The ‘Pho-King’ Boss: Lee Hung-wai of King Prawn Restaurant
The 44-year-old chef and Lee-family patriarch runs King Prawn Asian Cuisine, a neighbourhood Vietnamese-Thai restaurant beloved by theDesk and the Sai Wan community alike. He speaks to us about his restaurant’s values, vision and mission.
By Rachel Ma
With two branches just within five minutes walking distance apart from each other, chef Lee Hung-wai and his family runs the local Sai Wan favourite, King Prawn Asian Cuisine, on Queen’s Road West and Water Street, just a short walk away from theDesk co-working and events space. To the regular passerby, it looks no different from the outside from your average Southeast Asian fare advertising hot bowls of pho and refreshing bun dishes. But to many of our Sai Wan neighbours, as well as members at theDesk, every steaming bowl of rice noodles is a safe haven from our cold offices and busy schedules.
We speak to Lee about how the ‘pho-king’ boss manages to keep it real amid rising rents, gentrification and demand. Alright, you can scoff at our pun (we’re proud of it), but the restaurant’s Chinese name, which literally translates to ‘big-headed prawn’ (大頭蝦), is itself a play-on-words that refers to a clumsy and forgetful idiot in Cantonese. And it’s this sense of humour and down-to-earthness that comes through in Lee and his cooking, which are both familiar, friendly and easy.
Their fragrant pho broth can be best described as a big fat hug to the stomach. “For our broth, we simmer generous portions of beef brisket and beef bones for hours,” explains Lee. “We rely on the ingredients for flavour instead of MSG.” Members at theDesk can happily attest to the quality of the food (no joke – we’re not getting paid for this). King Prawn Asian Cuisine constantly feeds our growling stomachs and has never failed to impress our guests at events. At theDesk coworking and events space, we’re immensely lucky and thankful to have King Prawn Asian Cuisine just minutes away, as our food-partner for many of our events and for their phos and stir-frys when we’re in dire need of comfort food. Not only is the food amazing, but so are the people and the hearts behind it.
Understandably, many businesses choose to cut corners in face of sky-rocketing rent prices in Hong Kong. The food industry is no exception, notorious for the prevalence of MSG of other additives. But Lee refuses to blend in with the crowd. “What distinguishes us apart from other shops is our cooking ingredients and seasoning methods,” Lee states. “We use fresh ingredients instead of additives. It may only make a fraction of a difference in taste, but as a business we strive for the best quality we can afford. More importantly, we care about the health of our loyal customers from our neighbourhood.”
Despite the fact that the two Sai Wan branches are run by the same family, and that King Prawn Asian Cuisine is a chain restaurant boasting seven locations around Hong Kong, Lee tells us that ‘every branch is different.’ He explains, “As a Chinese chef I am more familiar with Chinese cooking methods, such as stir-fries.” Grinning, he adds:“I can confidently tell you my pad-thais and fried-rice are better than those in Water Street.” The personal touches on the menu attest to the heart and human behind the branches. Handwritten specials featuring Chinese specialty dishes wine chicken (醉雞) and braised duck pot (鴨煲), ‘only found at the shop on Queen’s Road West’, line the walls of the quaint restaurant.
When we explain how we’re going to interview him and feature his story and work on the newsDesk, Lee immediately stands up and exclaims: “You need to try more for yourself before you write about it – let me whip something up right now! There’s no point of advertising it if you don’t find it too be tasty. As a chef, the customer’s comments are as important as my own skills.” We couldn’t stop him from entering the kitchen. And we weren’t exactly complaining either.
“As a chef it’s not just about cooking what you think is best. You have to be flexible – the customer is always right.”
We enter the kitchen to find Chef Lee where he belongs, comfortable in his own skin. No longer camera-shy, his calloused hands adeptly maneuvers the rusted woks with precision, tossing the noodles glazed in soy-sauce over the roaring red flame. “Do you want it to be more or less spicy?” he asks, rhythmically flicking his wok with ease. Already sheepish and uncomfortable to ask for anything more, we say to Lee to cook however he wants to. But still he insists: “as a chef it’s not just about cooking what you think is best. You have to be flexible – the customer is always right.” He quickly sprinkles salt and diced red pepper with finesse, and before we know it, eight mouth-watering dishes (yes, eight!) were presented to us ‘to make sure we like his food before we write about it.’ Again, not complaining.
And of course we like Lee’s food – we can taste the mastery in the chewy, not-overly-greasy noodles and his persistence in using the best ingredients in his young and leafy stir-fry kale. Now, we might be biased here, having personally met the highly charismatic chef and owner. But as customers, don’t we all look for food that we can trust in its quality and safety? Not only does Lee at King Prawn Asian Cuisine offer that, he offers it with a heart of gold – a true rarity surviving amongst unforgiving competition, demanding customers and extortionate rental costs. As many reports have indicated Hong Kong’s poor economic growth in 2017, Lee likewise tells us that ‘2017 has been the toughest year for us as a business.’ But Lee has no fear. Why? He says, “I have a vision. I will continue to deliver high quality food for every single dish I make. I believe as long as you work with your heart, not matter how hard the future would be, everything will be fine in the end.”
It’s Lee’s genuineness and warmth that moves us more than anything. In this day and age, we’re constantly surrounded by an obsession with convenience and speed. It’s refreshing to encounter someone so genuine and sincerely thoughtful behind what they do. He knows his restaurant is relatively modest compared others, but it doesn’t hold him back. “As small and insignificant as a restaurant we are, we have to two main duties like any other business – to maintain it and to serve customers. And we deliver our duties with utmost sincerity.” theDesk invites you to give King Prawn Asian Cuisine a go, and maybe you won’t be surprised why some residents in our Sai Wan neighbourhood are there ‘360 out of 365 days in a year’.
Lee Hung Wai, in brief:
Name: Lee Hung Wai
From: Hong Kong
Position: Chef at King Prawn Asian Cuisine on Queen’s Rd West
Location: Sai Ying Pun, as well as other locations around Hong Kong