In a city where private kitchens flourish, part-time chef Simon Yam is striking a balance between a full time career and a role on the side.
At some point, every child is asked the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Each one replies with their favourite occupation or career path. Some aspire to become chefs, yet in real life the road to becoming part of a restaurant’s kitchen brigade often takes more than mere passion. A select few, with grit and perseverance, have carved out a path to becoming a chef on their own merit, while juggling a career. These private chefs are true masters of time management, and the fire they burn to keep their passion alive is ever so strong.
Having previously featured RH Fine Dining, Rania Hatoum’s private kitchen-slash-bridal couture studio where Hatoum hosts private dining parties that are more structured and westernised, we now put the spotlight on a Chinese private chef who is making waves in local food circles with his homely creations, often inspired by his published cookbooks and weekly newspaper column. Meet Simon Yam, a local chef with a background in finance. On the day of the interview, Yam greets us at the entrance of his village in Ping Shan, New Territories. He leads us through the low-density village, passing the renowned Ping Shan sharing casserole eatery and temples to his home, which doubles as an arena for delighting his guests with gastronomic adventures. At 47, Yam has had over 30 years of home cooking experience, a skill he considers to be a life necessity, if not life-saving. Yam takes his time to warm up to us, and in no time, he sheds his shyness to reveal a humble and welcoming boyish charm.
See also: A Balancing Act: Private Chef Rania Hatoum
Growing up in Wan Fu Estate, Yam’s interest in cooking began with his grandmother, a keen home cook with a particular knack for turning leftovers into new dishes and fresh ideas. Every day Yam would watch her prepare dinner for his parents and siblings. For years he would only observe, taking in every lesson on making home fare that feeds many without breaking the bank. He learnt how to make Chinese soups, meaty braises, and quick meals that turned into lunch the next day. His grandmother was his mentor and teacher, and before long, he mastered the basics. “My style of cooking is rooted in home style and not the professional chef style. My grandmother didn’t flambé her food or toss omelettes mid-air. Cooking was all about practicality for her, and that stays with me to this day.”
When his grandmother passed away, Yam moved out on his own and began his career in finance. Today, he works full time at a bank, a “job with proper hours” and a regular schedule that allows him plenty of free time to polish his cooking and host friendly dinner parties. “Cooking allows me to have a more balanced life. It helps me to decompress, relieve the pressure I get from my work. Sharing my food and experiences with friends certainly helps build my confidence as a cook and friendships over time.” Yam hosts gatherings in his one-storey town house equipped with a walk-in pantry where he keeps his crockery, utensils, and cookbooks. “When I travel, I often return with purchases, sometimes nice bowls and plates, sometimes pans,” Yam explains, pointing at his collection of rattan serving trays. “These trays are light and versatile. I got them on my last Thailand trip.” Yam’s kitchen is an economic space that fits a two-burner stove and a manageable countertop where he prepares his mise en place for his daily cooking.
The home chef believes the wet market is the best spot to find inspiration. He regularly takes a short drive to the market in Yuen Long, where he shops for the freshest chicken and seafood as well as the season’s best fruits and vegetables. He shares some insider tips for shopping in local markets. “For fruits and vegetables all you need are your eyes to judge whether the produce is good. For meat, poultry and seafood, you need to have a good relationship with your fishmongers and butchers. When I spot something, I never ask for the price, the quality should always come first. If I have to pay more for a better chicken, I will, because I respect my ingredients and I treasure every opportunity I get to go into the kitchen. For me, good cooking is a way to respect good ingredients too.”
Among Yam’s homely signatures, he often returns to his favourite dish, an omelette with green peas, which is featured in his Chinese-language cookbook. A childhood favourite that appeared at dinner every week, Yam has adopted the recipe and tweaked it to incorporate Thai water mimosa, a dill-like herb, to create an omelette thicker in structure compared to his grandmother’s traditional version.
An extensive globetrotter himself, Yam’s tropical getaways also inspire his cooking for his guests. On this day, he simmers fresh clams in a Vietnamese-inspired coconut cream broth with just the right hint of chilli heat and fresh herbs, all served in a wooden bowl. He also whips up a dish of braised pork riblets with black vinegar, and to that braise he adds deep-fried first-born chicken eggs, a tinier alternative believed to be more nutritious. The vinegar glaze clings to the eggs, cutting through their richness and the pork’s unctuousness with tantalising sour notes.
But the tea-smoked chicken is the pièce de résistance. The entire bird is cooked and smoked with a combination of black tea, dried flowers, dried rosebuds, and brown sugar. Unlike traditional Chinese smoked chickens, where lighter tea leaves are used, Yam aces his poultry smoking technique with a black tea, reducing the smoke time to allow for the flavouring of the bird without intensifying the bitter notes. Watching Yam skilfully work with a Chinese cleaver, carving and presenting the bird with a simple garnish, it is no wonder he’s found success in his private chef gig: Yam is a natural in the kitchen.
Even though he has had extensive experience cooking and serving friends at small gatherings, Yam has yet to overcome the difficulty of pricing his dishes. “I find it difficult to add a price to the cooking. Sometimes the ingredients are very simple but it requires much longer prep time. It is not always cut and dried, and you cannot put a price on the effort, enjoyment, and satisfaction you get from your guests’ reactions,” Yam explains. “I often find it difficult to charge my guests, who are basically my friends. I have been invited to cook at private homes but cooking in someone else’s kitchen and abiding by someone else’s rules on serving food could be tough. I enjoy being the one to introduce the dishes and sitting at the table to share the food with my guests. Good hospitality is part of the satisfaction.”
During an afternoon of sharing food over wine and flowing conversation, we learn that Yam takes his cooking seriously, not in a business sort of way but as an outlet for his generosity. Yam is humble and realistic about where his cooking is headed. “While I may serve more guests in the future, I don’t plan on opening a restaurant or doing this full time.” An open invitation may be in the cards, but until then, the best way to secure a spot at Yam’s table is easy: Share in his love of food and be his friend. There really is no other way.
PHOTOGRAPHER: GARY LI
ART DIRECTION: WILSON FOK & CHERRY LAI
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 8