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Celebrity Chef Curtis Stone Talks Exploring Hong Kong’s ‘Culture Through Food’ in Supersized ‘Field Trip’ Episode

In the spring of 2023, Hong Kong had just opened up to tourism after three years of pandemic-related restrictions. So for the third season of his PBS travel show “Field Trip,” Australian-born chef Curtis Stone assembled a supersized episode highlighting the coastal, cosmopolitan city’s culture and cuisine, from martial arts to seaside seafood stalls.

Stone had visited Hong Kong previously, but the “Field Trip” spotlight is a more in-depth look at a unique location that most travelers haven’t been able to experience since late 2019. The hour highlights a full range of Hong Kong food, from street vendors to hip bistros to Michelin-starred fine dining — all through the lens of Stone’s own perspective as a chef and restaurateur.

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Variety spoke with Stone at the episode’s premiere, hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board at his Hollywood restaurant Gwen.

What was your relationship like with Hong Kong before this?

Well, interestingly, I opened an office there because we’ve manufactured cookware. We had an office there on the Kowloon side. But it’s not one that I’ve been to often. I go because of course in Australia, Hong Kong is quite close. It’s a bad analogy to say it’s like Mexico, but Aussies spend their vacations in Hong Kong and Bali and Singapore, those kinds of cities. And then of course, as you turn into a grown up, you have mates that ended up expats working in finance districts, those sort of places. Also, when I was living in London, it was the perfect stopover. You can spend the night there or a couple of nights there. So I went a lot in my 20s, because it’s such a cool place.

I hadn’t been back. It’s so interesting going as a tourist, but when I started the show, I really wanted to scratch beneath the surface. It was really an exploration of culture through food.

What was the most novel or surprising experience this time around? 

What I really learned while I was there was, so much of Hong Kong runs on this generational knowledge — businesses passed down generation to generation to generation. I hadn’t really thought much about that. Like those little dumpling shops you walk past — that was somebody’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather. And it’s just stayed in the family that way.

We went to a beancurd factory, a tofu maker. He was this old guy and he worked his ass off. Because it’s a hard job, right? They boil the soy milk, they temper it. Then the curd starts to sit. Then they have to work it. They’re lifting this stuff all day long. I met his daughter, who was an investment banker, successful by that Chinese standard. And then she was like, “But I’m miserable! And my dad makes bean curd and he’s happy.” So she left the bank and came back in and invested with him. Now they’ve expanded the factory to be another little shop on the other side of the street. And she’s like, so happy working in it. There’s this incredible respect.

Was there anything you weren’t able to squeeze in that’s top of your list for next time?

Yes, there’s so many great markets. And in the short time, we can only do so much. There’s certain things that are very seasonal. I mean, God, imagine being there now for the new year. And the Year of the Dragon is so fun. They do festivals unbelievably well.

I mean, there’s some of the best restaurants in the world. One that we actually went to, Vea — he actually took Chinese medicine, and then made it edible. Everything is like, a sea cucumber. People normally go and find that for medicinal purposes. But he was taking it and finding a culinary use for it. He was a Canadian born Hong Konger. He learned how to cook in Canada, and then he went back to Hong Kong. You find all of these really fascinating stories of people that have this really diverse background, but tied to Hong Kong in one way, shape, or form. He was like, “I learned how to cook French food. So I’m gonna apply that to Chinese medicine.”

Was there any particular ingredient or technique that you took back with you and incorporated into your cooking here?

Actually, that egg roll that we served tonight was a bit of a mash up because we made an XO sauce. XO sauce, it’s everywhere. People really pride themselves on it. It’s a bit like a French chicken stock; everyone has their own. And duck is such an important part of Cantonese cuisine. When you’re there, you really see there’s so many uses for it. So we made this confited duck leg. We cook it in its own fat really slowly, which they do there, which I was surprised to see. There’s attitudes that you bring back.

What I never really tried to do is recreate that food, because I can’t. I don’t know how. To become a brilliant Cantonese chef, you need decades of learning. Getting a little master class from the guy that makes shumai his whole life — your hands just don’t move in the same way. You’re like, “How do I do it?” The crew literally had to pull me out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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