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Taste of Hong Kong hits the city: meet the man behind it

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Kennedy Town resident and Taste of Hong Kong event director Simon Wilson wants the annual restaurant fest, which runs this weekend, to be ‘firmly etched in everyone’s social calendar’

Who’d have thought a buzzing annual restaurant festival at Central Harbourfront would be a big hit in Hong Kong? Okay, everyone did, given our city is obsessed with dining out. But the man behind the event, which runs between Thursday March 16 and Sunday March 19, says he’s learned from the challenges presented at last year’s inaugural fest and is staging a ‘bigger and better’ one this time round. Kennedy Town resident Simon Wilson, who’s the head of IMG Culinary Asia, hopes as many people as possible flock to this year’s event, with a view, in 10 years time, to it becoming ‘firmly etched in everyone’s social calendar’. Taste is in 19 cities worldwide and this year’s HK fest features a premium menu of more than 50 signature dishes on tasting plates, as well as one-off creations, classes and cooking demonstrations. Wilson, originally from Dublin in Ireland, gives us the lowdown on Taste while also giving us a taste of his Kennedy Town life at the same time…

So, Simon, Taste of Hong Kong is back for the second time! What are we expecting this year?
More of what people enjoyed from last year in terms of restaurants, chefs and dishes, plus, hopefully, less of what people didn’t like last year, like the bad weather and the queues. We’ve made the event bigger, invited more restaurants and added more live music, as well as interactive ‘things to do’ like masterclasses, demonstrations and table talks.

How different is it to last year’s fest?
We’re constantly evolving Taste and trying to stay on topic with what’s hot in the restaurant scene, so we’ve tried to reflect that in the restaurant lineup and the content at the festival. We try not to stand still in one place.

We at theDesk cover Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town. Restaurants like Rhoda, Kaum at Potato Head, Chino and Okra from our neighbourhood are taking part. What’s the importance of the event to these eateries?
I think, for these restaurants, they get to put their food in front of people who have perhaps heard of the restaurant but have yet to go and try it. At Taste, we try to showcase the latest, greatest and hottest in town. Taste is also really social for the restaurant industry. Whether you’re at the event participating as a restaurant or doing a cooking demonstration or attending with your family and friends, it’s a chance for the industry to connect in a social environment.

What have you learned from the first Taste of Hong Kong last year?
Last year we learned that Hongkongers really love their food. They came out in droves to try dishes. We had some challenges last year with the bad weather but people still turned up with forks in hands to eat! We’ve made the event more weatherproof this year, with more shelter and coverage in the event of the odd shower. Taste is still a great day out even if the sun’s not shining!

Some chefs use Taste to experiment with their creations…
We encourage chefs to create dishes for the festival that are similar in style to their restaurant offerings. We don’t want dumbed down ‘festival food’ but we get that not every intricate detail they deliver in their establishments can be replicated on-scale at the event, so we ask them to work their magic and rework a recipe to create something for the event. Necessity is the mother of invention!

What sort of trends are we expecting to emerge this year?
We’re seeing a lot of seafood on the menu. It’s always prevalent in Hong Kong but I’ve been amazed at the amount and variety of seafood dishes on our menu this year. It’s fantastic! Also, provenance: we want to tell the story of the luxurious and unique ingredients that these chefs are using. Whether it’s caviar, uni or wagyu beef that’s been sourced specifically for the event, chefs are making the journey to find the best to put on your plate, so we want to help tell that story at the event.

You live in Kennedy Town. What’s special about this neighbourhood?
I think it has a great village feel. I like pottering around at the weekend. You feel part of Hong Kong but are a bit separated from the madness in Central or Soho. I like that I have the ability to opt in or opt out of the hectic scene in Hong Kong. I don’t think you can do that in Soho or Central, or even in Sai Ying Pun or the Mid-Levels.

What’s unique about Kennedy Town?
It’s flat!? No, I like that you can get close to the water. I like the benches down on New Praya, too – they’re great for sitting with a coffee or a beer. I usually do my FaceTimes home to family and friends from there. Also, you’re near The Peak in K-Town. You can hike up to the top of Hong Kong in 25 minutes. I really like that.

What are your favourite K-Town restaurants?
It’s got all the essentials for me: great coffee, like at The Cofftea Shop in Catchick Street; great breakfast, such as at Catch; great beer at Little Creatures; and fun eats at restaurants like Chino. I really miss the Sunday’s Grocery store, though. That was my go-to for the best sandwich in Hong Kong! Hopefully they make a return soon in a new venue.

Do you have any advice for other people who want to launch an event in Hong Kong?
Focus on your customers. What do they want? Listen to them when they tell you what they don’t want. Don’t close your ears and say ‘this is how we do it’. At the same time, stick to your guns when you’re asked to give up your core identity for a quick win. We’re building Taste of Hong Kong for the next 10 years, like it’s been done in London. Not the next 10 months. So, we want to take a long-term view and invest in it.

How does Taste accurately represent our eclectic HK dining scene?
It’s really difficult to get all of HK in one place! It’s fair to say we’ve focused on a certain tier of restaurant: those that are perhaps more aspirational and harder to get into, but that’s the kind of places we want to eat at! We can always add more of a certain cuisine at the event, that comes with each year when we reshuffle the restaurant lineup but I think we’ve done pretty well getting the likes of Amber and Arcane on the high fine-dining end, and Yardbird and Chino on the cool and funky side, with everything in the middle.

Where would you like Taste of Hong Kong to be in, say, 10 years time?
Firmly etched in everyone’s social calendar! We want to grow Taste in terms of size and scale but only to a point. Then we look to elevate the experience. Taste won’t ever have 100 restaurants and a million guests. We will always want to keep a bit of the boutique feel to it. Hopefully, in 10 years we can stay on Hong Kong Island and they keep the event space operating. It’s fantastic to be on the waterfront under the lights in Hong Kong. It’s an iconic setting!

Taste of Hong Kong is at Central Harbourfront between March 16 and 19. For more details, visit hongkong.tastefestivals.com.

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