By Terence Toh
July 13, 2021
The San Francisco-based chef is a huge fan of the char kuay teow in Taiping
Chef Ho Chee Boon won’t give you a clear answer when asked what the most popular dishes are on his restaurant menu, The Empress by Boon. The Taiping-born taste maker believes in always making a difference.
“For 20 years, everyone has asked me this question. I don’t know how to answer. I love all of my dishes. But when I think it’s time to change my menu, I change it, ”Ho says laughing during a Zoom interview from his base in San Francisco with Tatler.
“I always want to create something new. I can’t have anything on my menu for more than three years. No matter how good something is, there will be something new that I want to replace it with.
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Ho is the former international executive chef of Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan with over 30 years of industry experience. He has helped open many famous Hakkasan addresses, including Hakkasan Hanway Place and Yauatcha Soho, both in London.
The chef moved to the United States in 2012 to open Hakkasan New York. In June of this year he opened his own restaurant, The Empress by Boon, at Grant Avenue, San Francisco. It offers a prix-fixe menu of modern Cantonese dishes, made with fresh, local ingredients from the restaurant’s organic farm in Gilroy, California.
While what he serves is considered fine Chinese cuisine, Ho admits that he still has a deep love for hassle-free Malaysian street food.
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How long has it been since you visited Malaysia?
I usually come to Malaysia every summer. Last year, however, I was unable to visit due to the pandemic. Usually I land in Kuala Lumpur first and spend time there with my friends and siblings. Then I go back to Taiping to see my mother.
What foods and drinks in Malaysia do you miss the most?
So much! I love Taiping char kuay teow. It is very good. I know a lot of people talk about Penang char kuay teow, but I like Taiping’s version because I ate a lot of it when I was a kid. I’ll be honest, I really like street food. There is this little restaurant in the Chinatown of KL that serves excellent terracotta chicken rice. There is also a place in Jalan Alor where they fry chicken wings, which are really good. In Penang, I love to go char kuay teow and asam laksa.
Overall though, the food I miss the most is my mom’s cooking. When I was young, she made me these pork ribs that tasted so good. I got the recipe and tried to make them, but it’s not the same. For me, she’s the best cook in the world.
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What’s the first dish you normally eat when you get back?
It depends on where I am. But one thing I absolutely must have is durian.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Malaysia for fine dining?
Not really, but I want to open one in Malaysia someday.
Do you have a favorite bar or cafe when you are in town?
I don’t go to bars a lot, I am very boring lah!
If you have guests visiting from abroad, where will you take them for a real taste of Malaysia?
First I’ll take them to eat wang bu liao (Empurau) fish. Many of my friends have heard of this dish and want to try it. I know of a restaurant in Tanjung Malim that still serves it. i will also bring them to try char kuay teow in Taiping or Penang, as well as Malay street food.
What are your favorite places to eat in San Francisco?
I don’t really have any favorites. I enjoy all cuisines even though I am a fan of Thai and Korean cuisine. There are a few Malaysian restaurants here, but I think they put too much effort into the local palate. In a way, they are not the same as the food at home.
Are you trying to incorporate Malaysian flavors into your dishes?
Yes. I incorporate Asian ingredients like chilli, lemongrass, belacan, and asam. When I first came to the US I wanted to let my customers try something new so I tried cooking a few Malaysian dishes but in Cantonese style.
What kind of dining experience does Empress by Boon offer?
My intention has always been to open a good Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Cooking for people brings me a lot of joy, and I have missed it a lot over the past year.
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