The jovial head chef appears in the lobby, a smile as wide as his face and a hat so tall it was impossible to tell his real height. “Are you excited?” he booms in a broken Italian accent, before leading us into his kingdom. His power here is absolute. One low grunted command and a pile of dirty aprons is immediately vanished from a corner. The room where we will observe the craft of making dim sum gleams pristinely under the glaring light, where pans stacked like shipping containers await the day’s cargo. Along one side of the room, a long stretch of stainless steel sets the stage for a lesson. Behind that, a polished field of fire pits where woks will soon heave with the vibrant colors of peppers and shrimp so fresh that to eat it feels almost rude.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us. It melts in the mouth like finest butter. Looking around, I notice that we seem to be getting younger by the day here at the Intercontinental. The familiar toll of crossing multiple time zones is leaving our faces. Our eyes that were yesterday glazed with a need for sleep are now curious and bright, with flashes of an almost child-like awe as the dim sum masters squeeze, pinch, poke and cajole their creations into flawless tiny monuments to a seven centuries-old art.

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A father and son work side by side – the younger man alone has 40 years of experience – and they work fast. A long roll of rice dough becomes six perfectly flat pancakes in the blink of an eye. When it comes to our turn, my fingers become sausages, thick with unskilled ambition. “That looks… special,” chides Nicola the kitchen king about my roommate’s efforts. I blush with relief that he hasn’t yet noticed my own abominations, sagging sadly on the plate at my hip.

Later, when a certificate saying ‘PASSED’ is pressed into my hands, for a second I feel like I actually deserved it. Then reality sets in and the reminder comes again how privileged we are to be here, in this place, with these full bellies, to receive this act of bare-faced generosity. The Chinese community comes together around this food, executive chef A-Fai tells us. “Chinese society is very inside, not outside. So food is a good opportunity for things to open.” That’s a philosophy that #PassportToAsia can categorically endorse. Our conversations over food have helped to break down the walls of shyness and form the strong connections that will long outlast the trip itself.

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After the lesson, the masters gleefully pose for photos and shake every hand before we move onto another round of eating. Actually, eight rounds. A flurry of chopsticks and excited chatter rises up from our tables as each plate of food arrives from the kitchen. I’m no food reviewer. To attempt to do even a fraction of justice to this meal would be an affront to all the pros who’ve come before me to fumble for superlatives with which to describe it. Just know this: two Michelin stars do not come easy, and these were well earned.

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Incredibly, there was even more food to come later in the evening when we met with some local entrepreneurs. Hearing the stories of people who are working to put Hong Kong on the world map as a creative hub on par with London or New York, was genuinely inspiring. I came away feeling motivated, not to open a restaurant like May or to design my own fashion range like Michelle, but to spread the word about the awakening of a city that’s too-often overlooked on the global scale.

In chef A-Fai’s own words, dim sum means “a little bit heart”. And as all have learned so well here, far from home, a little bit of feeling goes a long way.

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Photo by @charlottehuco
Photo by @charlottehuco
This is the third of a four-part series on our time in Hong Kong during the #PassportToAsia trip in collaboration with Cathay Pacific Airways. Images by Adrienne Pitts.
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