From Mt Roskill to New York: Sunday night dinner with Anthony Hoy Fong
From deep-fried chicken to fine-dining foams, and from family man to food warrior, this New York-based New Zealand chef loves his kai – in more ways than one.
Words: Lee-Anne Duncan Photos: Matthew Williams
Up the steep-stepped stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone, a pork shoulder is being transformed into a Korean favourite. Our sought-after chef has friends due for dinner on this molten New York day. And what is he cooking? “I’ve already offered up 100 really great turnkey dishes, but he’s rejected them all,” says Anthony’s wife Kai Mathey, of her quick-to-cook suggestions. “His exact words were, ‘I want to do something crazy.’”
By birth Anthony Hoy Fong is a third-generation Aucklander of Chinese descent; by career he is a New York culinary star.
Today his brand of ‘crazy’ is being applied to a boneless 3.5kg shoulder of pork – very happy, free-range pork, of course. After marinating, it will be slow-cooked as the Korean dish, bo ssam. Ideally that would take eight hours, but the pressures of family life, and the small matter of a magazine interview, means a quicker cook. It’ll still be delicious, served family-style to be pulled apart, spooned into lettuce cups with julienned vegetables, then doused in one of four dipping sauces that Anthony will chop, blitz and mix.
Anthony shares this brownstone in the Park Slope neighbourhood with his American wife Kai, whom he met on the first day of class at the French Culinary Institute 12 years ago. The couple has a three-year-old daughter, August, and one-year-old son, Cameron. Anthony travels frequently as a consultant chef and Kai is chief operating officer of food site, tastingtable.com.
“At the moment I have projects in Dubai, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica – and then there’s all my travel across the US. I’m home only one week a month. It’s only possible because Kai is very patient, and we have great support to help with the kids.”
It’s a very busy life in one of the world’s busiest cities, in a highly competitive industry where “there are 100 other people ready to do your job.”
Anthony’s energy, humour and hospitality – the very image of the modern restaurateur – is projected at his own establishment, The Twenty, in nearby Williamsburg. It’s an upmarket ‘dive bar’, a perfect late-night hangout for the neighbourhood’s hipsters and hospitality types.
“It’s busiest between two and four in the morning so I go in to make sure everything’s coming out right and to get feedback,” says Anthony. “Yeah, not great hours for a family man.”
The Twenty, unsurprisingly, has a killer menu. More surprising perhaps (while no reflection of Anthony’s affection for Antipodean dishes), the food offering features few Kiwi classics nor does it overtly reference his Chinese heritage.
“It is all about simple well-executed classics, like a grilled cheese sandwich with four cheeses, spicy buffalo popcorn, and really fancy devilled eggs. Yes, you can have fancy devilled eggs…”
And there’s a great burger – the number one restaurant item in the US. Apparently, the secret is in the buttery brioche bun and the 80/20 mix of meat to fat to get the balance between caramelization and flavour.
The Twenty recently expanded to cold-brew coffee and brunch – something Anthony did with trepidation. “Brunch is a beast. You want to scream because it’s fast and furious. You might have 250 people through the doors in the space of two hours and everyone wants eggs done differently. You only go for that when all systems are running smoothly.” Which should be a snap for a chef very much in demand as a star consultant setting up countless kitchens of all stripes around the US. Clients have even included the White House – the previous administration, to be clear.
Anthony’s combination of culinary and business skills is rare in a chef, for which he credits his diverse background. That includes a few years in Wellington working in IT (and cooking pots of green chicken curry in his Ghuznee Street flat), running his parents’ fruit and veggie store in Auckland, then following his heart to culinary school in New York and working “on the line” in the city’s top restaurants. “My wide experience helps me appreciate the big picture. It’s all about efficiency in the restaurant business, asking, ‘How can I squeeze my ingredients to bring costs down 0.5 per cent?’”
For the past six years Anthony’s been using his knowhow to consult on the Emmy Award-winning show, Top Chef. Leveraging the show’s popularity, he’s launched the series’ successful line of frozen food, along with other branded ventures. “A company will have an idea of something they want to create with Top Chef. I’ll help them, using my knowledge of what Americans like to eat and my culinary knowledge.
I love all sides of this business – the creativity, the people, the service, even the branding and the marketing.”
Anthony’s always keen to share his love with others, which brought him to develop Top Chef University. “Since Kai and I were at culinary school, the food industry has exploded. Culinary school is great but very expensive. I wanted to bring our experiences to the masses, so I created a video-based training platform replicating culinary school.”
Home cooks pay a subscription then follow a syllabus right up to advanced molecular cooking, reversed spherification, cold smoking, gels and foams. There’s no official qualification but these new skills are bound to impress guests. “It’s education meets entertainment, with real information from real chefs available wherever you have internet. You set up the iPad in your kitchen and cook along with the instructors.” After six years, Top Chef University has more than 10,000 members around the globe.
With Anthony’s world so food focused, is it any wonder his wife’s name is Kai? “Yes, I did tell her it means ‘food’ in Māori when we first met,” he says. “It’s not a pick-up line if it’s true, right?” Either way the two hit it off and even though they’re both in the food trade, their only combined projects so far are two children and the circa-1800s brownstone they’re revamping.
Anthony’s more than happy to jump into his still-to-be-finished kitchen to get on with his bo ssam. “It’s a really good dish for entertaining as the work’s all done ahead of time, so when people come you just throw it into the middle of the table.
“A bo ssam is all about the crispy vegetables and the sauces. I’ll do a sriracha, a spicy, fiery dipping sauce. And I’ll do a green chilli coriander sauce with puréed fresh ginger, garlic and soy. I’ll have a spicy peanut sauce, with peanut butter, chillies and garlic. Then, finally, a hoisin sauce.
“To eat, you bounce around having a bit of chilli with your pork and vegetables, then a bit of coriander sauce, then the savoury hoisin or the fatty peanut sauce. They’re the best kind of meals, with a lot of different flavours and textures.”
This kind of eating, with everyone dipping in and out, taking what they want any old how, is a long way from the minutely composed plates of haute cuisine. It’s about family.
“As a chef, you need to cook for the environment,” Anthony says. “When I started out, I worked here in New York at Daniel, a Michelin-starred restaurant.
I went home for Christmas and I was so excited to cook for my family – you know, ‘I’m a big chef in New York. Mum, Dad, I’m cooking tonight.’ And I did an elaborate meal with bacon-wrapped scallops, duck confit, on super-composed plates.“While they loved it, it was weird because it was really formal. Everyone was a bit uncomfortable because I was in the kitchen being super intense and putting out plates that would be right in a Michelin-starred restaurant. But it was totally the wrong environment. That’s why burgers and fries or pulled pork in lettuce cups have their home, just like any fancy meal does.”
Growing up in Auckland, Anthony was always cooking with his mother and grandmother (his grandmother’s Cantonese spare ribs remain his favourite dish). In fact, as Kai points out, from the age of 10 he often cooked his own dinner. “That’s right,” says Anthony. “I’d turn my nose up at what Mum was making and she’d say, ‘As long as you clean up, cook whatever you want.’ I’d sauté my own stir-fry, cook my own pork chop or chicken wings.”
Perhaps to avoid the same situation, Anthony and Kai strive to introduce their kids to a variety of food. “Last night I made some grilled Mexican street corn, which has chilli powder, lime and coriander. I was going to do an undressed one for August but thought, ‘No, why? She should eat what we eat until she says otherwise,’” says Anthony. The idea of getting kids eating well is behind his recent association with a pilot programme run by the New Zealand charity KidsCan. He’s developed menus of tasty, nutritious and easily prepared meals for early childhood centres, using donated food.
“In lower socio-economic areas, some kids turn up [to early childhood education centres] with no breakfast and no lunch, so this gives them access to meals that will improve their ability to focus and concentrate. It’s ultimately aimed at giving them an equal opportunity in education and, I hope, introduces them to healthy foods they will like.”
In his own family, while Cameron’s tastebuds are proving a little tricky to accommodate, August already has a taste for cornichons, capers, smoked salmon, and more. “There’s a lot of good food in our household,” says Anthony. “And it’s so nice to be with someone who gets it,” responds Kai.
ANTHONY’S CRACKER CRACKING SECRET
It’s all about the how you treat the skin – and a lot of salt. “You’ve really got to dry the skin out and shrink it,” says Anthony. “Start by pouring hot water over the pork skin to shrink it and start the cooking process. This gives the skin a head-start, meaning the meat is less likely to dry out in the oven.
Wipe the skin absolutely dry with kitchen towels, then rub a bit of vinegar into it – I use rice wine vinegar – then rub flaked salt into it. Its coarse texture helps break down the surface and lets pockets of fat come to the top. “My newest method is then to add an even layer of flaked salt on the top. Bake the pork at 180 degrees C for 35 minutes if it’s in strips, or about an hour if it’s a good-sized slab. The salt acts like an incubator, drawing out the moisture and creating a higher heat in a drier environment, like a pizza oven.
“Then lift the salt off – by that stage it should be one piece – and put the whole pork, skin side up, under the grill for 15 minutes until it crackles like crazy.”
ANTHONY’S BEST BOOKS
While Anthony has many more back in New Zealand, his Brooklyn bookshelf is a who’s who of American cooking (many of the books he’s had a significant hand in writing and producing). It’s an egalitarian collection featuring populist TV chefs alongside hallowed industry names.
“I’ve got everyone in there. Everyone’s got a point of view and something to offer. Emeril Lagasse has the best jambalaya and a mean catfish sandwich. Rachael Ray has great tips for weekday food. If I need to cook something in a hurry, I’m not reaching for my French Laundry cookbook.
“I take tips from everyone. Take fried chicken – I love fried chicken. I like the way Paula Deen brines her chicken in buttermilk or puts sour cream in a brine to tenderise the meat, while Thomas Keller uses only lemon and water in his brine because it gives a cleaner flavour. I like the way Emeril double-dredges his chicken in heavily seasoned flour and puts it in the fridge. I like that Tyler Florence, with his Italian influences, infuses his oil with thyme and rosemary and garlic for frying.
“And then, for Asian fried chicken, you just dust it lightly with cornflour and straight into the fryer so the skin gets crackly, versus the skin being protected by a coating of flour. What I love about cooking is that just when you think you’ve got it all figured out you learn something new from another chef.”
ANTHONY’S SLOW-COOKED KOREAN PORK IN LETTUCE WRAPS (BO SSAM)