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Michael C K Lam
ONE RECENT MONDAY, TV personality and professional foodie Michael C K Lam was holed up in a corner table at organic restaurant Real Food, tucking into a vegetarian sushi platter before catching a flight back home to Hongkong. When he's not on official business, Mr Lam makes excursions to foodie destinations around Asia to check out local street food haunts, visit friends or sample dishes at a restaurant recommended by fellow food lovers. Mondays are designated 'green days' when he consciously treats his digestive system to healthy foods - the rest of the week is open season.
Mr Lam, 43, began working life as a cog in the family construction business but over the last decade or so, has parlayed his expert knowledge and love of dining into a career as a roving street food ambassador whose wide-ranging exploits are regularly shown on local television in Hongkong. He is also a guest columnist for several magazines. It probably doesn't hurt that he is well versed in the territory's celebrity culture, counting big-name chefs, actors and pop stars among his roster of makan (eating) companions.
In addition, he also owns several restaurants, including two one-Michelin-star restaurants in the popular seafood enclave of Sai Kung. Loaf On offers Hakka-style seafood while Sing Kee is a Cantonese restaurant whose signature dish is deep-fried abalone. Mr Lam jokingly claims that he created the dish specifically to snag Michelin's attention. Otherwise, the main attraction at his restaurants is classic, super-fresh seafood.
Given his extensive travels in search of memorable street food, it isn't surprising that his first foray into TV - a series on a Cantonese-dialect channel - was titled (loosely translated) "Searching for Food by Michael". The catalyst for it was an article he wrote in 2006 for the local edition of Esquire, expounding enthusiastically on his love of good food. A TV producer decided that Mr Lam would make a talented food presenter, and he was right. The formula was repeated on radio, and he hasn't looked back since.
Is it fair to say you became a food celebrity by accident?
I'm a lucky guy, I have the opportunity to travel and eat around the world. I love food and I enjoy sharing good experiences. Food and Beverage was never my career goal as my family was in the construction business, but I had no interest in it. One time, while dining with some media friends, they invited me to write about food. After I got more and more involved with food, I hired a professional manager for the construction business and it's worked out great for everyone.
You own two Michelin-starred restaurants as well as a chain of Thai restaurants, but you are known as a street-food fanatic with a reputation for consuming impressive amounts at one sitting - how did that come about?
I just love street food. I developed a taste for it during my travels, especially to Bangkok. I travel somewhere every week to try street food, normally within Asia. I think the Michelin guide was a mess in the first years because they didn't know about local food - maybe to tourists it was good but to real food lovers like me…
I am a food ambassador for Thai, Taiwanese and Korean tourism because I have been to those places countless times - and I can eat a lot. My record in Bangkok is 40 bowls of beef noodles. They were small portions, of course - one bite per bowl is normal. When I brought the Hongkong media there in 2009, we went out for supper at midnight and I ate eight plates of chicken rice by myself at Watergate Chicken Rice near Gaysorn Plaza. I love Thai chicken rice so much that I opened a restaurant in Hongkong in 2007. We now have seven outlets (under the Thai Chiu name) doing Thai chicken rice, Hongkong style.
Chinese restaurants typically have braised abalone on the menu - how did you come up with the idea of deep fried abalone?
I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Sai Kung and the idea came to me. Every seafood restaurant had an abalone dish on the menu so I decided to do something different. Our restaurant Sing Kee can seat 400 people, so we go through a lot of seafood. We ensure that the abalone is tender and we offer customers a lifetime guarantee. We also have other dishes like steamed fish with sea salt - not soya sauce - cooked authentic Hakka style. I know a lot about food because most chefs will talk to me. We hang out together at local places and discuss what makes a dish special in terms of ingredients and cooking technique.
You've loved street food from young but you also had other serious hobbies - is your focus entirely on food now?
I used to love cars - I still do, although not as much anymore. It used to be construction and cars and I had a collection of nice cars but now it's not supercars anymore, it's mainly four-wheel-drive vehicles like Land Cruisers and Hummers. In my 20s I used to race in competitions but now my mindset has changed - since the TV shows I need to be a good guy, so no more driving fast! I like to talk about very local food, cheap and tasty. For me, my favourite is noodle porn: char siu ramen in Japan, wonton mee in Hongkong, beef noodles in Thailand, prawn mee in Singapore (River South Prawn Noodle is a favourite), pho in Vietnam, pasta in Florence. I respect Western food cultures but even when I'm in somewhere like Paris, I just go for pho.
What are some of your favourite street food joints in Hongkong?
For wonton noodles with homemade fish balls and wontons with tails - like goldfish - I like Cheung Fat noodles on Yiu Tung Street in Kowloon's Sham Shui Po district, it's the very best in Hongkong. For roast goose, I enjoy Kam's and for Hongkong-style cafés - cha chaan teng - I go to Australia Dairy Company in Jordan. These are all very casual places with great food that anyone can go to. My everyday philosophy is: Michael can eat, so can you.