Entrepreneur, Executive Chef and owner of Grassroots Pantry, Hong Kong’s premier vegetarian restaurant, Peggy Chan is changing the way we eat, one matcha-moringa parfait at a time. Peggy ignored the doubters, overcame her demons and pursued her passion to great success. Here’s her story.
Growing Up in Hong Kong & Canada
Born in Hong Kong, Peggy Chan spent most of her childhood in Montreal, Canada, returning to Hong Kong for high school and university.
Although very shy, introverted and a self-professed “troubled kid” Peggy demonstrated her industrious nature early on by taking a job as a Starbucks barista from grade 11. This was despite protestations from her strict parents. Instability in her family drove this decision. She felt lost and sought security in financial independence and self-sufficiency. Her driven, stubborn nature, and an innate sense that she could do anything she put her mind to were the making of this inspiring, compassionate leader.
Fashion Design & Cooking The Red Herring
Peggy went on to study fashion design but her motivation quickly waned. At dinner one evening, her long time mentor suggested she pursue cooking. She was dumbstruck. Having cooked a lot at home, she recalled that it was the one special bonding moment she had with her mother, a culinary expert in her own right. Peggy recalls the immediate satisfaction of preparing a meal, serving it and seeing the happiness on people’s faces. But, she never thought that she could cook as a career and she certainly didn’t think it was something women could do.
That night, the 18 year old Peggy signed up to Le Cordon Bleu, taking her first step into the male-dominated culinary world. All of a sudden she was surrounded by people who were passionate about their pursuits and Peggy realised she was finally being true to herself, doing what she loved.
Is This Really Me?
A degree in Business Administration & Hotel Management took Peggy to the heady heights of Atelier Joel Robuchon, Four Seasons, and Peninsula Hotel, Tokyo. Chatting with colleagues and customers, she learnt more about human consumption, food sustainability and realised that few people actually understood where their food came from or how it was sourced. She wanted to do something with meaning and at that point didn’t feel that working in a corporate was 100% “her”. It was a conversation with a colleague about her vegetarianism & modern food production systems which sparked her next move. The more she talked about it, the more the fire grew in her belly – she knew that she had to do something to change the way we consume and eat.
Identifying a gap in the market for seasonal, organic, delicious vegetarian food, she launched Grassroots Pantry. With her steely determination, Peggy built her business from the ground up. Launching as a “hole in the wall”, Grassroots Pantry is now run from a sizeable two-floor space in the centre of Hong Kong, large enough to meet growing demand. Not merely a restaurant, Grassroots Pantry also represents a social movement leading the charge with its responsible food sourcing and ever expanding community support for sustainable food practices.
Recently, Peggy made me a drool-worthy breakfast of raw banana crepes. I used the opportunity to pick her brains about food sourcing, the challenges of starting a business and her go-to fashion brands. Here’s what she said:
Tell me more about your “conscious eating” lifestyle. What inspired it?
As a sensitive, introverted empath, my personal psychological struggles and experiences with suffering during my early teens were a trigger to how I would adapt to the suffering of the rest of the world. The more I learnt about the injustice of the food system – how inhumane the livestock industry treats our animals, how large agribusinesses controlled the ‘patenting’ and ill production of our commodity crops – the more I wanted to do something about it. My career in food and Grassroots Pantry is a platform for where I can share what I have researched and where I can strive to do something about the things I want to see changed.
It must have been scary to open Grassroots Pantry – how did you build up the courage to do it?
My personality is a huge part of it – it’s that necessity to be self-reliant and knowing that this is my goal. I will do everything to achieve it. My entire career was lined up in that way. I had a degree to support me if I could no longer work in the kitchen and I have been trained by the best. I have overcome so many things personally and in my career that I don’t think I would let fear stop me from achieving something so meaningful to me, to share plant based education and food.
There is always risk, no one says it’s easy or that you will have a cushion to fall back on (you won’t) the only thing stopping you is yourself. I am stubborn, want to prove the doubters wrong.
When was the moment you realised that cooking was your passion?
I don’t remember a critical moment. It was a long time where my motivation for what I was doing [fashion design] decreased over time and all of a sudden being in a group of people who were passionate helped me realise what I was truly passionate about. Cooking school is an institution with everyone trying to achieve the same goal. There is great camaraderie – we were all at war together. To this day I am still in touch with my classmates.
What has been your career highlight?
Speaking at the TEDx event last November. I shared some personal things about myself and what made my career successful.
What has been your biggest career challenge to date?
Raising the funds to open Grassroots Pantry. There were a lot of sleepless, tearful nights and six months of negotiations. I had to make sure that the investors’ main motivation was based on their belief in my business and what it stands for rather than making a quick buck – there’s no quick buck to be made in the food and beverage industry!
What advice would you give someone launching a new business?
Do your market research, be really good at what you do and know you’re good at what you do. Get feedback from people and pursue it for a good amount of time before launching. Think about who your competitors are, find your niche and do something different. There’s no restaurant you can compare Grassroots Pantry to – it’s not fine dining, it’s not a cafe but diners still have a real dining experience.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and businesswomen?
Curate a vision you believe in and stay true to your mission. Do not let everyday struggles get you side tracked. Focus on the purpose.
What are your favourite fashion brands?
International: One Teaspoon
What is your favourite dish on the Grassroots Pantry menu?
It changes frequently depending on our moon cycles if you believe in it (yes the moon cycle is real). Sometimes it’s our matcha-moringa coconut yogurt parfait with sprouted almonds and quinoa puff, other times, the maca chia seed pudding. For savoury items, our mixed mushroom linguini with extra leafy greens and an added kick of chilli flakes, or lately, it’s simply been steamed organic brown rice with scrambled tofu and dal makhani. But nothing beats our salted caramel pralines – layered with medjool dates, sprouted pumpkin seeds, salted almond caramel and raiz-the-bar 75% raw couverture. A sweet little perfect ending.
Editor’s side note: you HAVE (HAVE) to try the popcorn “chicken”. I can’t go past these fresh hot morsels of battered-hedgehog-mushroom-amazingness. Wow. Yes, wow.
When developing recipes, where do you look for inspiration?
It generally starts with a theme/heritage. A specific food memory that derives from that theme, and then dissecting the dish in order to recreate a healthier, yet similarly authentic version of the original dish. Travelling also inspires me.
Other than Grassroots Pantry, where do you eat out in Hong Kong?
How do you chill out?
I escape to the Como Shambala in Bali! Its restaurant, Glow, serves phenomenal food.
I need to be alone a lot, although this is difficult with the long hours I spend at the restaurant. The steam room at the FSHK & Landmark Mandarin are the only places in Hong Kong I will not guilt myself for not answering to client/staff calls, emails and text messages immediately. I usually go home, get some background Tibetan meditation hymns going and research a new mens with my cat, Pepper, snuggled up to me.
What is your mantra?
“Hasten slowly”, or to hurry slowly. It’s a paradox. It also represents my spiritual animal, the turtle.
What community projects do you have coming up at Grassroots Pantry?
Recently we participated in KELY’s youth program to help introduce young minorities into the workforce. On the side, I’ve been volunteering my free time for the Global Shapers community, as we will be hosting a three day event for 160+ global shapers from all over the world.
Community involvement is heavily intertwined with our company ethos, beginning from education in environmental and health awareness, animal welfare and gender equality.
One core implementation I take pride in is to have created a safe workspace for anyone entering the field to learn about proper work ethics, taking self responsibility and creating a company culture that treats each other and its stakeholders with respect and integrity. In the near future, I hope to develop our non-profit arm in culinary and hospitality education, and to introduce a training program that develops the self. We must learn to be kind to ourselves and before we can be giving to our communities and our environment.
How would your best friend describe you?
Tenacious, compassionate, discerning (which comes off as judging to some) and therefore fearful at times, and sadly, probably not very available.
What tunes are you listening to right now?
A lot of Deva Premal to calm the adrenaline. Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver and some old school Neil Young and Dixie Chicks.
If you were a rock star – what would the name of your debut album be?
Tenacious P haha… “that’s f*ckin team workkk”
What would you do if you found a walrus in the freezer?
Close the freezer door immediately.