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Sunday Lunch: Roots Eatery’s Stephanie Wong

‘It’s all about community,’ says Stephanie Wong, chef and founder of the soulful neighbourhood restaurant Roots Eatery in Wan Chai. This speaks to me on a very personal level — I too am a young, female restaurateur who owns a cosy neighbourhood restaurant (Brut) which is as much there for our community as our community is there for us. As a matter of fact, just before Stephanie’s opening, when Roots was still just a little seedling, she and I would sit around Brut late at night and talk shop while sipping a wine.

I laugh knowingly at Stephanie’s mention of community, because while almost everything that we thought we knew (or that we thought we’d learn) about owning and operating restaurants has been flipped on its head in the past 18 months, community is still at the forefront of our conversation.

Chef and founder of Roots Eatery Stephanie Wong believes community is fundamental to her style of hospitality

Entering Roots is like coming home. I walk in and am greeted by Stephanie, who immediately offers to cook me up whatever I like. And being a huge fan of both burrata and octopus, I’m thrilled to see that she’s married them together on her menu — with the added Cantonese touch of chilli paste. The octopus is perfectly cooked, the burrata heavenly, and the touch of briny, salty, sinfully delicious chilli paste brings the whole plate to life.

Wong’s octopus with burrata cheese marries Cantonese and European flavours

There’s a lot for the two of us to cover, as we’ve not had a moment together in ages. I ask Stephanie the only sensible thing I can think of after this wild old year: How are you? There’s something calming to me about the way she answers. She’s good, she says. Really good.

We speak at length about the trials of being small business owners and leaders to our teams in the chaos of COVID, the good and the bad times and a lot about what we’ve learned from it all. She comes back to the community at every turn. She speaks about the stability that she and her team find through small but meaningful actions taken by her wider network. She speaks of the resilience of Hongkongers and their can-do attitude.

‘Going to the market every day, seeing the same faces behind the vegetable and meat stalls,’ she recalls. ‘It was those morning greetings that helped to make us feel safe and steady.’ Having been born and raised in Hong Kong, Stephanie has a deep understanding of just how valuable these small interactions are. She has a strong handle on what it means to put your head down and work, but she also sees where there’s room for us all to have a better quality of life.

Lotus chips are another example of how Wong marries Western flavours with Hong Kong food culture

Stephanie’s lotus chips are another great example of her ability to create nostalgic Western flavours while paying respect to Hong Kong culture. The savoury snack is perfect for sharing — and for chatting the afternoon away while sipping on a crisp chardonnay. As I run a New World wine bar, I hardly ever get the chance to sit down with a classic French drop, and I’m pleasantly reminded of times in Europe as I sip away at her 2014 Pouilly-Fuissé, Domaine Valette Chardonnay. Unlike the bigger, creamier styles of Chardonnay that I’ve grown to love, this one has a gorgeous line of racy acidity that runs through it, leaving you wanting more chips, more wine and more conversation.

Taking another bite and another sip, we turn to the topic of physical well-being and mental health. Despite our little indulgence today, we’ve both largely stopped drinking this year in an effort to better cope with everything that’s been thrown at us. In part thanks to shorter restaurant opening hours, we’ve both been going to bed earlier, waking up fresher and sometimes even running into one another on our morning hikes up The Peak. ‘The topic of mental health is one that I feel very passionately about, and that no one speaks about in this industry,’ Stephanie points out.

Indeed, sustainability goes far beyond the food we serve. We need to live more balanced lives. We need sleep, we need time with our loved ones and we need to feed ourselves regularly and healthily — all things that often fall by the wayside for members of the hospitality industry. There’s an expectation on us to be forever switched-on, upbeat, friendly and patient, but of course these are difficult if we’re struggling with mental and physical health issues below the surface. Stephanie and I agree that we need to apply the aeroplane mask theory to our industry — put your own on first, and then help others.

In an amusing, positive twist, the pandemic has made us all slow down, take a deep breath and think. Time is a gift we’re not often granted when we’re moving at 100 miles an hour. It was imposed on us this year, but ultimately, both Stephanie and I agree that we’re deeply grateful for it. Going forward, we aim to be there for our community in ways that feel more balanced and holistic. We say goodbye and give each other a hug. This year will be better than the last.