For Cantonese, the food and restaurant business is a traditional profession. Cantonese are proud of their culinary culture. But the general consensus is that Western food is more often recognized by prestigious culinary awards than Asian food due to the more elaborate cooking methods and more invested attention in presentation. Realizing that, in 2014, ZS Hospitality Group was born in Hong Kong with the desire from the founder to elevate Asian cuisine to a new level. The vision of The Lee Family is to elevate Hong Kong cuisine by applying modern cooking methods, with a well-prepared space, service, and presentation.
After five years of operation, ZS currently operates five different restaurant models in Hong Kong, attracting Hong Kong culinary lovers as well as international foodies. Each ZS restaurant was born with a specific mission: Lee Lo Mei is a contemporary Hong Kong cuisine restaurant; Moi Moi is a Vietnamese cuisine restaurant; Ying Jee Club is a high-end Cantonese restaurant with 2 Michelin stars; Lee Ho Sing is for elevated street-food; and Miss Lee is a Cantonese-style vegetarian restaurant.
In mid-2019, ZS took the opportunity to enter the Vietnamese market, which is why Lee Ho Ma, a Hong Kong fusion restaurant, was born, inheriting the standards that ZS has set at The Lee Family (including the 4 restaurants Miss Lee, Lee Ho Sing, Lee Lo Mei and Lee Ho Ma). And now with only a few days left until the new year, Chef Lee’s kitchen is busier than ever in preparation for Lee Ho Ma’s anticipated opening in Saigon.
Discovering Hong Kong cuisine in a cultural center like Saigon isn’t too new. Then, what is so special about Lee Ho Ma? And what is unique in Lee’s interpretation of Hong Kong cuisine? Join us as we break into Lee’s kitchen to answer these questions.
Why did ZS choose Vietnam as the next destination after Hong Kong?
We see similarities in Hong Kong and Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City. Both are economic and social centers, and are the convergence of cultures, intersecting the old and the new. Not only that, Vietnam is a familiar and safe destination for people, with a rapidly growing middle class who are always wanting to access and experience new things.
For a long time, Cantonese cuisine has been a very familiar part of Saigonese, yet restaurants with new-wave Hong Kong cuisine are still unavailable. For us at ZS, we would like to introduce to culinary lovers a new dining experience, with elevated Hong Kong street food style that carries a new set of colorful flavors.
When choosing the name of the restaurant, we considered my last name as the chef, ‘Lee,’ and the Cantonese greeting ‘nei ho ma.’ Hence, the name Lee Ho Ma. The symbol of our restaurant is a cat wearing the Vietnamese conical hat, holding a pineapple-shaped cake which is a common staple of Hong Kong cuisine.
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Can you share a little about your strengths and what has allowed you to accompany The Lee Family for so long?
I share a common core value with ZS. It’s our mutual goal to elevate Asian cuisine and bring diners the most complete experience. On my end, with more than 20 years of experience working at Michelin-standard restaurants, experiencing a variety of cuisines, from Europe to Asia, I’m confident that I can take advantage of my own knowledge and experiences to help ZS improve Asian cuisine with modern, exquisite cooking methods.
Fortunately, I found a team of dedicated partners to work with. While I lead the concept development for the food recipes, it’s the chefs who convey this passion and culinary enthusiasm. At Lee Ho Ma, we ensure standards are the same across the whole group. Our team was sent to Hong Kong to learn the group’s standards for kitchen management and preparation. So even though Lee Ho Ma is not in Hong Kong, we guarantee standards here just like any restaurant in The Lee’s Family chain.
Who is Lee Ho Ma’s target audience?
Lee Ho Ma is for people who love to try and experience new things. Lee Ho Ma is confident in bringing to customers a combination of tradition and modernity. It will have a distinctive flavor that is familiar but still has an element of surprise. It is expressed not only through food but also through the space, the music, and the service here.
You’ll find that Lee Ho Ma inherited many of the same styles of Lee Lo Mei in Hong Kong. Lee Lo Mei has just won the Locally Inspired Bar title, awarded by TimeOut Magazine, and is an emerging destination that has become popular among young people, office workers, and expat guests. We hope Lee Ho Ma will also win the love of similar customer segments, thanks to the vibrant atmosphere, creative food and drinks.
So what does the restaurant look like? What are some key features?
We hope you will feel the hospitality and warm welcome from the moment you enter. As you can see, images of cats wearing conical straw hats are everywhere to bring about a playful, quirky atmosphere. The whole restaurant is inspired by a Hong Kong-style from the early 60s. It consists of three different areas: the ground floor for family groups and friends, the VIP area, and the rooftop bar. This bar is also a highlight of Lee Ho Ma; we will arrange a stage here so that everyone can play music together while enjoying cocktails.
Hong Kong cuisine is fairly common to Vietnamese people, especially given that Hong Kong restaurants are always opening in Vietnam. What will make the cuisine unique at Lee Ho Ma?
I use molecular gastronomy, which is often recognized as a step forward in the global culinary industry. This cooking method makes use of modern technology to impact the molecular structure of each ingredient; the chemical and physical reactions will change the flavor and structure of the dish. This technique of concentrating liquids into spherical shapes helps to create a flexible structure. In one of our dishes, this technique wraps one of our liquid-based ingredients in a transparent spherical structure, creating a unique breaking sensation that releases the liquid when you take a bite.
We also apply the slow cooking technique (sous vide). This is the preferred method for handling complex textured meat pieces by cooking food in a vacuum for a long time at low temperatures (from 50-70 degrees Celsius). Sous vide helps control the ripeness of food, preserving the flavor, and freshness of ingredients.
What are some of the must-try dishes at Lee Ho Ma?
If you want to experience molecular gastronomy, you should order the “Jubilant hotpot“; instead of having the usual ingredients on the side, these are served together in this dish.
Or another creative dish is the “Jubilant ginger soup dessert“, a new version of the traditional soup dessert with mung-bean-filled glutinous rice. Using molecular cooking techniques to wrap both the ginger syrup and rice cakes in the same bite, customers can experience the sweetness of the cake and the syrup in their palate.
For sous vides dishes, you can try the “Sofishtacated dish” with the main ingredient being salmon, and “Cow with a bow” for beef that has been slow-cooked for 20 hours.
In addition, you can try the version 2.0 Hong Kong street food through dishes such as “Peanut butter approach” – the famous Hong Kong-style French Toast with the highlight of Vietnamese sweetened condensed milk. Or “Made in Hainan” — the famous Hainanese chicken dish; or “Seafood claypot rice” with the rice being cooked directly with seafood broth.
Don’t forget to enjoy the Lee Ho Ma Hong Kong milk tea, which transforms into a “Silky & Milky” pudding the moment you taste it. You’ll feel the intensity of the tea, the buttery texture of the milk, and the cheerful colors of the red beans.
Finally, what are your expectations for Lee Ho Ma?
Lee Ho Ma is an important step forward for ZS because this is our first time entering a market that is not Hong Kong. Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll be warmly received by the foodies of Saigon and contribute to the emerging culinary culture here.