Sow, Reap, Repeat with Daniel Calvert
by Rohail Ali on Oct 22, 2023
The first of a series of conversations, we are delighted to finally share with you Sow, Reap, Repeat.
For all have us whose undertakings, ongoing or in the works, fall along an alternative road, passion and purpose serve as our steering wheel.
But what propels us is the process.
In contributing to or reshaping our world, no matter what those entail, focused and progressive effort make them possible.
Hence, the importance of drawing lessons and inspiration from others and their pursuits.
In this first episode, Common Farms Founder and General Manager, Jessica Fong, sits down with chef Daniel Calvert.
Hong Kong generously offers the sort of imagery that you can hear – a curious phenomenon of mental association – from the trains and trams to the streets and shops, bundled with the characteristically chaotic sensory overload of a brisk, busy, and too often insane city.
Elgin Street has historically been different in the sense that rather than sounds, distinct tastes and aromas come to mind when you take in its sights, an array of restaurants with splendid facades, some with offerings that match or surpass, as have those of iconic neo-Parisian bistro Belon on both counts.
People who have been fortunate enough to dine there had been treated to the scrumptious results of Chef Daniel Calvert’s strictest standards and painstaking attention to detail: a menu and experience he had crafted with utmost gusto and dedication, and which have drawn a growing audience.
"A lot of our regulars are still those regulars from 2016 that have enjoyed the progression of each year," Calvert said, sharing how a corner table is constantly reserved and occupied by a loyal handful of people who have come to love the restaurant, the same folks he would bake bread for, day in, day out. "You have to remember those people who were there at the beginning."
Although Daniel had left the city to begin his next project before the summer ended, we were fortunate to have had the chance to sit down and speak with him, giving us a glimpse of the history, philosophy, and process that earned Belon a spot on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018 (number 4 in 2020), and Calvert 1 Michelin star, a brief period after the establishment first opened for business.
“I don't keep anything from the day before,” said Calvert, who made it a point to work an hour earlier and a day more than everyone else on the team. “Everything is done every single day because it tastes better.”
The chef spoke extensively about the challenges of developing the dishes that would bring in a crowd as a prerequisite to serving them more specialized fare; grasping the public’s attention was a huge hurdle for more than a year before Belon truly took off.
"It's the same thing if you're like a musician I guess,” Calvert said. "If you write an album that's guaranteed to be a top 10 hit, you have that commercial success which enables you to do eventually whatever you want to do."
While this is universally easier said than done, it just so happened that Calvert, coming from an older post in France, brought along with him a delectable roast chicken recipe, his own contribution to the restaurant there as well as to Belon, which has since become an all-round crowd-pleaser and mainstay, for a number of reasons.
"I didn't know at the time that people in Hong Kong were really into that kind of thing, and it just really coincidentally kicked off," he said. “And the chickens that are here in Hong Kong are really conducive to roasting very well. When I move … I wouldn’t be able to do that dish because it just won't be the same.
"That was definitely one of the things that really put us on the map. We never took it off the menu because it brings people home, it brings people in the restaurant, plus it's economical for the guests," Calvert said, explaining that in a rather pricey place to live, a main course that serves four is a bargain. Too often have people encountered dining establishments that charge too much for serving far less, and if a lay guest could tell, what more a seasoned chef.
Nailing a fan favorite, however, was but the first of an infinite number of boxes one needed to tick to generate a minimum level of satisfaction on both sides of the kitchen doors.
“In Hong Kong, there are certain things that people want to eat,” Calvert said. “You have to build a menu that people want to eat, and that you want to cook and that you want to eat yourself – it has to be delicious. And it has to look good, and it has to be balanced, and it can't be too heavy, and the portion size has to make sense.”
This tedious, ceaseless pursuit of a moving target would prove utterly maddening for anyone in any field, unless of course, one sees the endeavor as less a chore and more a source of bliss, a venue for methodical expression as much as an ever-present opportunity for improvement.
“You have to want to do it exactly the same, every single day,” Calvert said, underscoring how critical it is to find, what he calls, “the beauty in monotony and the mundane”. Although innovation and experimentation are definitely vital at the highest levels in his line of work, so is the role of routine in upgrading output – and validating quality.
“If you get that spark of inspiration, that dish might be good, but it can only be great if you keep going, and going and going.”
For more than a decade, from Le Bristol in Paris to the Four Seasons in Tokyo where he is currently stationed (Belon itself is under new stewardship and making arrangements to transfer to a new location outside of Elgin Street), Daniel Calvert has exemplified a commitment to excellence and passion for fantastic food, a legacy he hopes to leave wherever he sets foot. We can relate to many aspects of his personal doctrines and ethic – giving primacy to freshness, more heft to local ingredients, offering customers greater value, and not least, racing the sun each day to fulfill one’s stated purpose.
“I love repetition. I am very happy to make the same sauce every single day and really push myself to make it taste better, or slice something better, or cook something perfectly. And really refine that line of detail as much as I can, and that’s where I find my joy.”
Energized, ecstatic and enchanted. That’s how I felt after the interview and now, re-watching it months later when I sat down with my friend and customer of Common Farms in late August.
As I have the privilege to be on this journey to build Common Farms (especially in a chaotic, unpredictable year like this one), I’m constantly seeking signs, messages, lessons, directions, tools, motivations, assurance; honestly, anything to keep me going, especially when it gets hard and against our primal instincts. When I’m in the “trenches”, I often feel lost, uncertain, indecisive, and at times, no clue what I’m doing and why. Now, I’ll always have a record of this sit down with Danny as a reminder of how we should do it and why we should do it.
To Daniel: thank you for your generosity of time and sharing minutes before a fully booked service on your last Friday of service to do this with me. Will always be inspired by how you consistently make others feel important and motivated by you to keep doing the “monotony and mundane” work, because that’s where the beauty lies and where we have the opportunity to be better.
~ Jessica Fong