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Talking Turkey

Forget the tinsel and baubles, Christmas is all about turkey and pies for three Hong Kong chefs.

Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Samantha Sin

Special thanks to Beau Monde (HK) Co Ltd and UCP International Co Ltd for the location

Most of us look forward to Christmas as a wonderful time of the year. But for three Hong Kong chefs – Invisible Kitchen’s Tom Burney, The Langham, Hong Kong’s executive chef Pedro Samper and Tai Tai Pie Pie’s R.J. Asher – Christmas can be rather daunting, with hundreds of turkeys and thousands of pies to cook in just a few short weeks.

“This Christmas is looking quite scary,” gourmet caterer Burney says, with palpable unease. “My fridge is full of boxes of turkeys, with dates and times and names written on them. I have to cook 100 turkeys before Christmas. And then one week before Christmas, we’re doing a bit of a Santa Claus job delivering to everyone in the evening.

Burney has crafted thoughtful Christmas feast deliveries for office gatherings and home parties. His team experimented with a dozen turkey brines before settling on the final version, and his triple-cooked duck-fat roasted potatoes are boiled, steam-dried, vacuumed, deep-fried in duck fat and roasted until golden and crunchy outside, warm and fluffy inside.

“Everyone’s ordering the same thing, so everything is simplified,” he says. “It makes my kitchen a lot easier to run smoothly. We’ve got mulled wine on the stove, we’re listening to Christmas carols, and we have a five-deck oven, so we can do 10 turkeys at a time.”

For a traditional American turkey dinner, few places do it better than Main St Deli at The Langham, Hong Kong. Its Christmas combo includes roasted pumpkin soup, US Tom turkey with apple, sage and cornbread stuffing, honeyed sweet potatoes, buttered baby carrots and Christmas pudding. Not one to follow trends, the hotel has stuck to the same turkey recipe for more than 15 years and it has never been more popular.

“We’ve been doing the same recipe for 15 years,” Samper says. “There’s a reason people want it ordered, because it’s so stressful. It’s a challenge meeting all these dates, we serve around 300 turkey combos a year, but our chefs have a lot of experience – they have been here for more than 10 years, so they’re turkey veterans.”

No American Christmas feast is complete without a pecan or pumpkin pie. Asher’s homemade all-American pies pay homage to his native Illinois. During Thanksgiving week alone, he sells more than 300 full-sized pumpkin pies. In December, he sells more than 500 apple crumbles and pecan pies and up to 4,000 mince pies – traditional British sweet pastries made with mincemeat – a mixture that includes raisins, candied fruit, lemon and orange zest.

“It was very much about my grandma baking for us,” he muses. “During the holidays, we weren’t really cake people, but more about the traditional sweet pies, whether it’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pies or Christmas apple pies. Most pies I’ve tried here are the ones from Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, local places that do a chicken pie, or restaurants like The Globe which does a great pie, but it was limited. It was just not there.”

Burney echoes this frustration of not being able to find something truly authentic, despite Hong Kong’s infinite dining options.

“You have every nation’s food represented in Hong Kong’s globalised food scene, but when we talk about Western food, it’s hard to find a restaurant that truly understands what the food means, where it came from, how it should be served; the subtle details. I’m often very disappointed,” he says. “The gourmet Christmas menus we do goes back to how hard I find it to have an authentic Christmas experience. For what you pay in Hong Kong, a lot of people leave thinking: ‘I could do better myself’. I want to make it right.”

But just how many people are looking for an authentic Western feast for the holidays? “Not many people serve turkey around here,” Samper says. “But in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed my Chinese friends are curious, so they’ll try it and like it. If you think about it, it all stems from family get-togethers, which are very popular for locals every weekend. Everyone is already in the holiday spirit, so why not use the turkey as an excuse to gather with family and friends?” 

Yet like everything else in Hong Kong, Burney believes tradition and authenticity has nothing to do with the holiday feast. Everyone has their own way of doing things.

“I find the way families often eat is maybe the daughter will order the hamper, to show her parents what a US turkey is like, but they’re also making sushi, the grandma will have some soup on the side, with chicken feet and everything,” he says. “They’re taking the Western turkey dinner and doing it their own way.” 

The Nitty Gritty  

1. One holiday tradition you have with your family?   

R.J. Asher: In Hong Kong, my wife gets dressed up in a Santa Claus hat, she’s Mrs Claus, I’m Santa Claus and we do the deliveries. That is our tradition.

Tom Burney: On Christmas morning, my wife and I take our dogs up a hill into the country park with a bottle of champagne and humble food: English sausages and pita bread.

Pedro Samper: In my hometown [San Sebastián, Spain], the Tamborrada is when we gather at midnight on January 20, dress up like soldiers and cook and play with drums.

2. One dish that reminds you most of Christmas?

RJA: My mother’s baked ham and baked beans for dinner on Christmas Day.

TB: My Austrian grandmother used to make red cabbage, braised in red wine with Christmas spices. That sweet, spicy wine smell fills the whole house.

PS: When I was young, Christmas was the day I ate baby eel or angulas, sautéed with garlic and cayenne pepper for a minute.

3. Most creative thing you’ve done with holiday leftovers?

RJA: Usually we just eat them as is. But the most creative thing I can do here is make a pie with the turkey.

TB: Christmas dinner terrine. You layer and press potatoes, sprouts, turkey, and brush gravy between the layers in a terrine mould. When you slice through it, it’s a mosaic of different colours.

PS: Back in Spain, we eat roast lamb on Christmas day, so I would made ropa vieja, a traditional stew meaning “old clothes”, using leftover lamb and spices.

4. How do you battle food coma?

RJA: I don’t. I just do it. People wonder why I’m not 300 pounds.

TB: Any good meal lasts three to four hours, pace yourself, enjoy the meal, and then you won’t get too full. It’s not feasting and fasting. Eat more, that’s my secret.

PS: I’m Spanish, so I’d say you need a siesta. Trust me, a five-minute siesta – it works.

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