In 2007 we sold our home in NJ and almost everything we owned for a new adventure. A look back at our time living and working in Hong Kong and how it led to our chocolate destiny.
Harbor view from the HK Ferry
Before chocolate, there was fashion.
As former fashion designers in a field the world knows through glossy magazines and Project Runway, there is often travel to Asia (which is not so glamorous when you’re jet lagged and sitting in a factory for days). We had been fortunate to get to know the thriving city of Hong Kong and when the opportunity presented itself, we moved there for work. While I had a job waiting for me on arrival, Stephane did not; and finding one in Hong Kong for a couturier … well, it wasn’t as easy as we’d hoped. I continued my path in fashion and Stephane made a change.
Stephane was always a skilled cook learning at his father’s knee. In Hong Kong he finally took the leap and became a chef. After some dinner parties cooking for new friends, he landed a job just like that. Working in a small restaurant in Tsim Tsa Tsui he had no ambitions other than doing something he loved for a living. Upon arrival, he scrubbed the kitchen from top to bottom, ordered new supplies and spent time indoctrinating the local staff into true French fare. He packed the restaurant regularly and his private dinners were always sold out.
Making macedoine with fresh mayonnaise.
Hong Kongers love to eat out and are no strangers to fine dining. There are tons of upscale private kitchens, often in office buildings or apartment complexes that give new meaning to BYOB. He was a natural in this environment, loved the work and the people but the hours were long and late.
While we worked a lot, we found time to relax and enjoy Hong Kong. We went to our favorite beach Shek-O most weekends and shopped our hearts out in the mega malls that are everywhere in Hong Kong. We karaoke'd on the weekends and had dim sum for lunch. Trying all the different Chinese cuisines became a passion for us and learning the differences between Cantonese, Szechuan and Mandarin foods was fascinating and delicious. We took the opportunity to travel all over South East Asia and acclimated to the different cultural norms such as working on Saturdays and all the different holidays: Mid Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and of course the Lunar New Year. Our first ‘Chinese New Year’ in Hong Kong was where we learned that most people go on a trip as offices are closed for a week. We did not.
Stéphane at Shek-O beach local restaurant.
We stayed and marveled at all the perfect petite orange trees lining pristine walkways and manicured parks in this crowded yet clean city. Red lanterns lined the street shops in an impressive display of color. We gave and received red pockets and enjoyed the Dragon Dance parade in Victoria Park, complete with fireworks. And of course there were dinner invitations at homes and restaurants which we reciprocated in kind.
We lived this way for five years and in one of those years, Stephane made chocolate gianduja truffles as a dessert for a dinner with friends. It was his first attempt at chocolate and he wasn’t 100% pleased with himself (the whole hazelnuts inside were not crunchy enough) While he sat self-critiquing at the dinner table, the guests polished off the plate and asked if he would sell them? One guest asked him to make them as favors for a charity event. His path was set.
He began making truffles and experimenting with chocolate. He became enamored of this new medium and found he had a particular knack for it - it demands meticulousness, one of his many fine traits. He purchased books and read them voraciously. He learned to temper by hand. Still, he didn’t feel as knowledgeable or accomplished as one needed to be a chocolatier.
That same year I was asked to bring some food to my office Chinese New Year pot-luck party. As luck would have it we had some chocolates so I brought a plate of them. Having no expectations I was surprised to see people actually putting them in their pockets! The plate was empty in a matter of minutes. Over the next few weeks I was taking orders.
Our search began for schools that taught chocolate and pastry and we landed on the French Pastry School in Chicago. Over a decade later we are in Bucks County PA and Stéphane is more than skilled at making many types of chocolates. We have settled for good yet Hong Kong is always in our hearts, especially at Chinese New Year. Missing real Chinese food too!
Kung Hei Fat Choi!
Xoxo Barbara & Stephane Lesaint
HK Peak, 2008