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Five Minutes With: May Chow, chef and restaurateur

By Jen Paolini 27 December 2023

Header image courtesy of Little Bao

Hong Kong’s dining landscape experiences relentless change at a rapid pace. Restaurants open, close, or undergo a complete revamp, often in a short space of time, and the most difficult milestone of all is achieving longevity. Not many establishments are so fortunate to reach the 10-year mark, and keeping the momentum going is even more of a challenge, but May Chow, best known for opening Little Bao a decade ago and reimagining Cantonese flavours with a modern twist, can now confidently cross that off her list of accomplishments. We sat down with the seasoned chef and restaurateur to talk about her journey, the most important qualities a chef must have, and what the next 10 years will bring.

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Photo: Little Bao

How did you get your start as a chef?

My mother’s passion for cooking sparked my interest. Also, working my first few desk jobs, I had no interest at that point in corporate life, so I took a deep dive into working in a kitchen.

What does a day in the life of May Chow look like?

My life right now might sound more like an entrepreneur than a chef. I have different responsibilities now because I also have the privilege and carved out time to sit around to brainstorm what’s next. I enjoy wearing many hats and my wife and I are embracing the renaissance women where people were less specialised and could be good at many things.

I wake up at 8.30 am and I’m on my laptop catching up on emails in regards to restaurant development, events, internal affairs, panel discussions, production, et cetera. I sneak in a gym session or run. By 1 pm, I might be in a photoshoot or marketing shoot. By 3 pm, I discuss with my team upcoming menus, events, festivals and pop-ups; they might offer me tastings or product development. I generally connect with my operations team between 3 pm and 5 pm. By 7 pm, I might host some special guests at the restaurant. While I’m there, I take notes and comment on things that are going well or can be improved on and I send a recap to my team. I read the daily sales report every night before bed to see what people have enjoyed, [their] commentaries, and what the service was like. I work quite a lot so most busy nights, I have a quick dinner and continue to do things while my wife and I and the dogs watch some TV. We walk the dogs together and then I’m off [to] bed.

What does your creation process look like for coming up with new dishes, menus, and concepts?

Reading about new techniques, new experiences in food, collaborating with my team, connecting the dots between concepts, and just having the luxury of time to create is important. Also, we create as a team and my team also has great ideas as we’ve been working together for many years. I also like setting deadlines by doing events with new concepts so those times allow us to collaborate and learn as well as force us to create something new.

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Photo: Little Bao

What is the most important quality in a chef?

[Depends] on [the] stage of a chef. I think with younger chefs, technical skills, attitude, and working as a team. At my stage, leadership, creativity, communication, attention to detail, business skill, passion, and organisation are all important factors.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a chef, and as a person? Is there anything you’d like to tell a younger version of yourself from 10 years ago?

I am one who wears many hats, so I face challenges as a chef, as an entrepreneur, and also [in] my personal life. At the start of Covid-19, all three collapsed. I was separated from a relationship, my company was down to 15 percent, and yet I had to be the most optimistic and hopeful [in] a time of downfall. I remembered walking from Causeway Bay to Central completely blank. I really treasure this experience.

I quite enjoyed my journey and I had a bit of suffering but I think it was necessary to become who I am. I am thoroughly grateful for the highs and the mistakes I made. Also, I don’t think I would have listened.

Photo: Little Bao

You’ve been recognised as Asia’s 50 Best Female Chef, appeared on Parts Unknown and Inspired with Anna Olson, and curated the Grand Gelinaz Shuffle. Remaining relevant in a world where people are always looking to move on to the next new thing is a demanding ask. What has been your trick to overcoming this?

In the past few years, I’ve heard a lot about unicorn companies. I told myself either I can believe that unicorns are rare, or I can first believe I am a unicorn. So I think confidence, continuous learning, and resilience is absolute. Also, I believe success is not [achieved by] one individual; I love working with talented and creative people, so I pride myself in continuously finding people and things that inspire me and work with it. It’s also totally okay to be stuck sometimes because it’s part of the process.

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Photo: Little Bao

It’s been 10 years since you opened Little Bao. How does it feel to reach this milestone? Why do you think it has resonated so deeply with your customers?

I am so happy and proud as I feel a bit like running a marathon and that stage when at one point energy depleted can still run the final stretch. I feel like this milestone allowed me to re-see myself, my work, and also set the stage for my next milestone. 

I built the restaurant based on personal beliefs. Being kind to guests, never comparing ourselves to neighbours, delivering our best never thinking we were just offering $200- to $300-price meals. I had high standards for myself, my team, and I think also when I wanted to give up and close to, someone was there to believe in me to help me keep going. Our restaurant was never just transactional, or it’s not just about the food. 

In many ways, we showed our restaurant in the most authentic way and I try to share what I love to our guests. From family recipes, to making Chinese parents proud, to doing the bao justice, to celebrating Hong Kong as East-meets-West, to reimagine local culture and traditions, and to make something new, to be kind to people, to build a community, to fight for creativity, to teach and share, to support local young talents, to support women empowerment, to support LGBTQ+, to talk about sustainability, to constantly cooking good food, to stay curious, to be honest, and to be positive and hopeful. I believe that the people feel what we do when they bite into our food and experience Little Bao.

Photo: Little Bao

What are your plans for the next 10 years?

I believe I will continue on this path with more focus and experience. In the short term, I want to share Little Bao [with] the world. Also, I believe I will have a family, so [that’s] another life milestone for me.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Jen Paolini

Content director

Born in Hong Kong, raised in Germany, and educated in the U.S., Jen is an award-winning creative with a background in illustration, communication design, art direction, and content creation. When she’s not getting lost in a good book, you’ll find her doing crosswords, eating dim sum, covering all sides of a “Hamilton” number, and taking naps.