When it comes to Sichuan food, just the thought of the tongue-numbing sensations of mala dishes alone can make our mouths water. But for those who know their spices, the flavours of Sichuan cuisine are much more than just ma (numbing) and la (spicy).
As one of Hong Kong’s first Sichuan restaurants specialising in authentic Chongqing flavours, which is “more intense and fragrant compared to its Chengdu counterpart”, MICHELIN Plate restaurant Chilli Fagara stays true to the concept of malatang to reflect the complexity and depth of Sichuan food. “Tang” refers to dishes that are relatively neutral and light, such as shredded potatoes and seasonal vegetables. “In Sichuan cuisine, you need neutral dishes to build up to the heat,” says Tracy Wong, director of Chilli Fagara.
Behind the restaurant’s fiery yet balanced dishes is the story of a mother-daughter duo. The mother is a Chongqing native who moved to Hong Kong in 1998 from Vancouver, where she ran a Sichuan restaurant as the chef-owner. The daughter, Wong, manages reservations, customer service and marketing of Chilli Fagara. “I was born into this cuisine and I love it. When we moved to Hong Kong, we couldn't find anywhere that served Sichuan food the way we knew it. We wanted to showcase the authentic flavours of Chongqing and introduce the Sichuan food culture to Hong Kong,” says Wong.
From its opening on Graham Street in 2005, to the current Old Bailey Street location, Chilli Fagara has been serving MSG-free Sichuan fare that is steeped in tradition but not afraid to move with the times and technologies. The menu offers a vibrant selection of vegetarian and vegan options, including dishes—like mapo tofu, spicy dumplings and stir-fried string beans—that are cooked with Impossible Meat.
Resilience seems to run in the family, evident in the mother and daughter’s new delivery-only noodle concept HOT ‘n’ MEEN, which was an instant hit during dining restrictions due to COVID-19. Riding on the success of the new business model, the duo is now working on expanding the delivery menu with new dishes, and launching Sichuan-inspired cocktails this summer.
In honour of Mother’s Day, we spice things up with a conversation with Chilli Faraga’s mother-daughter duo, who open up about the joy and challenges of working together.
T: Tracy Wong
C: Chef Chan
What are the biggest challenges of working together?
T: The biggest challenge of working with my mother at Chilli Fagara is that we both—quite literally—have a lot on our plates. As a chef, my mother strives to create the most vibrant, flavourful and attractive dishes. She constantly pushes boundaries and comes up with new ideas to keep our loyal customers coming back. On the management side, I have to ensure that the business is running effectively, that staff are flourishing and that we have systems in place to make sure customer expectations are always met. My mother and I have learned that communication is key and work in sync to ensure that her culinary creations are well understood by the team.
What are the most rewarding moments?
C: It has always been my dream to work in the F&B industry as well and to launch my very own restaurant, serving and reinterpreting my favourite family recipes from Chongqing. Being recognised and awarded by the MICHELIN Guide was one of the most rewarding moments in my career as a restaurateur. This would not have been possible without the continuous support of my daughter, Tracy. Every day, we are thankful for where we are now and what we have achieved; and sometimes guests wait patiently to meet me and my team after their meal, just to express their gratitude and admiration for our cooking skills. These personal moments are also some of the most rewarding ones—I treasure them, as they show us what a great impact our cuisine actually has on our guests.
What are you most proud of each other?
T: Working by my mother’s side has shown me how much hard work, diligence and true talent it takes to become an acclaimed chef. It’s my mother’s unyielding passion and dedication to the kitchen that has made Chilli Fagara a Sichuan mainstay. We have a loyal clientele and a reputation of being a timeless culinary gem in a city with an ever-changing dining scene, and discerning crowds that are always on the lookout for new openings. I’m proud to have such a successful, passionate mother and I know that she is proud of me as well, joining her from Canada to share her passion and pursue our dream of bringing Sichuan’s finest aromas, recipes and culture to Hong Kong. Together, we strive to explore new ingredients and techniques to create unparalleled dining experiences that exceed our guests’ expectations.
What’s your favourite dish at Chilli Fagara?
C: One of my favourite dishes that is still served on Chilli Fagara’s menu is a simple stir-fried egg with chilli. It’s one of the first dishes that I have ever made back in Chong Qing when I began cooking to feed my brothers and sisters at the age of 10. At the time, my family could only afford vegetables, melons and simple, very reasonable ingredients. So, this dish brings a lot of memories to me and I love cooking it for Tracy as well. It’s one of our most delectable and straightforward family recipes that has been handed down through generations and is perfect to match with a steaming bowl of rice.
Do you think working together has improved your relationship?
T: Of course, working closely with the same person every day can be challenging, in particular if my mother and I have different opinions on a topic! But over the years, we have learnt that different points of view actually make us more open-minded - even more creative! So working with her has brought us closer together. Every day, we learn, eat, cook, explore, try and fail together; we encourage one other and find solutions as a team and push boundaries. She inspires me with her everlasting energy, unlimited culinary knowledge and devotion, mastering the art of Sichuan cuisine and taking it to a whole new level.
Do you communicate differently at home vs at the restaurant?
C: When Tracy first joined me at Chilli Fagara, she used to call me ‘Mum’ at work, but in the past few years, she has started calling me ‘Chef’ like our colleagues, as we both wanted to show our team that everyone is equal and plays an essential role at Chilli Fagara. It’s a form of motivation and respect that we want to express; and we have to be professional in the workplace to ensure the highest quality and efficiency. However, apart from the title, our mother-daughter dynamic is quite similar at the restaurant and at home, as Chilli Fagara is also our home and our team is part of our family.
Is there anything you want to say to each other?
T: Especially on Mother’s Day I would like to tell my mother: keep inspiring and mesmerizing all those around you with your masterful cooking skills, passion and culinary innovation. To me, you are not just a mother, but also a real source of inspiration and a mentor in life.
What does Mother’s Day mean to you?
C: I believe Mother’s Day is the most beautiful celebration honouring every hard-working mother as the woman who loves her children unconditionally. For me, it’s a celebration of the wonderful relationship I have with my daughter. Tracy is my best friend and my greatest supporter.
How are you going to celebrate this year’s Mother’s Day?
T: As much as my mother literally ‘strives for the stars’ in her kitchen, she appreciates the small things in life and loves spending time with her dearest ones. I will take her to an outlying island this Mother’s Day to enjoy nature and each other’s company, venture into old bookstores and explore small family-run restaurants. To wind down the evening, we will play Mahjong at home and make my mother’s favourite chilli dumplings from scratch while sipping on her favourite cup of Chinese tea.