By Jade Chen
16 mins reading time
A little past lunch hour one afternoon, I visit Sandy Keung’s restaurant TABLE. With diners still engaged in hearty conversation, the restaurant buzzes with life, with murmurs of conversation breaking through the bustle of the open kitchen. Peeping through the restaurant’s venetian blinds, natural light casts a warm glow onto the restaurant space, illuminating each table with sunlight. I take a seat and, in a couple of minutes, Sandy emerges in her chef’s jacket, leaving the hustle of the kitchen to chat with me about sustainability. Before that, though, she tours the restaurant, pausing at each table to chat with today’s guests. The restaurant’s relaxed ambience puts everyone at ease, and a table of friends nearby chatter over cake as they celebrate a birthday.
TABLE was founded nine years ago by Sandy, and is now on its way to hitting a ten-year milestone. Serving a unique ‘ingredient-based cuisine’, TABLE is powered by novelty and creativity, blurring geographical borders to combine East and West— reflecting Sandy’s own unique background. In line with this inclination for novelty is a new pursuit for sustainability, setting a direction for TABLE to move in as it takes bolder steps to mark its tenth anniversary.
Sandy Keung at TABLE
A venture from finance to food
“At the time, I just needed a push. Because sometimes when you’ve been doing one thing for a long time, it can be hard to get out of your comfort zone. For me, I worried about having no restaurant experience; this was a concern especially as the restaurant industry is so competitive in Hong Kong”. The push that Sandy needed at the time came somewhat by coincidence. The restaurant’s predecessor, she explains, was also in finance and was an acquaintance of Sandy’s. Yet unlike Sandy, the previous owner wasn’t cooking in the restaurant— she was managing it and finding it difficult to keep up with operations. The previous owner had decided to move on, giving Sandy the perfect opportunity to step in and live out her dream.
Sandy started by dipping her toes in the water first, gauging tentatively whether or not this was the right path. She recalls that, at first, she barely told anyone about her restaurant: “I wasn’t sure if I would embarrass myself and flop completely!”. Instead, Sandy’s customer base was built up through word of mouth as her friends from finance were eager to support.
Topped with sustainable smoked caviar, the ‘HK Typhoon Shelter’ Angel Hair is a fan-favourite pasta dish at TABLE
Shifting perspectives and continuous discoveries
Though the initial flame that sparked the beginning of Sandy’s journey is still burning strong, her understanding of TABLE and of herself has transformed over the years. When she first started her journey, Sandy tells me that the focus was on her and her cooking. “You could describe it as vanity, thinking that people are coming to eat your food and your cooking. I thought that I was at centre-stage”. Yet slowly, as she moved further along her journey, she realised she was more of an instrument. “I realised that I was an instrument, or perhaps a channel, for people to share their happiness— not just fill up a hungry stomach”. She raises a heartwarming example, telling me the story of one of her regular customers. “During the first year of Covid-19, before we had vaccines, one of my regular customers came. He told us that his mother hadn’t been out of the house for months, and was becoming really depressed”. The customer told Sandy that he and his siblings were visiting their mother soon, and that his mother missed Sandy’s signature crab rice. The moment was pivotal for Sandy: “that’s when it hit me. What I’m doing is creating a channel, in this instance a channel for the son to show love and care to his mother. If what I made happened to cheer the mother up a little, then I generated happiness; I think that’s what my food and my restaurant mean to me now”.
The smoked yellow croaker, which is locally-sourced from Ap Lei Chau market, is inspired by a heartwarming childhood memory between Sandy and her older brother
A different take on sustainability
Balance is a recurring theme in our conversation, and Sandy places great emphasis on harmony and equilibrium. Her restaurant journey has been somewhat of an evolution for her as well, and she tells me that, especially at the beginning, the restaurant was very much experimental. Her original idea, she says, was to build a restaurant around what she liked. Pointing out the personal touches in the restaurant (including the art, for example), Sandy tells me that the restaurant’s creation was based on what she enjoyed in restaurants and what she wanted to see. Moreover, her approach is extremely open-minded: “we serve ingredient-based cuisine because I don’t want to limit my cuisine. I want to let the ingredients and the creativity flow, and just cook dishes that people enjoy. I take influence from different countries, incorporating my personal experiences as well as local ingredients and flavours”.
To mark her restaurant’s ten year milestone, Sandy has decided to take her journey a step further, honing in on the area of sustainability. “There’s a lot of noise about seasonality and sustainability, which is funny considering that Hong Kong imports the majority of its ingredients”. Rather than following conventional definitions of seasonality, Sandy seeks out one of her own. In particular, she finds herself leaning towards principles of TCM: traditional Chinese medicine. “I was pondering what seasonality meant to me, and it all came back to the roots of TCM”. Sandy tells me that principles of TCM, which emphasise being in harmony with oneself and the environment, link with sustainability as well. “TCM says that we are part of the environment and that we are looking for equilibrium. It means focusing on well-being and health. And funnily enough, whatever is blooming now— that may be squash or bitter melon at the moment— that’s what’s in tune with the environment and the seasons, and that’s why we should have it now. The theory is basically that consuming what is good for you and in season puts you in harmony with the environment”.
Sneaking in sustainability
Amuse bouches such as the one above (amuse bouche with hairy gourd) are one of Sandy’s favourite ways to incorporate seasonal vegetables in the menu
As always, Sandy draws on TCM principles to guide the creation of TABLE’s menus. Through the knowledge she has picked up over the years, as well as the guidance of a Chinese doctor, Sandy plans out her menu items according to the season. “According to TCM principles, each season corresponds to certain internal organs which are the strongest or need the most nourishment. The summer season actually corresponds to the heart, which must be nourished with cooling vegetables and also red-coloured foods. That’s why red dates are incorporated in our menu this season”.
Behind the scenes
TABLE’s whole roasted yellow crispy chicken uses local yellow chicken and Lau Fau Shan oyster
Journey to the plate
Sandy came across this system back in her finance days, when she was looking to invest in an indoor fish farm system. She explains that indoor fish farms usually require changes of water every now and then. The fish farm she happened to visit, however, recycled 100% of its water, handling all accumulated waste in a sustainable manner. Interested to learn more, Sandy spoke with the marine biologist, who introduced to her the concept of ozone depuration. “In its most simple definition, depuration provides a clean, suitable environment for seafood— shellfish mainly— to naturally purge themselves of metabolic waste and accumulated pollutants”. Sandy tells me she was initially confused: “I didn’t understand why we needed to do that! So the marine biologist gave me the example of oysters”. “Oysters are usually flown in from France, and the journey to Hong Kong takes a minimum of 3 days. On top of that, the oysters are transported via air-freight which (as it is expensive) means that they are transported dry, without water. And once they arrive in Hong Kong, people put them into fridges in restaurants or ice in supermarkets— they don’t go back into the water! So by the time the consumer eats it, the oyster has been out of the water for at least 5 days. For an oyster, this is the equivalent of 5 days without showering or using the bathroom”.
During the transport journey, the bacteria count of oysters begins to go up, posing potential health risk for consumers. That is why Sandy places live shellfish into the restaurant’s ozone depuration tank— which controls factors such as temperature, salinity and PH levels. “If the shellfish are unhappy or stressed they won’t open— that’s the way they protect themselves. So if you want them to open, they have to be stress-free. And in our ozone depuration tank they open and begin to breathe in and out again. So in that way I think they are happier and more relaxed too”.
TABLE’s New Zealand Tua Tua Surf Clams are harvested with a hydraulic winnowing clam rake rather than nets
A long and winding road
Internal communication is an especially important step in TABLE’s sustainability journey. Sandy recalls sitting down with her staff and trying to get the message across. “Initially they were sceptical. But I think looking at it from a personal perspective really helps. For me, that meant looking at seasonality from my own cultural background”.
Gears are already turning, and some of TABLE’s sustainability initiatives can be observed around me. Menus for example, cease to exist— at least in the traditional sense. “We went paperless a while ago, and instead use QR codes now”. Even the layout menu has been carefully considered. “In the past, the QR code brought customers straight to the menu but now it goes to an explanation instead. The idea is for customers to gain awareness: even though they may not read it, the title might catch their interest and they might go back to it at some point. I’ve had people tell me that they were reading it while waiting for their friends to show up”. Sandy notes that this form of communication is easier on her staff as well. “They don’t have to stand there and explain things to every single customer. Like I said, I don’t want to force sustainability onto my customers, because people don’t like that”. Instead, Sandy tells me that her customers’ journeys are more self-guided. “When they ask me questions or wonder why I’m serving them, say, a bitter melon souffle, then they show interest and that’s when I tell them more”.
A long and winding road
TABLE’s threadfin fish is paired with stewed seasonal squashes and fruit lily bulbs
For now, Sandy tells me she’ll continue sneaking plant-based ingredients into her dishes, telling a story with her food. “Changing mindsets isn’t easy,” she says “but I’ll continue doing what I’m doing and continue telling the same story”.