A rare find in the restless business corner of Hong Kong’s Admiralty, Commissary offers a breezy terrace for hustlers to unwind, with homestyle pastry options alongside comforting American favourites. “It’s often the simplest thing that is the hardest to make,” said pastry chef Simone McLean, who shared with us her experiences in the pastry kitchen, the challenges of pastry making in HK and her view on social media and food photography, in this episode of Behind the Dish.
1. Can you tell us about your background and how is life in HK so far?
I grew up on a farm in South Africa, living far from any shops I spent a lot of time baking at home with my grandmother and mother. Although I enjoyed cooking while I was in boarding school, I didn’t think cooking could be a career for me until the family whom I was au-pairing for encouraged me to go to a culinary school. After culinary school I worked in a hotel in South Africa for 3 years, in London for 4 years, and I moved here with my partner about a year ago.
Hong Kong is deceivingly small but there’s so much to do. There’s the urban city life but also the nature, so it’s been really great for us. I love to see the blue skies here, as you know it gets dark very early in London in the winter, so it’s quite depressing there. Hong Kong is a good base to travel to other countries in Asia from, which we are definitely taking advantage of exploring Asia while we are here.
2. What brought you to the pastry kitchen?
I did a few apprenticeships while at culinary school and my last one was in pastry. Just when I was finishing that apprenticeship, which was also my last, one of the chefs resigned, so I applied for the job. I like pastry more because I have more control in the kitchen. Pastry is all about planning and preparation, so if you are organised you pretty much get the results you want, whereas in the hot kitchen you can be ready with all the preparations and still go down during service.
3. Any challenges you’ve experienced making pastry in HK that you didn’t back in Europe? We know the climate here is very different.
The humidity and temperature do change drastically from summer to winter here in Hong Kong, so we have to adjust our recipes a lot when the seasons change. Take croissant for example, we have to carefully set the humidity and temperature, otherwise the product can be badly affected. Other than that, the availability, price and quality of ingredients are also quite different from the UK. As you know, everything in Hong Kong is imported, so it’s not the easiest to find ingredients at their top quality, and it can be very . And sometimes you can’t get certain ingredients when you need them because they are imported, so you have to manage the timing of orders as well.
4. There are so many cake options here at Commissary, can you give us some recommendations?
For me, the chocolate cake and carrot cake are classics. I also think that nothing can beat a good plain croissant. We make homestyle pastries and cakes here at Commissary — something your grandma would make, nice and simple. That’s why you won’t many garnishes or decorations on our pastry counter. We always make sure everything is done correctly in the preparation because there’s nowhere to hide a mistake. It’s often the simplest thing that is the hardest to make.
5. As more people are becoming health-conscious in HK, did you take that into consideration when you curate your pastry menu?
We have put some healthier breakfast options like bran muffins and fresh fruit Danish pastries. A croissant is never healthy with all the butter. Its pure enjoyment! We’ve got some cheese and jalapeño or bacon and cheese croissant offer some savoury choices. For me, the muffin is pretty healthy but it’s also butter and sugar. If you want gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan desserts, that just doesn’t taste as good when you remove all the “good stuff”. I think dessert is all about indulgence and we want people to come to Commissary and indulge with some childhood nostalgia and hearty food. However we do have a mixed berry sorbet with poached berries on the menu to cater for the people who are watching their diets.
6. What do you think about review platforms and social media?
I think social media is a good source of information, however, I don’t know if it’s really fair to the chefs as we often get judged by people who do not necessarily understand the work behind the dish. Nonetheless, I find people generally share what they love instead of what they hate online, which makes these platforms more positive as a whole.
7. All of your cakes are very photogenic, what do you think about professional food photography and food photos on social media?
I prefer real pictures instead of perfect pictures, like what Dishtag is doing, because you would expect the dish to actually look like the photo when you go to a restaurant. Sometimes the food bloggers make the food look way more perfect in pictures than in real life. I don’t think it is a good thing to create a false illusion.