Chinese Food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Heading into the new lunar year, Honest Food Talks interviews Melissa Wong of Overseas Chinese Food.
Brought up with traditional Chinese values, Melissa tells us how she found her way into the F&B industry and a little more about her passion.
Who is behind Overseas Chinese Food?
I’m Melissa Wong, founder, and cook of Overseas Chinese Food pop up restaurant. My Family is Hakka, from Hong Kong and I was born in Nottingham and helped my parents in our Cantonese Take away - “The Little Bridge”.
I moved to London in 2008 after graduating with a First in jewellery and silversmithing from Loughborough University. I worked in the jewellery industry for 5 years as a designers’ assistant at a high street fashion jewellery supplier, teacher, and jeweller. Gradually, I became more unhappy and jaded. Eventually, I felt lost as I didn’t know how to change my situation. Even though, I wasn’t happy working in Jewellery there was always a new recipe I looked forward to trying out for dinner. This was where I started to trust in another passion of mine but couldn’t have known the opportunities that would arise from this first step.
My parents always warned me and discouraged me from working in food as it was tough going. I think this is very typical of other obedient British Born Chinese children. Of course, I listened to my parents and took their advice and followed a natural progression in creative subjects such as art and music. I never realised that catering school/college could have been an option for me rather than going to University.
I knew I had always loved food and really enjoyed cooking. So I took a leap of faith and applied for a breakfast chef position at Jamie Oliver’s Recipease which was a retail shop, cooking school and cafe. Within my first year, I progressed from breakfast chef, lunch chef to chef tutor which was my aim as I loved to teach.
Before venturing on my own 2 years ago I was the cookery school manager at School of Wok in Covent Garden. I really enjoyed creating classes and sharing my passion and knowledge and teaching skills to a wide range of students from complete beginners to chefs. Teaching is still a passion but the pop-up restaurant and consultancy work has taken up more of my time recently. I would love to teach again but at the moment my main focus is the pop up where I get to be creative and have the freedom to work for myself.
Where did the concept come from?
I was actually inspired by a former student I taught who had similarly wanted to change her profession and went onto gain a cooking diploma and started her own business as a food caterer. It gave me the boost to start believing in my own abilities and experience to go and work for myself. Initially, I thought a supper club would be a good way to start doing something for myself without the risk of leaving my full-time job.
However, there was an opportunity to run a pop up close to home one evening each week and although I wanted to keep my full-time job my employees had expressed they rather I focused on their business than on my own personal progression/achievements outside of work. This was of course of their prerogative, if not a little short-sighted but I needed that push to go for it on my own which I am eternally grateful for.
The idea/concept for OCF came from an interest in how Chinese food has influenced other cuisines in the world. “Overseas Chinese” refers to Chinese persons residing in other countries other than China who have demonstrated a long history in migrating.
One of the earliest migrations dates back to the Ming dynasty when Zheng He (1371–1435) became the envoy of Ming. He sent people – many of them Cantonese and Hokkien – to explore and trade in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean.
Many variations of Chinese food can be found globally. The influence and happy accidents when adapting recipes is a testament to the pursuit of using produce available in that specific region.
Overseas Chinese Food is influenced by Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine - and also, things we simply believe are delicious.
Do you have a mission statement?
At OCF we’re not about being necessarily “authentic” as it is so subjective to every individual. The way I think of an authentic Cantonese home-cooked meal in the UK would be totally different from someone else’s “authentic” Cantonese home-cooked meal in Hong Kong.Melissa Wong, Founder of Overseas Chinese Food
At OCF we’re not about being necessarily “authentic” as it is so subjective to every individual. The way I think of an authentic Cantonese home-cooked meal in the UK would be totally different from someone else’s “authentic” Cantonese home-cooked meal in Hong Kong.
What we’re about is good food. As simple as that. Nothing pretentious or wanky chef stuff just for the sake of it. We plan our menu by deciding on what we would like to eat if we were dining out at OCF. Every location is different so the menu has to be able to shift and evolve but that is the embodiment of OCF - the happy accidents and the ability to adapt.
What’s a typical day at Overseas Chinese Food?
I start work at 10 am every day, first things first, a big cup of tea is a priority before all else. While the kettle is boiling I’ll set up my speaker and turn on the radio. I have a ‘battle plan’ that I write out the day before so I can tackle it as soon as I start the working day.
A typical day would involve making a few batches of dumpling dough, then preparing the fillings while the dough rests. Once the filling has been made and tested for seasoning I’ll start portioning out my dough and knead them so they’re ready to be rolled individually, stuffed and hand folded.
Dumpling making, in particular, is a lot of work and can be very repetitive but it’s a great sense of achievement when you see them all lined up in neat rows. Plus, having access to Netflix has been a godsend to break up the monotony. I have recently watched a load of Romcoms such as Bridget Jones Diary and Sex and the City and it has been the best!
Running a pop up isn’t the easiest way to make a living but at every pop-up, I’ll have that little moment in the morning when I’m on my own and I’ll have this realisation that I’m actually working for myself, doing what I love, which is cooking and feeding people. The sense of freedom and accomplishment of creating a dish from just an idea or craving and developing it into a completed dish is so satisfying.
Once the dumplings have been made I’ll start working on the rest of my battle plan which could be anything from making sure I have all my garnishes topped up, to the glamorous job of cleaning the fryer. Around 4 pm I’ll start setting up for service making sure I have everything to hand, tackle the washing up that has piled up from prepping. Service starts at 5 pm and I’ll put a series on in the background from Queer eye to Seinfeld as it helps to have something lighthearted and funny in the background when I get slammed.
Service ends at 10 pm and cleaning down usually takes no more than an hour. I write my battle plan for the next day and then set off for home, sleep and repeat. Every day is different and there are always new challenges to face which keeps me on my toes.
What’s the best thing to order from Overseas Chinese Food?
The best dish to order this year has been the beef dan dan noodles. It’s very distinctive with its combination of texture from the unxious fresh Shanghai noodles, the creamy sesame beef sauce, the crunch from the pickled mustard greens, cucumber and peanut dust - it’s a bowl packed full of umami and tingling heat that will keep you wanting more and reaching for a cool pint of beer!
It’s a great starting point before you discover the fresh dumplings and the rou jia mo (Xi’an style flatbread/burger filled with slow-braised pork).
I would say that for me personally, the dish that gives me the most satisfaction is the dumplings. They have gone through so much development in terms of flavour, texture, sauce, chilli oil, presentation, and styling. I’ve worked really hard to discover my style and the look for OCF and I’m always striving to improve where I can.
Are there any exciting plans for you?
It has been a very busy 2019. I worked at Xu for a few months and then I had consultancy work with Lee Kum Lee that took me to Cyprus, Croatia, and Israel at the beginning of 2019. There have been four different pop-up locations last year too.
Hoping to plan more pop-ups for 2020 along with consulting work focusing on recipe and development for restaurants overseas. Along with testing recipes that I have been collecting throughout this year for new menus.
Where is Overseas Chinese Food located?
We don’t have a permanent site but we are usually based south of the river. If the opportunity arises to work elsewhere we would of course gladly consider it.