Every year, a large-scale bazaar takes place in the city center of Tainan. While the event attracts a huge amount of tourists that flock into the city, it also paralyzes the area’s roads and streets. Besides walking, the best way to move around the city center during the bazaar is to ride bicycles; and if you’re lucky, you might come across something pleasantly unexpected during the ride. My encounter with him happened to occur on one of those rides when we were both out biking around searching for food.
The migao (rice cake) shop is located right next to the bazaar. On the day I visited it was completely packed, and even though communal seating was a rare thing in Tainan, I was seated right next to him, the man wearing a floral print shirt, at the same table, tucked away in the corner. Either out of genuine curiosity or wanting to reduce the awkwardness, I started talking to him. “Are you here for the bazaar?” His eyes lit up as if he was also curious. “I wanted to, but there were so many people. I couldn’t squeeze in.” At some point, a waiter, who is also a friend of mine, brought over a homemade pudding. The awkwardness struck again, so I asked if he wanted the pudding. He looked embarrassed and said, “No thanks. I’m actually a pastry chef.” That was how our story began. We followed each other on Instagram and made a promise that I would go visit him and try his pastries. His name is Julio Chuang and his studio is called Julio Studio.
Scrolling through Julio’s Instagram, I learnt that he runs a private kitchen. But what exactly is a private kitchen? With so many different food cultures like fast food, night market cuisine, and food influencers coming into view, I wondered if private kitchens are yet another up-and-coming trend in the food world. Based on my understanding and insights regarding food, the private kitchens in Hong Kong are where chefs serve their exclusive, signature delicacies; and if the customers have no specific dietary requirement, the chefs would prepare the food using ingredients that are often organic and come from small farms. The menus in private kitchens are typically exquisite and creative. Though honestly, I don’t have much experience with private kitchens and high-end cuisine and therefore can’t elaborate more on the topic, as someone with a curious soul, I was ready to dive into the world of the unknown to find out more.
“For me, a private chef is a chef who has an understanding of cooking and the ability to use the ingredients and seasonings at hand to properly and whole-heartedly create dishes that are unique. It doesn’t matter whether the food tastes good or not; because after all, it is all about personal preference. In a way, the person who cooks for you at home is your private chef. You should always cherish it.” Julio’s definition of a private chef came as a reminder that it’s the thought that counts. What lies behind those familiar smells of food and cooking at home is the thoughtful well wishes of your own private chef.
While thoughtfulness can be an intrinsic value of the chefs, communicating with the customers can also inspire the chef to create something thoughtful and meaningful. “From the text exchange at the point of reservation, I can usually get a sense of the customers’ personality. Also based on the seasonal ingredients available, I would start to brainstorm the menu. What can I cook to make them feel happy and how can I create the best atmosphere for the setting? Of course, I also take inspiration from dishes that I want to eat! Basically, I cook with the hope of ‘you are happy, so I am happy.’” That’s right! From brainstorming the menu to the day of actually setting food on the table, the chef may be experimenting with and tasting the same food every day during the time in between. It is therefore important that the chefs take inspiration from dishes they want to eat.
Some people are obsessed with what to eat though their obsession is seldom related to the price of the ingredients. A friend who runs a restaurant in the United States once said, “Offering the customers a joyful dining experience is the best marketing strategy that one could do. Connecting dining with happiness. Turning precious time into beautiful memories. There are hundreds and thousands of ways to find success in the restaurant business, but there is only one way to create happiness — it is to cook and create a happy dining experience that puts a smile on everyone’s face.
My private chef, Julio, has tailored a menu for me. As he cooked, we chatted and a burnt smell came from the oven. Julio swiftly took out the burnt vegetables, prepared a new plate of ingredients, popped it in the oven, and started baking once again. I watched every step in silence, and at one point, I came to the realization that cooking is what makes Julio happy. A private kitchen is where the magic lies. From that moment on, choosing what to eat has become a more mindful process.