From stints at Eleven Madison Park and Otto e Mezzo Bombana to creating private dinners and bespoke picnic baskets, Leonard Cheung is a culinary force to be reckoned with. Natasha Gillespie-Wong finds out what he’s cooking up on Elgin Street
Leonard Cheung likens himself to lemon verbena – a versatile ingredient that is sharp, citrusy and creamy all at the same time. Ideal for use in sweet and savoury dishes alike, the herb is also used to remedy ailments of the stomach and, while Cheung is not a doctor he is a master of creating food that delights both the stomach and the taste buds.
Cheung’s resume may include stints at New York’s world-renowned Eleven Madison Park and NoMad Hotel, but his introduction to the culinary world was more humble. “Cereal bars and Rice Krispies Treats,” he says, laughing. “I was able to make those on my own since I was six.”
It’s safe to say his newest venture, Cultivate, will serve somewhat more elevated fare.
The 22-seat Elgin Street eatery is the culmination of years of hard work – or indeed, cultivation – that kicked up a notch during the pandemic. As restaurants struggled to grapple with government-imposed restrictions, Cheung hosted private dinners that doubled as a test kitchen for him to bring his wildest dish ideas and uncommon combinations to fruition.
Now a fuss-free neighbourhood fine-casual establishment, the rounded glass front and sumptuous yet simple interiors are a refreshing escape from the city. “I get bored of seeing the same formulas in fine dining, and the same mundane precision in many overpriced dishes across the city,” laments the founder, who favours neutral-coloured plates in order to allow his food to take centre stage.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Cheung was exposed to an array of different cultures and foods not often seen in Hong Kong. “Mexican, Caribbean, Vietnamese and Chinese-American,” he recalls. “I definitely plan on incorporating elements of these cuisines into the food at Cultivate.”
But while his passion for food started at a young age, it wasn’t always gourmet options that Cheung craved. “I don’t know why my mom would allow me to eat In-N-Out so many times a week when I was a fat child,” he jokes. “But Thousand Island Sauce will forever remind me of all the In-N-Out burgers I consumed as a child in LA.”
Choosing not to refer to himself as a chef, Cheung prefers “host” – “for a dinner party every evening”. He champions attitude-driven food and immersive experiences, inviting diners to have a direct, interactive experience with his culinary team. He also draws inspiration from childhood meals, with the whole family sharing and the open kitchen reinforcing the communal feel.
The emphasis at Cultivate is on seasonality, showcased with a constantly evolving eight-course tasting menu that encompasses distinctive and unconventional cuisines, techniques and styles. “It’s definitely harder to source seasonal produce here in Hong Kong,” Cheung says, “which is why I try my best to utilise what’s local and seasonal in the areas around Hong Kong.”
The bold, unfussy flavours are a welcome departure from the traditional ponce of fine dining. “I don’t rely excessively on premium ingredients such as wagyu, uni, truffles and caviar to make a dining experience memorable,” he says. “I tend to take common ingredients and concepts, and elevate them to new heights by reintroducing them to diners with different textures, shapes and flavour combinations.”
Cheung insists, however, that what is intuitive to him may not always be so for his customers. “We’ve had customers creeped out by my food,” he says. “I’m totally fine with that. If my goal was to please every single palate in Hong Kong, then the food would be as bland and uniform as the food in a hotel lobby.”
Wine pairings are available to accompany the food, sourced from the widely lauded to lesser known from overlooked regions. An alternative non-alcoholic “elixir pairing” is also available.
As exciting as it sounds, opening a new restaurant in one of the world’s most competitive markets is not all fun and games – especially in the midst of COVID-19. So why Hong Kong? “I met my current business partners last year,” Cheung says. “They were interested in utilising the property on Elgin Street, and I saw that property as a good fit for an open-kitchen dining experience.”
So far, Cheung’s greatest challenge has been cultivating his team. “Looking after employees is definitely the most difficult task one has to deal with when opening a restaurant. I’m currently severely understaffed,” he says. “I have to adapt to the working culture here, and work around the local logistics of operating a restaurant in Hong Kong.”
Undeterred by the challenges, Cheung has mapped out his and Cultivate’s journey up until June 2022. So what exactly is the culinary master thinking about now? “Whiskey and tobacco.” We’ll drink to that.
Cultivate, Shop A, 27-29 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong