Chef-owner Leonard Cheung is playing all the hits for Cultivate’s first anniversary
Launching 25 March, Cultivate’s one year anniversary menu is made up of guests’ favourite dishes from the past twelve months.
It’s a celebration! Remember those? Before group restrictions and restaurant curfews left a gaping void in all of our lives? Yeah, we’re feeling it — but few more than those in F&B, who seem to always have to bear the brunt through wave after wave of These Unprecedented Times, which are looking more and more precedented with each passing day.
In this climate, just keeping the lights on is its own achievement, and as we blow out one big, seasonal candle on the first anniversary of Elgin Street’s Cultivate, chef-owner Leonard Cheung has prepared a month-long culinary playlist of the restaurant’s greatest hits from the past year — a “thank you” to the many guests who have sat across his 22-seat chef’s table counter over the last twelve months. While Cheung has served plenty of personal favourites across that span, this menu was designed with guests’ preferences — and of course, seasonality — in mind.
“If this past year has taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected,” says Cheung. “Some dishes at Cultivate that became almost cult-classics: our Maitake with our riff of Phở broth, for example, was a dish that I created on a whim shortly before opening, and then it became a totally surprise hit that inspired guests to constantly request it to be returned to the menu. But I am a restless creative and I constantly need to make room on the for new ideas, so it isn’t always possible to repeat dishes for too long.”
In other words, Maitake lovers: Catch it while you can. Also on this limited-time menu: White Asparagus with Zuwaigani crab, uni, and shiso; Tofu-fa with custard apple; and Nasturtium, which true ‘Vate-heads will recognise as the restaurant’s logo — the edible flower is a signature dish and a personal favourite for Chef Leonard. Diners should expect these throwback platings not just to be resurrected, but evolved — so if you liked what chef did with Celtuce the first time around, well, get ready.
For one month starting from 25 March, Cultivate guests have the choice of two options: The Anniversary Express Tasting Menu (HK$988 / seven courses) is available Wednesday to Friday, and The Anniversary Full Tasting Menu (HK$1,488 / eight courses, plus an extended canape selection) which is available on weekends as well.
We reached out to Chef Leonard to discuss the new menu, the challenges and rewards of Cultivate’s first year and what the future holds.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What does this first anniversary for Cultivate mean to you?
I know it’s a bit silly to celebrate an anniversary after opening for only one year, but given all the challenges that the pandemic has tossed at us every day, it felt like our 3rd anniversary already. The amount of dishes we have created on a weekly and monthly basis at Cultivate is unparalleled to most fine dining restaurants in a year’s time span, as well — I think we’ve gone through 100 different dishes in an eight-course tasting menu already.
I have no words, and too many words at the same time. This year has been inarguably one of the toughest years to operate a restaurant in Hong Kong, but we made it and we are thriving. The gratitude we have for our guests, suppliers and everyone who has supported us over the past year is overwhelming.
What do you feel that Cultivate has brought to Hong Kong’s dining scene?
“A breath of fresh cooking!”, “resilience in F&B!”, “rustic-but-refined cooking!” — sorry, I’m making fun of how most restaurants would answer this question.
Cultivate is a concept that slays cliché and conventional norms of run-of-the-mill Western dining establishments in Hong Kong. On our service side, it is quite standard. When it comes to the conceptualization of every one of our dishes, the customers do not come first; if I were to give dishes that customers would want to eat over and over again, then I am giving them the same fare that they can consume at any other dining establishments in this city. The cuisine at Cultivate cannot be defined by any “type” — it is driven on hyper-seasonal produce, with a creative and unorthodox fare, and dodging the bullet of being too gimmicky at every turn. Long story short, what Cultivate has brought to Hong Kong’s dining scene is a concept that is always inconsistent and unpredictable — in a way that makes people happy, of course.
With Cultivate, I set out to redefine Hong Kong’s perception of fine casual dining. I wanted to create a sense of whimsy with every dish served, and be constantly evolving. I wanted to introduce diners to humble ingredients that they wouldn’t normally think of for fine-dining and show them how impressive these ingredients could become through interesting flavour pairings and different techniques. I am still in awe that despite the circumstances, our team at Cultivate has managed to do this. I am also very excited for what we have in store for our second year. Wait till you see what we’re about to do in round two.
How did you go about selecting dishes for the anniversary menu?
We first narrowed potential dishes down based on past customer feedback, number of requests, and number of instagram posts, then we had to take some dishes out of the running just due to seasonality — for example, our In-N-Out Beef Tartare was a smash hit, but it isn’t the season for the particular kind of tomatoes that we use in it so it wouldn’t have been possible.
After we had the dishes narrowed down, we left a lot of it up to our fiercely loyal guests; we asked them to vote on our Instagram Stories to advocate for their favourites. So now, across our Anniversary Express Tasting Menu and Anniversary Full Tasting Menu, it’s the first time that so many of our guest’s favourites, like the Maitake and the White Asparagus are being served at the same time. It’s a truly special menu that is our way of saying “thank you” for all of the support.
Do you have a favourite dish that you’ve served at Cultivate?
It’s hard for me to be happy with any dish because I don’t see dishes as a destination, I see them as a journey, and I am always thinking of ways to improve them. I loved the In-N-Out Beef Tartare because growing up in LA, In-N-Out is hugely nostalgic for me, and one of my favorite places to eat. I was almost flattered when they sent us a cease-and-desist for having our servers wear authentic In-N-Out hats when serving the dish.
What’s been the biggest challenge this year? What’s been the most rewarding?
In the earlier days, staffing was a real challenge for us. Across Hong Kong F&B in general, staffing became challenging, because with the border controls, there was a lack of incoming new talent. We learned (even more than we knew before) the importance of valuing your team and doing what you can to show them that and hold onto them. I feel we have hit our stride with the team we have now, and I am grateful for them every day.
Something else that has been a challenge — but that has inspired some of our best dishes — has been supply chain. We haven’t always been able to get ingredients we thought were coming, and have had to make last minute pivots on the fly, sometimes with only a couple of hours until a fully booked service. One such dish was our Ravioli Doppi that we bifurcated with glazed duck confit on one side and foie gras on the other, then served in our pho dashi broth; we made this up completely on the fly and it turned out to be a fantastic and often requested dish.
Supply chain issues have also had us shift our original plan of having a wine list that mainly showcased American varietals; we haven’t been able to rely on shipments from the US enough to make that happen, but it has allowed us to explore a lot of really interesting other wines like one that we serve now with our pairing menu that is from Château Bargylus in Syria.
With travel looking like a possibility again, what are you excited for most?
A more reliable supply chain! Also, I am just excited for the electricity that an influx of new people brings to a city. I am excited to introduce Cultivate’s special brand of dining to new guests who haven’t had an opportunity to experience it before, and to really see if Cultivate can match up to international gastronomic standards.
Speaking of year two, what do you have planned? Anything you can tease? Will you be continuing the birthday charity meal?
You know what they say about planning… Seriously though, after we finish up our month-long Anniversary menu celebration, and when dinner dining resumes, I am looking forward to introducing a menu concept that we have been working on for a while. It offers a tour of major US cities and my interpretations of classic dishes that they are famous for.
The birthday charity meal is close to my heart because my late father always spent the morning of his birthday giving back through donations and actual charity work. The money we raised from our last birthday charity meal was able to provide 6,480 meals to elderly, homeless and undernourished people in Hong Kong and we absolutely plan to make that a tradition, and hope we can do even more in the future.
I want to say thank you again to our guests and everyone else who has supported us this last year. We could not have done it without any of them. I also want to remind everyone to book now for our Anniversary Full and Express Tasting menus. The entire menus are only our dishes that have been our guests’ favorites, and for many of them this may be the last opportunity to try them before they are retired permanently to make room for the other dish ideas that keep me up at night.
Reservations can be made now at cultivate.hk.
Cultivate, F, Shop A, G, 27-29 Elgin St, Central, Hong Kong, +852 5303 1230