Self-taught private chefs adds flavour to HK dining scene

As two of Hong Kong’s most sought-after private chefs, Samaira Kavatkar and Christopher Ho are pursuing their passion for food and cooking one delicious morsel at a time. Wilson Fok gets the scoop on their newfound success

Samaira Kavatkar

Dressed head to toe in green, complete with matching hairband, Samaira Kavatkar is hard to miss among Central’s café crowd. “I love green – it’s such an amazing colour, and I think I look good in it too,” says the private chef more commonly known as the Bombay East Indian Girl.

Born in Bombay as the second of five children, Kavatkar grew up cooking and entertaining at home with her large extended family, which would gather for days and nights of feasting. (The “East Indian” part of her moniker reflects her ethnoreligious community, which originated in Bombay and was converted to Roman Catholicism by Portuguese missionaries in the 15th and 16th centuries.) “Like for the Chinese, food shatters all barriers, mends fences and fixes arguments for us,” she says.

Kavatkar’s journey to becoming a private chef wasn’t exactly planned, but she thinks it may have been in the cards since childhood. “When I was little, I always said if I live ’til I’m 40 I’m going to open a restaurant,” she says. “For years I didn’t think of going into the food and beverage business. Instead, I entered the corporate world and worked my way up the ladder to eventually becoming a paralegal.”

Despite working a full-time job, Kavatkar insisted on cooking her own meals and muscling her way through family recipes adapted to her busy lifestyle. She also began entertaining at home, treating friends and family to her take on Indian recipes and revealing the secrets behind her country’s cuisine.

“When I see them nod and smile as they enjoy my food, I feel like they can understand my story better, that I’m not just any other Indian cook out there”

– Samaira Kavatkar

“Indian cuisine, like Chinese, takes a holistic approach,” she explains. “Certain spices are there for a reason; they enhance health properties as well as complexity of flavours present in the dish. They make meats meatier, fish fresher, and vegetables sweeter and earthier.”

After 20 years in the corporate world, Kavatkar followed her calling to become a private chef. “Some people spend time shopping,” she says. “I spend my free time at the markets. Just being surrounded by fresh ingredients gives me ideas. I feel empowered with creativity when I see the freshest vegetables and meats on display. I start to form dishes in my mind, occasionally met with questions like, ‘What can I do with this vegetable, or how can I enhance a traditional dish with this unfamiliar fish?’”

Indeed, Kavatkar’s mission has become introducing diners to the more unfamiliar side of Indian cuisine and providing a more refined take on traditional recipes. “When I first started creating menus for my pop-up, guests often asked why I wouldn’t consider including butter chicken,” she says. “Instead I decided on chicken khudi, my version of the East Indian classic, served with arroz fugath, or East Indian wedding rice. Even my dal (lentil stew) tastes different from what the guests were used to.”

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Kavatkar turned 40 this year and has yet to open a restaurant, but she is well on her way to becoming the city’s most prominent expert on East Indian cuisine. Married to Suveg, her childhood best friend and a professional chef, she’s already cooking up plans to collaborate with sommeliers on pairing Indian food and wine while taking on private parties and catering gigs as a chef for hire.

“Pop-ups are a window of opportunity for my guests to understand my heritage and taste my food, while I learn about their expectations. When I see them nod and smile as they enjoy my food, I feel like they can understand my story better, that I’m not just any other Indian cook out there,” Kavatkar says. “And, for the record, I do make a good butter chicken, but why would you want that when you can have chicken khudi, which you can’t find in any restaurant here?”

 Christopher Ho

Something else you can’t find in any restaurant here, at least not on a nightly basis? Christopher Ho, the self-described “aspiring self-taught home chef” and creator of the wildly popular Instagram account @ho_la_ho_sik.

Healthcare professional by day and passionate chef the rest of his waking hours, Ho caught the foodie bug as a kid growing up in the UK. “Those years are officially the beginning of how I developed my interest in cooking,” he says. “It was at the tip of the burgeoning popularity of platforms like Instagram, and the rise of YouTube helped a lot of self-taught cooks like myself learn the craft.”

“Cooking food for enjoyment is one thing but fine dining must showcase the soul of the person preparing it.”

– Christopher Ho

In an attempt to improve his skills while feeding his friends, Ho absorbed lessons from pioneering chefs Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. After plenty of trial and error, and a drive to “do more and do well”, he learnt how to elevate home-cooked meals and gradually mastered techniques beyond home cooking. “Cooking food for enjoyment is one thing,” he says, “but fine dining must showcase the soul of the person preparing it.”

Ho’s cooking style is decidedly Western in presentation, with local ingredients, flavours and culture weaved throughout. It’s not quite fusion but a more informed way to combine cultures and develop new ideas and ways to excite the palate.

In time, Ho had the opportunity to cook for Finnish chef Eric Räty of two-Michelin- starred Arbor. “When I cooked for Eric he shared it on Instagram, and that attracted a lot of interest from chefs of other restaurants, which helped create my pop-ups and collaborations.” After a sold-out four-hands collaboration with Räty himself, Ho hosted another well-received pop-up at Sai Ying Pun’s Test Kitchen.

“I always choose a pop-up or collaboration where I can work outside my comfort zone,” he explains. “With Eric I managed to adjust my expectation and skills working in a fine-dining establishment, at Sevva I helped serve an audience that has ample experience in luxury but is constantly looking for new experiences, and with Test Kitchen there was something very playful and fun.”

Adapting to different styles, upping the ante with versatility and having an open mind are just some of the skills Ho has mastered as a private chef. He also makes time to eat out and hang out with his culinary peers. “Chefs in the Hong Kong food industry have been very welcoming, and they’re happy to clue me in with suppliers and tips on running my gigs, even though I may not have come up the ranks like they did.”

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