Hekfan: Hong Kong’s Culinary Embassy in Milan

In northern Italy few places are as prestigious as the Brera district in Milan: it is where you can find the Pinacoteca di Brera, with paintings by Caravaggio, Raffaello, Bellini and Mantegna—to cite just a few—hanging above one of the most prestigious art schools in the country. Upscale fashion boutiques are scattered through the neighbourhood’s little alleys, where trendy people manage to walk nonchalantly on rather impressive heels. It’s proudly high-end; anyone deciding to shop in Brera is making a status statement. And that’s exactly what Hekfan, Italy’s only fine dining Hong Kong restaurant, has set out to be.

Located at the corner of via Formentini and via Madonnina, a meandering pedestrian street near the heart of Brera, it was opened in May by Eric Yip with chef Cheung Kin-yan, both in their early 40s. Hekfan is a transliteration of “to eat” in Cantonese (hek3 faan6 吃飯), a name which Yip uses also for four other eateries he has opened in Milan: three locations of Hekfanchai, a cha chaan teng, and one Hekfanchai Bakery, which serves classic Hong Kong baked goods like egg tarts and pineapple buns. (Its name has implications of eating nostalgic foods – hek3 faan6 zai2 吃飯仔.)

It all happened very quickly. Cheung was already in Milan, working as a chef, while Yip was caught by the Covid-19 pandemic in the middle of one of his frequent investment-related trips. Hong Kong had instituted a number of travel restrictions—including a mandatory three-week hotel quarantine upon return to Hong Kong—that led to the disappearance of many direct flights. “We started in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, and continued when we couldn’t get back to Hong Kong,” explains Yip. “Some people thought we were being crazy, but we just followed Hong Kong’s rhythms, which are always fast. Nobody would think it is crazy to open three restaurants in one year in Hong Kong.”

The other outlets are in and around Via Paolo Sarpi, in what is known as Milan’s Chinatown, which has recently evolved from a gritty wholesale district to a cluster of lively Chinese snacks and street food outlets and regional Chinese restaurants popular with locals and tourists alike. The pandemic turned out to be a boon for these restaurants. “Because many people had to order food from home or get takeaway, even restaurants with a very small seating area could get a lot of business,” says Yip. Also, the affordability and relative novelty of dishes such as cheung fun and congee provided locked-down people with something different to try.

Yip is not new to the world of restaurants, although his career has been quite varied. He worked in China as an investor, then moved to the restaurant business in Hong Kong, then started a series of import operations and other investments in Italy, until he decided to settle on the restaurants. He doesn’t like to dwell on his past ventures; all his efforts now go into bringing a taste of Hong Kong to Milan.

The interest shown by the Milanese for Hong Kong’s everyday food made Yip and Cheung think that they had to take a chance on something more unexpected. “Nobody in Italy knows about Hong Kong’s haute cuisine, which is very special, it is different from any other cuisine in China or in the world,” says Yip. “We wanted to offer that, to start bringing the best of Hong Kong to Milan.”

This is how the new restaurant, which spans two floors, came into being. The front door says only, “Hekfan – Hong Kong restaurant.” Next to it is a small table with many plastic samples of the food available inside, the kind of painstakingly accurate food replicas commonly found outside Japanese restaurants. Inside, the décor is relaxed, and both modern and traditional: a large mural painting has a city view of Hong Kong in the 60s, and just by the entrance there is a selection of specialty teas and tea sets. The kitchen and a small dining room are upstairs, while the main dining room is downstairs, divided into two: a garden-like atmosphere, with glass panels decorated with green leafy branches that diffuse a warm light and a more living-room like area, decorated with bamboo bird cages hanging from the ceiling and koi on the walls. On the table, placemats with the map of Milan in gold and teal, with a white bauhinia—Hong Kong’s official emblem—marking the spot where Hekfan is situated.

The whole look is tasteful and understated, with many winks towards a clearly Chinese aesthetic, underscored by Hong Kong details that reflect Hekfan’s mission to represent the city. “People come here especially for dim sum, because that is something they already know. In Hong Kong we would serve it only [in the] daytime, as per tradition, while here we make it all day long because it is so popular,” says Yip. “But we strive to also introduce other dishes.”

As we sit down to explore the food, one of the elements given prominence is both the specificity of certain Hong Kong ingredients, and an emphasis on the cuisine’s more fusion aspects. Like the “fried fish in live cooking soya sauce.” It arrives on the table, sitting in a pretty turquoise and black bowl, with a piece of fish fried in batter and covered by a sheet of gelatinous soy sauce, which is then melted with a kitchen torch in front of the diners. “This shows part of the British influence on Hong Kong food: fish and chips, right? But with a very Hong Kong slant,” says Yip. The texture is both crispy and tender, with the melted soy sauce creating little explosions of umami in the crannies of the fish batter.

There are also classic Hong Kong dishes like whole tomatoes in sesame sauce (loeng4 bun6 zi1 maa4 zoeng3 faan1 ke2 涼伴芝麻醬番茄), and steamed delights like har gau, xiao long bao and a mushroom-shaped steamed bun filled with a mixture of mushrooms (hoeng1 gu1 maan4 tau4 香菇饅頭): “I like to source different types,” says Cheung. “There are Italian porcini, Chinese mushrooms and even Japanese mushrooms.” It is soft to the bite; a little cascade of tasty mushrooms falls on your tongue as the bun opens up under your teeth.

The “nostalgic grilled pork char siu fillet” (waai4 gau6 mat6 zap1 caa1 siu1 懷舊蜜汁叉燒),comes arranged on a long, narrow plate decorated with small edible silver leaves. Abalone arrives sitting quite regally on a ceramic pillow, inside a mother-of-pearl shell with a few rose petals as decoration. Cooked slowly in broth and soy sauce and spices, it has a faint vanilla flavour and a most interesting texture, as abalone is meant to. There are also dishes served with a certain element of showmanship, like soft-boiled half eggs presented under a glass cloche filled with lapsang tea smoke. The menu also offers different types of soy noodles and fried rice, crispy tofu and dried scallops, offering enough variety for vegetarian diners.

The careful plating, the choice ingredients and the touches of innovation give Hekfan a sure place among Brera’s fine dining restaurants. But for Cheung, this is more than a restaurant: “I want Hekfan to be like a cultural embassy of Hong Kong in Milan,” he says, suddenly looking very serious. “I want people to understand that Hong Kong food is different from any other Chinese food, it has its own distinct influences which have come from Shanghai and from Europe, from the UK and from Japan. I think Hong Kong culture is very important because it is, at the same time, both more traditional and more international than what you find on the mainland.”

In spite of how much the recent decades of economic reform have brought back about Chinese cuisine, it is a fact that many ancient recipes—like many other traditions—were lost under the rule of Mao Zedong, when traditional culture was seen as bourgeois and feudal. Hong Kong, like Taiwan, managed to escape these turbulent times, and to preserve some of the traditions that were lost on the mainland. More recently, the mainland’s emphasis on uniformity, from language to fashion, has flattened some of the regional and local differences of this vast country. “Hong Kong still has many of its own peculiarities, which need to be appreciated and preserved,” says Cheung.

Yip and Cheung both chose Italy a little by chance, but they have developed a passion for the country and its food. (“I really, really love pasta alla carbonara”, says Cheung, suddenly looking like a shy teenager). This is Cheung’s third Italian venture. He arrived in Milan in 2014 and worked as a chef first at Bon Wei and then at Mu Dim Sum, two high-end Chinese restaurants, until he decided he wanted to focus more on his hometown’s specialties, which is why he joined Hekfan. “What I really hope Milan people understand is that Hong Kong food is really very good,” he says. “It looks good, it feels good, and it tastes good.”

Hekfan is located at via Marco Formentini, 2, in Milan.

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