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

With a background in finance and experience working as a CPA in New York, Sandy was— quite literally— a world apart from becoming a chef and restaurant owner in Hong Kong. The transition she made almost a decade ago may seem mystifying for some, yet Sandy says the switch came quite naturally. “It’s pretty straightforward, actually. I just fell in love with cooking. And on top of that, I fell in love with cooking in a restaurant. I wanted to do it professionally, and so I left my full-time finance job to pursue a career in the restaurant industry”.

“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

When I ask her about her journey so far, Sandy tells me that she doesn’t regret the decision at all. “I think I always have a choice. People will say to me ‘you’re so brave, leaving a cushy job to do this’. Maybe that’s what you see when you look at it from the surface, but from my perspective, I feel like I have a foundation already— whether that be from my education or my work experience”. “Options are a powerful thing to have,” Sandy notes, and she tells me that thinking about her venture in such a way helped to make it less daunting and intimidating. That’s not to say that her journey wasn’t difficult: “sometimes you do have moments when you think to yourself: why am I doing this? Managing a microbusiness isn’t easy: when your cleaner doesn’t come to work you’re the one cleaning the toilets, doing all of the unpleasant stuff yourself…”.

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

Sandy’s own definition of sustainability is what she would describe as widely-accepted. “It’s not to abstain from consumption because as human beings we can’t realistically do that. Rather it’s being able to enjoy everything we have now in the future as well, and hopefully forever. You have to strike a balance between means of living and the environment. There’s a lot to consider”.

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

Despite her own commitment towards sustainability, Sandy notes that it’s difficult to transform diners’ mode of consumption. Most people, she explains, still come into her restaurant looking for meat and seafood: “I put plant-based dishes as an option on the menu, but often consumers won’t order that”. Hence, instead of offering plant-based menu items as just an option, Sandy employs a different strategy, incorporating plant-based ingredients into her dishes so that customers don’t have a choice.

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

For example, TABLE’s set lunch menus include a soup that Sandy makes using local, seasonal vegetables. Recently, the restaurant’s soups have consisted of squash and bitter melon— unconventional ingredients that don’t usually appear in western-style soups. Yet Sandy tells me that customers begin to resonate with the concept once they taste it: “as they drink and enjoy the soup, it all begins to make sense for them”. Another tactic Sandy uses is incorporating plant-based ingredients into the amuse bouche which, again, customers don’t have much of a choice in. By introducing plant-based ingredients step-by-step, Sandy essentially sets the stage for a smoother transition— a slower shift that will nevertheless ingrain itself into customers’ minds. Plant-based and seasonal ingredients also make their way into side dishes, acting as supporting actors in some of the restaurant’s dishes. Examples of this would be Sandy’s oyster souffle pancake, which contains bitter melon, and Sandy’s unique, seasonal dessert creation: the barley ice cream with caramel, oat crumble and red dates.

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

The thought and planning that occurs behind the scenes is equally as important to the restaurant’s sustainability journey. Calling it a “work in progress”, Sandy says that working on food supply has been a lengthy process. This rings especially true in Hong Kong, where agriculture remains a minor industry. “Although there have been developments in the past few years, it’s still very difficult to fill your entire menu with local products. And even the word ‘local’— I think we need to redefine it to include a wider scope”. For Sandy, sourcing local food is a personal commitment: every week, she personally visits the farmer’s market to buy and choose the restaurant’s ingredients. She explains that the production of local farms is so small that they struggle to handle logistics. Often, Sandy tells me that she buys whatever is available: “because local farms are so small in scale, what they’re offering changes slightly every week. So if you’re doing set menus that can be difficult. But for TABLE it works because we do a la carte menus that I can change all the time. So my menus sometimes depend on what I can find”. To source fruits and vegetables, Sandy aspires to try urban farming one day— yet this would be quite a big step.

TABLE’s whole roasted yellow crispy chicken uses local yellow chicken and Lau Fau Shan oyster

Animal protein is equally challenging to source sustainably. For seafood, Sandy tries to locate suppliers in Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. While she acknowledges that this isn’t necessarily local sourcing, she notes that it’s the best they can do for now. From time to time, Sandy also visits the Aberdeen fish market, looking for smaller fish and seafood she can use in her restaurant. As for meat, Sandy explains that sourcing becomes much harder. Pork and cattle especially are tough to source in Hong Kong, so instead the restaurant looks for certified, more humane suppliers abroad. Chicken is locally sourced though, Sandy notes.

Journey to the plate

One of TABLE’s trademarks is the in-house ozone depuration tank, which depurates live seafood such as oysters, lobsters and crabs. The process, Sandy explains, purges seafood of environmental pollutants and metabolic waste that accumulates during the transportation process. Essentially, the ozone depuration tank restores seafood to a fresh-out-of-water condition, making it cleaner and safer to eat.

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

Sustainability is a learning process, and Sandy recalls that Food Made Good’s sustainability rating was a huge opportunity for learning. “As I went through the audit, I realised that there were a lot of things that I wasn’t thinking about or wasn’t aware of. The audit was a really interesting process for me to go through. I think it helped me set out a plan and create a timeline so I can begin to address things”. Sandy acknowledges that perfection isn’t possible: instead, she looks to take baby steps, making her way slowly towards a more sustainable restaurant future. “It’s a balance between having a sustainable business and addressing sustainability issues. But ultimately I think change has to happen: if we continue living or consuming in an unsustainable way we won’t be around much longer. It’s the same TCM principle: if we’re not in harmony with the environment then it hurts our well-being”.

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

As can be observed from her interactions with her guests, Sandy places great value on fostering relationships and building a community. “For me, whether or not a customer enjoys my food is less important. I mean obviously I hope that they like it, but the emphasis isn’t on me— I’m not trying to fish for praise or recognition. Rather, I’m just happy— and grateful— to be a channel for people to share their happiness, care, love, all of that”. Intrinsically a part of our lives and communities, food is uniquely positioned as a medium of change— more the reason why it should be sustainable!

TABLE’s threadfin fish is paired with stewed seasonal squashes and fruit lily bulbs

As for the TABLE community, Sandy tells me that regular customers come for the ambiance. “They tell me that they chose TABLE because they feel very homey and cosy. There’s the right amount of formality— in the sense that there’s decor, there’s service— but at the same time it feels very warm. Some energy practitioners have even told me that my food is high energy— whatever that’s supposed to mean!” Sandy tells me with a laugh. “Happy chef, happy staff, then happy food”. That’s Sandy’s mantra, and she thinks it’s this philosophy that attracts customers to her restaurant. For her, it’s the thought and intention that counts. “I know people won’t like every single dish I make. But I hope that customers will view it from a different perspective and see that whilst the dish may not be to their liking it’s something that I’ve cooked very thoughtfully. At TABLE, we put our hearts into every single dish. I think that’s what attracts people the most”.

Up next

As always, there’s lots more that can be done. “I have some customers that think if something’s on an endangered list, they should have more of it before it goes extinct!”. Changing consumer attitudes is a constant battle, and really comes with time. “It’s something that we have to keep talking about and practising, so that eventually people will come to realise it and accept it on their own”. Sustainability isn’t an easy path to take, and Sandy tells me that it’s about conducting an inner search, understanding why sustainability is personally important. “You need to understand why you’re doing it, then set out plans to achieve things over time”.

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”.

To learn more about TABLE head to their website here.

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