executive Chef

What is your role?

I am the Executive Chef and started in January 2016 to create and develop the menu for Fivelements first urban wellness retreat. This involved and extensive process to bring the award-winning Sakti Dining Room TM concept from Bali to HK with a new expression.

Tell us about your process.

I was the newcomer on the development team joining the other curators and designers who had been with Fivelements from the beginning. First, I needed to understand the concept of Fivelements as a company which I did in Bali. I was introduced to many aspects of the philosophy, vision and culture of the company concept – mainly Tri Hita Karana (living in harmony among spirit, human and nature) and Love in Action, their service philosophy. I was fascinated about how the Balinese culture influenced the concept. Fivelements Bali is very much Fivelements Bali. It was interesting to evaluate the space and the people and feeling of Fivelements. Living and breathing in the concept in Bali helped me to understand the dynamic and the ethos of the company.

A few things stood out for me:

First their commitment to plant-based cuisine and the integration of it into the overall wellness concept and the link between western management in an Asian country like Indonesia. I was fascinated how this worked in Bali. The sustainability aspect of the company was very interesting to me as well. Fivelements is very well integrated in the local culture and traditions and as a site with the environment and spirituality. Very interesting to me. Very well-done.

My challenge ahead was to understand the requirements in Fivelements HK and the various F&B outlets of the Sakti Dining Room TM and the Royal Tea Lounge. I then began exploring the place and the structure, the work force and the culture in which we needed to adapt and morph with HK without losing the essence of our DNA.

Step by step shaping

I was very quickly thrown into the sea which was a good thing looking back, to be included from day one and submerged by the concept, the project and the team. It was a long process. I had to learn and show a lot of flexibility and structure myself and my work in a totally new situation. When I arrived to Fivelements, the project was already started as far as the kitchen design and cuisine concept. I did not have much time for the transition with the previous chef in charge, and I ended up having to figure out a lot of things on my own. This gave me a challenge and a great opportunity to grow.

Personally, I was confronted with myself. I had to relax and control a lot of my personal inclination toward…panic. I learned to create a distance between myself and the project. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was a bit overwhelmed and I felt quite small. I had to find so much creativity, energy and organization. It was a refining of my mental tools. Over time, this experience taught me to believe in me.

How did you find suppliers and do the menu adaptation in Hong Kong.

Once I arrived in Hog Kong, I quickly realized I had to adjust the menu that was created in Bali. I realized I started upside down and created the menu without really knowing Hong Kong and the challenging dynamics of good local ingredient supply. That was a big learning.

After researching and creating a menu during a pre-opening event 6 months before we officially opened, I realized that there were also some procurement and sourcing challenges which was even more limiting for me. I researched new suppliers and local farms in line with our philosophy and really had to look hard to find high integrity suppliers. We also started with a Balinese-inspired menu from a place where 99% of the products are local and adapt to Hong Kong where 80% of restaurant supply is typically imported. So, I have been doing my grassroots research, developing relationships with local farmers and searching for the best available products in the greater HK region which was a big challenge. Still a work in progress. I am still getting to know new suppliers every month who are in the sustainability world.

Meeting this like-minded community has been very pleasant and fulfilling.

Who helped you the most?

I was introduced by Lahra and Chicco to Bobsy from Mana Café, one of the first pioneers of healthy plant-based food in HK. He was really pleasant and gave me some good starting insights.

Alvin from Magic Season Organic Farm was the first supplier I met who supported the farm-to-table concept. They were going through an overhaul of their own concept and re-organization of their company at the time.

Through Sasha Van Dame from the HK Permaculture Club, I met very interesting people who opened their network to me.

And Jacqueline Faulkner, a sustainability advocate, introduced me to many other like-minded professionals in our field. She was a great resource in our beginnings.

My first visit to Hong Kong was with Lahra and Chicco to begin our research in early-2016. Still many of the organic, vegetarian places in the city were newly forming and I could feel the energy and awareness about plant-based healthy food beginning to gain momentum. Today, there seems to be more start-ups investing their time into fresh, local products – mainly due to a new generation of chefs and the international movement influencing HK. The “Farm to Table” concept has brought about a more direct relationship between farms and chefs, without the need for the middle men. This is more similar to Bali. And I have started to discover more organisations and individuals supporting this more sustainable culinary approach.

Where do you see the state of HK with regard to organic cuisine?

I think HK is still in the relatively beginning stages of the market with regard to plant-based lifestyle and cuisine. Hong Kong is a very unique city with diverse mix of cultures. Hong Kong people have been influenced by international cultures but at home, many still have a very strong traditional Chinese influence which is quite different from a vegetarian concept. Facing a tradition which does not advocate a plant-based diet is a challenge for us. TCM is still very much alive which advocates a lot of animal-sourced products. Many locals are not as open to the global movement and especially living raw vegan foods as it is not a part of their culture. However, the international movement of plant-based diet and nutritional support is definitely starting to trend here in HK, especially within the more cosmopolitan people.

So how did you adapt the menu to meet these cultural dynamics?

I changed the percentage of live options from 80% in Bali to nearly 20% in HK. Still wanting to align with the concept but needing to meet people where they are. This was our approach. Today, we have actually moved beyond this to integrate the raw food into many dishes. Our cuisine incorporates many layers and steps in a given dish that merge and combine cooked and raw food. I have merged the benefits of raw food and the various techniques of raw food and integrated them with healthy cooked dishes to satisfy the full range of guests.

How does the climate and eating culture of Hong Kong influence your menu development?

I came to Asia from Copenhagen where I had begun refining my style of cuisine. Coming to Hong Kong, I learned that growing raw foods occurs more in winter than in summer. This was a real surprise. Understanding that soup is an integral part of Chinese cuisine, I have tried to create more warm soups in our tasting menus. I have also learned about the different portion size, menu and table habits here. This presented a big challenge to me to offer a menu that is plated and in harmony and wholeness and balancing various dishes from others on the a la carte menu. I am always learning more about how Hong Kong people appreciate their food without miss-matching and being overwhelmed by too many flavours.

The culture here is more about shared family-style. They are not as used to plated meals and articulate presentation traditionally, I remember that once I wanted to offer a stick from rice crackers and plant into a bowl of black beans. The rest of the team told me this was a big no-no because it was associated with mourning and death. I definitely did not do this even though I loved the idea. I am also understanding a lot of cultural superstitions come into play at the table and I find this very interesting.

Tell us about Fivelements Dinner Club.

The Dinner Club was created by Lahra and Chicco to showcase our cuisine and inspire people that healthy food can and does taste great. It is the highlight of the month for me and for our whole team from kitchen to service. It’s a time when we are able to take a bit more risk and create more theatre through the food and when the cuisine can shine on its own as the main character. It’s also a time when our guests are entertained and open to try new things, so it allows for more creativity on our side. It also allows us to be the closest to our mission and concept. We can be more flexible and seasonal. The 5-Course Chef’s Tasting allows us to bypass the standard sizes. It gives us a lot more freedom. As it is quite popular, we usually know it will be fully booked, and so we know we can produce and buy good products without being afraid of waste. The Dinner Club is a good time to introduce new local products and unexpected flavours. It’s for me personally a dream factor - but a lot of work (smile!)

Coming from Northern Europe, how do you adapt to a new culture of chefs and train your team?

I have learned a lot about Hong Kong working culture over the past year. I know I am a foreigner and a guest in HK and I need to be humble. I am still learning their dance and the importance of harmony for success.

On recruitment and training, we attracted good candidates. I spent a lot of time with each candidate in the interviews – 2 hours - where I am mainly sharing our concept and my excitement about the project. I observe their reactions and when I see someone’s eyes shining, I know they are genuinely turned on by the concept and ready to come on board. I try to sign these guys as soon as possible. During the interview I want them to understand the real opportunity they will have to develop plant-based cuisine, as I too feel it. I try to express my hope and dedication about the project. I look at each candidate’s potential and what they can offer.

I have intentionally built a team with diverse strengths and different backgrounds and a team of strong characters because I think to face this challenge, we need to have experienced chefs who can look outside the box and accept each other’s uniqueness – We are already working outside the comfort zone where creativity is born and life begins. For all of us, it is a big challenge but we accept it and are motivated create something new and do our best! We’re thrilled to see the growth and positive response of our Sakti Dining Room TM.

Looking ahead, what do you see happening with the cuisine?

The cuisine will be increasingly focused on ingredients as we grow deeper into “farm to table” and we will also simplify even more. I want the cuisine and ingredients to be the shining stars. After one year starting from ground-zero, I have a much better understanding of the seasons and a variety of factors, such as the typhoon seasonal impact. I would like to keep working on the sustainability of our kitchen and really clean the concept. Our first year was the first draft. Everything came from my head to the experience, and next we will reflect and refine – like Sakti 2.0.

Like a butterfly, we went through the cocoon and spread our wings and now we are preparing to fly…with the wisdom to know that we are always in development with constant creativity and collaboration.

What was the defining moment for you?

The very first dinner club was a moment of success for our team. I remember when all of our chefs were invited into the dining room at the end of the 5-Course Tasting and everyone was standing up clapping for us. I was really happy.

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