It’s just about 9,000 miles from New Zealand to New York City. This is a vast distance spanning two hemispheres, the international dateline, and the Equator. Oh, and most of the South Pacific. That too.
Negotiating the vast divide between these two international destinations is something of a specialty for Anthony Hoy Fong. A New Zealander of Cantonese descent, the Kiwi chef journeyed from one end of the earth to the other a decade and a half ago, trading the pristine island nation of his birth for the opportunity to hone his hospitality skills in the high-profile, fast-paced kitchens of the Big Apple. Hoy Fong, with his twanging accent and beaming smile, embarked on a culinary career that would soon include impressive turns, from launching Top Chef University, to opening his own restaurant in Brooklyn, and even to cooking for the Obama White House.
Food & Wine recently spoke with the Kiwi chef via video link in his Brooklyn home, where he, his wife Kai, and their two children have been hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic. Hoy Fong shared his passion for New Zealand ingredients, held forth on the challenges and rewards of cooking for children, and how he incorporates Kiwi values like kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga, and ingenuity into his cooking to bridge the distance between his homeland and his adopted hometown—an exercise he takes to with apparent zeal (ahem).
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I'm in Park Slope. I've made the slow progression from Manhattan as my family has grown. Slowly moved further and further out, and now I'm in Park Slope, which is perfect for the kids.
I wanted to go to a great culinary school and work in the best restaurants—that’s why I chose New York. And yes, my wife’s American! She was born and raised in Michigan but lived in New York her entire adult life.
We met at culinary school at the French Culinary Institute in SoHo, New York. We were both “career changers” and following our passion for food. We happened to be in the same class and hit it off.
That was about 15 years ago now. Kiwis and Australians, we live so far away down at the bottom of the earth, and when you reach a certain age you go do your “OE” trip—your overseas experience. A lot of Kiwis and Aussies go to London, but I wanted to go to New York, as I wanted to go to culinary school in New York and immerse myself in it’s amazing culinary scene. So I enrolled myself in the French Culinary Institute, which I attended during the day and worked in as many restaurants as I could at night.
It's funny ‘cause I've seen it evolve over the years. When I first got here, there weren't a lot of New Zealand ingredients you could get. But, especially in the last five years, the accessibility has really increased. New Zealand's really increased [its] efforts and drive behind exporting products. New Zealand Trade & Enterprise have done a great job of promoting products and supporting companies that want to break into the U.S. market. You’ve always been able to get [New Zealand] wine. You could maybe get [some] lamb and venison, but that was about it. But now, whether I’m cooking at home or in my professional life, I can get just about anything from New Zealand, from great olive oils, to unique spices and herbs, and even vegetables and fruits like fresh passionfruit, yellow kiwis, and even the odd kumara—New Zealand’s version of sweet potato. And of course there’s some of the most amazing salmon now too, like Ōra King salmon. It’s tons of stuff now. Pretty incredible actually.
Personally, my favorite is olive oils. My olive oil collection is kind of like my wine collection. I collect all sorts of different ones and I usually bring a couple of bottles with me each time I come back. It's kind of like grain-fed beef in America versus grass-fed beef in New Zealand. There’s a particular brand I like, The Village Press, and they grow the olives out of Hawke's Bay. I do think you get the terroir. You get a sort of young earth [taste], not so minerally, more grassy. And that color...
There are not a lot of good things about the lockdown, but I [typically] travel a ton for work, so the best thing is that I’ve been home more, and I’ve been able to cook more. [The lockdown] was kind of nerve-wracking, so we decided as a family that we would try and eat healthy; at least we could control that part of our lives. We knew that we weren't going to be out and about doing physical activity as much, and it was a stressful time. We felt like: healthy body, healthy mind.
So we stocked up a lot of vegetables. I was making a lot of really interesting salads and just pushing the boundaries with vegetables, making them the star of the show. [For example] I grabbed a whole head of cauliflower and experimented with cooking it as a whole head, cutting it into “steaks” and even shaving it raw on a mandoline.
I’ve always found it a hard thing to put your finger on what New Zealand cuisine is. [The country] has such great ingredients, such pure, natural ingredients, that you really don't want to do too much to them. That’s not an easy thing as a cook, but it's all about restraint. Start with great ingredients and just apply technique to amplify that ingredient itself, rather than lose it in a ton of complicated techniques and flavors.
Growing up in my family’s fruit and vegetable store, it was just about really good proteins—beef and lamb, of course—really fresh seafood, and tons of fresh vegetables and fruit. The produce was incredible and [the key was] not doing too much, just cooking it the right way and keeping it simple, letting the ingredients shine for themselves. I grew up eating Kiwi food four days a week and the other three days a week—Chinese food because that's my background.
I’m a sucker for New Zealand classics, so I like making sausage rolls, or simple baked beans on toast and one of my favorites: bacon and egg pies —a real classic Kiwi dish. That dish is all about using really good eggs, smoked bacon, tomatoes, onions, and peas, and putting it all between puff pastry, and baking until golden and crispy. To me, it's perfect for kids, ‘cause it's colorful and flavorful. It's got the texture of the crispy puff pastry, a few vegetables, and it's a one-pot dish. A little bit of tomato sauce or ketchup on the side, and they love it.
I love to try my hand at making different types of pies, and I mean New Zealand meat pies, not the sweet holiday pies. I like to test my skills, so making puff pastry from scratch, making the filling [is fun]. Oh, I made a big batch of sausage rolls the other week, too. They’re always popular!
I’ve been trying to work that out as a chef my whole life. It really is ingredients, to me; ingredients bridge the gap. I’ll find a really great New Zealand ingredient—it could be the most amazing grass-fed, pasture raised leg of lamb—and then you bring that into an Americanized dish.
For example, barbecue lamb has recently become really popular. You take a leg of lamb or a shank and simply prepare it just like smoked brisket or pork butt. Salt, pepper, fill the smoker with some hickory and applewood, smoke for eight hours, and all it does is intensifies and elevates that already-existing flavor of the lamb. You're not masking it.
I know some chefs do that, but with what I do I'm always trying to watch the bottom line as well. I'll usually look at what's available in the market, what companies are trying to break into the market. One company, Silver Fern Farms—they have amazing products available in the U.S. For one restaurant opening, we had New Zealand Silver Fern Farms skirt steak. [The restaurant] was a Mexican concept, and the steak was amazing, so I wanted to incorporate it into the menu. I used it to make carne asada. The beef was grass-fed, with beautiful marbling. That was a really cool thing, with the product being readily available through the [normal] distributors because New Zealand companies are pushing and bringing it into America. I don't want to just create something that people at home don't have access to. Another example is New Zealand King Salmon Co. Their Ōra King salmon is amazing and it's readily available in America, and it's just an incredible product.
If you want to get crazy and you’re feeling adventurous, pick up some New Zealand spices. There are some spices like an Indigenous spice called horopito. It’s an herbaceous spice you can get, and you can put that on things like your grilled lamb chops or fried chicken, or use it to dust your french fries.
If you’re feeling less adventurous, mānuka honey is a good one. It tastes totally different than your clover honey, or your orange blossom honey. The texture is different, the color’s different, the flavor is different. You can just put a teaspoon of it in your tea that you drink or spread it on toast.
At Union Market over here [in Brooklyn], they always have pipis. Everyone knows New Zealand oysters, everyone knows New Zealand green-lipped mussels, but pipis, as we call them in New Zealand, they're basically a type of clam, or like a cockle. You steam them just like littlenecks.
Food is a medium for a lot of things. As a chef and as a Kiwi, and as someone that appreciates the Māori cultural and Chinese culture too, food is your way of showing gratitude. Food is the way that you welcome people—it shapes the way that you express your respect and love for other people. If you're trying to show your love and respect for New Zealand ingredients, treating them the right way, putting them into a format that people can understand… in terms of embracing that culture as a chef, as a curator, I do that every day. Every time I put a plate of food down, whether it's for my family at home, or whether I’m creating a restaurant menu and feeding guests. I think all of that’s done and achieved through food and recipes, and respecting those ingredients.
Take some inspiration from these Kiwi-influenced recipes for kai that Chef Anthony cooks for his wife Kai and their two kids, August and Cameron.