A couple's journey from French vineyard to bustling Wan Chai

May 13, 2015 15:14
Curiosity about different cultures and an urge to introduce their cuisine to this part of the world brought Johan and Cristina from a quiet French vineyard to the heart of throbbing Wan Chai.  Photo: HKEJ

Few can match the adventurous spirit of Johan Ducroquet and his wife Cristina.

Though they knew little of Hong Kong, they decided to leave their quiet and comfy existence in a French vineyard and move to this bustling Oriental metropolis halfway across the globe after a job offer and an internet interview with a restaurant owner last year.

Hardly any detailed planning, no careful investigation, just a sudden rush of wanderlust that spurred them to take the leap.

Perhaps the desire to try new things and new places is simply irresistible. After all, the two have lived in France, Spain and Ecuador, where they worked with Michelin-starred restaurants and ran their own food outlets.

Relying on basic trust and optimism, the couple soon found themselves working in Le Bistro Winebeast in the heart of throbbing Wan Chai.

When they first arrived, the “quantity of people” almost came as a shock to Ecuador-born Cristina.

Even though Ecuador (bordering Colombia and Peru) is the fourth smallest country in South America, it is bigger than Hong Kong by about 250 times. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s seven million residents plus a huge number of mainland visitors add up to almost half of Ecuador’s 15.7 million population.

But soon, the “shock” was replaced by a keen desire to experience the wonders of a totally different culture.

The couple were almost ecstatic when they celebrated the Lunar New Year for the first time in the city. Cristina says she was swept away by the customs, food and all sorts of festive stuff.  

“The lion dancing is just magical,” she gushes.

The diversity of Hong Kong culture is another thing that fascinates them. About 70 percent of their clients are locals and the rest expatriates.

While hugely intrigued by Chinese culture, they have great respect for local taste and preferences. Still, the couple are eager to bring something new to the party -- Johan’s French cooking.

“My recipes are not from books, they are mine,” Johan stresses.

To keep the customers happy and try to quench their constant search for something new, he changes the menu every six weeks.

When he is not busy doing his creations in the kitchen, Johan makes it a point to visit different eateries to try their offerings. He thinks of food all the time -- when he’s meeting people, discovering new places, visiting the small islands or hiking in the countryside.

Cristina doesn't want to impose her ideas on other people. Rather, she describes the process as a negotiation. While acknowledging what customers want, Cristina would also propose something different, something new for them to try out.

Johan and Cristina make a great pair. Johan seems to be a man of few words (probably because he speaks little English and zero Cantonese) while his trilingual better half is apparently very comfortable with crowds of people and new faces.

Cristina used to work as a chef; they met in a Paris restaurant. This has helped Cristina a lot in understanding how Johan’s dishes are prepared and how to pair them with the right wine.

In fact, Cristina’s detailed explanation of each course is unusual by Hong Kong standards.

For confit pork cheek, she gives us a one-minute account of the ingredients, how the meat is cooked, moulded and cut into round pieces, and then fried on both sides to make it crispy outside and tender inside.

Asked about the essence of French food, Cristina says freshness and cooking technique are crucial. 

Even if one is not a big fan of French cuisine or that much interested in the intricacies of cooking, he or she would find it hard not to get attracted by the beautiful arrangements of Johan’s dishes.

Johan and his two cooks put a lot of emphasis on the visual aspect, because that is the first thing customers will notice.

A dish needs to look attractive enough so that people would want to taste it, Cristina explains. “Taste is in the eyes.”

For example, instead of serving a flat piece of fish, Johan would serve a smoked mackerel fillet with a lot of volume and eye-catching arrangement.

How about their long-term plans?

Cristina says they haven’t thought too much about that. In fact, they have no idea how long they are going to stay in Hong Kong.

The important thing is that they are happy here, and the restaurant is doing fine. All they want is to “live in the moment”.

From France to Spain, then to Ecuador and back to France, and now Hong Kong: the pair seem to be frequently on the move.

But now things are a bit different. Cristina says with a new member joining the family, stability becomes more important.

Cristina speaks English, French and her native Spanish. Her three-year-old son is starting kindergarten in Hong Kong, with Mandarin being part of the curriculum.

It seems most likely that they are going to be around long enough for the youngest member of the Ducroquet family to become a quadrilingual.

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Anything chocolate brings Cristina back to Ecuador, her home country, which is one of the major producers of cocoa, including this gianduja chocolate mousse created by her husband Johan. Photo: HKEJ
Johan puts a lot of emphasis on the visual aspect. Instead of serving a flat piece of fish, his mackerel fillet has lots of volume, eye-catching arrangement and appetizing colors. Photo: HKEJ
Boudin Noir is a common dish in Southern France, where Johan first visited the countryside and felt in love with food at the age of eight. Photo: HKEJ
Cristina gives us a one-minute detailed account of confit pork cheek, its ingredients and all the cooking steps. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer