The Twins Who Are Rethinking Hong Kong’s Approach to Food

Josh and Caleb Ng don’t have interests – they have projects. A few years ago, at a friend’s dinner party, the twin brothers were captivated by a beer made with Amarillo hops, a rich, malty brew with hints of peach and orange. They began buying craft beer, which led them to one Danish brand they found particularly fascinating, Mikkeller, which was founded by a former grade school teacher named Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. They loved Mikkeller’s quirky labels and its eccentric, experimental beers, which are made with unexpected ingredients like avocado leaves and sometimes aged in used wine, whisky, tequila or cognac barrels.

For most people, that’s where the story would end. But the twins decided they had to meet Mikkel, so they flew to Copenhagen to interview him for City Magazine. The trip was such a success, the brothers later staged a pop-up restaurant in Mikkeller’s bar. They fell in love with the city, too. Earlier this year, they opened Gao, a new dumpling shop in the trendy Nørrebro district that they describe as “a bridge between Copenhagen and Hong Kong.”

Depending on who you ask, Josh and Caleb are chefs, food critics, wine experts, coffee geeks or entrepreneurs. They own Common Ground, a popular Sheung Wan coffee shop, and Stack, a stylish restaurant in Sai Ying Pun that serves pancakes and cocktails. They have a consultancy, Twins Kitchen, that helps restaurants build their menu and identity. They’ve written a magazine column and hosted a television food show. They import wine from California. Talk to anyone in Hong Kong’s food, drinks or design scenes and chances are they will know the twins.

“Whenever I can’t decipher some ingredient at the market or dish at a cha chaan teng, I shoot them a message they invariably reply right away,” says fashion designer Paola Sinisterra, who met the twins with her husband, Ignacio Garcia, at a local food event in 2012. “I guess you can say that for both Ignacio and myself, meeting them at a moment when we were starting to learn Chinese cooking had an enormous impact. Ignacio shared his preserved lemon recipe with them and they taught us the beauty of pei4 daan2 (century egg, 皮蛋), lin4 ngau5 (lotus root, 莲藕) and all the green coi3 (greens, 菜).”

“Sharing the truth about food and the values behind it – that’s our mission right now,” says Josh. It’s a mission that started when the twins were growing up in the middle-class suburb of Sha Tin. “We loved food quite a lot,” says Caleb. “I would do, like, tiramisu when I was in grade 9. We would do pizza by ourselves. Jamie Oliver was an inspiration.” Their family didn’t have a full-time helper, so the twins were recruited for kitchen work. “My mom would ask me to start cooking the rice, and she might ask us to do the meatcake to save her some time,” says Josh. “I loved doing it.”

When they finished high school, the twins moved to the United States to study business at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We decided to go to the same university so we could save our parents some money by living together,” says Caleb. Los Angeles introduced them to a world of new flavours. “The food truck boom was just getting started,” says Caleb. They drank coffee at a place run by Japanese siphon specialists and they studied for exams at Intelligentsia, a chain that helped spark the third wave coffee movement that has swept around the world. On weekends, they drove up to Santa Barbara and Napa Valley to visit small wineries. “They’re wineries with stories,” says Josh. “They’re always thinking out of the box,” says Caleb.

That sparked their first business venture. The twins graduated in 2009, the same year that Hong Kong scrapped its tax on wine, and they thought it would be a good opportunity to give the city a taste of good California wine. “It was a tough sell – it had a bad reputation,” says Caleb. Until recently, most California wine in Hong Kong was cheap and mass-produced. The twins realised that it wasn’t enough to bring good products into Hong Kong and hope to sell them – they had to build a new market themselves.

Twins Kitchen, which the brothers launched in 2011, is a consultancy that offers restaurant owners advice on food, drinks and design, along with a test kitchen where they can fine-tune their recipes before they even open. It’s a way for entrepreneurs to experiment without taking too much of a risk – and for the twins to promote their philosophy of sourcing ingredients from small suppliers with a small ecological footprint.

“It’s hard to really focus on the product in Hong Kong,” says Josh, because of high rent, short leases and a buzzy, trend-driven restaurant culture. “I would actually prefer to open something overseas now,” says Caleb. Despite Hong Kong’s reputation as an easy place to do business, opening a restaurant in Copenhagen was more relaxed, with less pressure to become an overnight success. “In Hong Kong, there’s no time for research and development, so the product is only half done when you open,” says Caleb, alluding to the notorious “soft opening” practiced by Hong Kong restaurants – a trial period that would be conducted behind closed doors in any other city.

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Caleb and Josh Sitting at Common Ground

Nothing is perfect from the beginning, something the twins know full well themselves. In 2012, two friends, Sean and Elias Lam, suggested they open a café in their jewellery studio on Shing Wong Street. “Opening a café was always on the bucket list,” says Caleb. Inspired by the “honest, unpretentious” cafés they loved in Los Angeles, they built the interior themselves and called it Common Ground. Bit by bit, they tweaked the space, rearranging the interiors, upgrading the espresso machine, training and retraining their staff. “A café is more than a cup of coffee – it’s a starting point for all kinds of things,” says Caleb.

But the coffee is important, too. Over the years, Josh has fallen into a caffeine-laced rabbit hole, nerding out over grind size, the pressure of his espresso machine and the nuances of the roast. He is eager to cultivate relationships with the farmers that supply his beans. “I need to understand what they’re doing,” he says. He is also concerned with waste in the coffee process. Green beans are washed after they are removed from the coffee cherry, which creates a lot of wastewater. Even the roasting process leaves something behind – dry, flaky parchment with a light floral taste. Josh is using it to make pound cake that he plans to sell at Common Ground as soon as he develops a recipe he is happy with.

It’s an example of how much Josh plunges into the things that interest him. Caleb, by contrast, is more level headed. Josh says they often butt heads. “I’m more like a trial and error kind of guy, but he needs to work with a master plan, perfect execution. I always do stuff really fast but he’s more of a mastermind.”

Caleb agrees. “I am definitely more conservative than Josh,” he says. “I would say I am more like a thinker, and he is more like a doer. He is always pushing forward but I make him sit down and think. It’s really hard to say who’s right and who’s wrong, but somehow this is our rhythm.”

“He is a good partner,” adds Josh. “We’ve known each other for 30 years.” He laughs. When Josh became interested in food systems — the whole ecology of food, including its impact on society and the environment — “Caleb got it right away,” he says. “Hong Kong is our home. We understand the city, but we also want to bring some different values here. Make it a better place.” Call it their latest interest – and like anything that interests the twins, expect them to make the most of it.

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