“But… you’re a girl.”
That’s what Sandy Keung’s father told the then 17-year-old over Christmas break 1992, after she had flown from Hong Kong to Taiwan to see talk about going to college.
Using Cantonese, Keung made her pitch to her parents, as her father, the 5 foot 2 inch, timid and generally patient Chinese patriarch of the family, watched silently — before opening his mouth to imply she didn’t need a higher education because of her gender.
Keung, who was second eldest and the only daughter in a middle-class family, had spent most of her life a “second class citizen” within the family. She whad been relegated to the kitchens, helping her mother cook, peeling ginger, washing vegetables, and marinating.
“I was very pissed,” Keung said to Business Insider. “I was shocked that he didn’t think I needed to go to university …. My dad was quite male chauvinistic and traditional.”
It was her mother, a homemaker and something of a tiger mum, who would put her through St. Johns University with the grocery allowances and savings she had collected. Her father — who disputes the characterization to this day — paid nothing, Keung said.
Ambitious and determined, Keung would make it to the top of the finance world over the next two decades. She became an accountant and rose to the rank of managing director at one of the big four accounting firms. Soon after, she became a hedge fund manager with $US300 million under management. Her next move was to the role of chief financial officer at a publicly traded company.
And then, after two decades, she turned her back on the industry and returned to the kitchen, where she had spent so much time with her mother in her youth.
In August 2014, Keung opened the doors to high-end Hong Kong restaurant Table: Ingredients Based Cuisine, herself at the helm as owner and executive chef.
Buzz of banking
Keung chose accounting at St. Johns because it was practical: She knew it would guarantee near financial stability.
After undergrad, she became one of the few female junior accountants at Deloitte-New York in 1993.
Three years later, feeling the symptoms of homesickness, Keung, then 25, transferred to Deloitte in Hong Kong.
She quickly made her way up to managing director in the corporate finance sector.
By the time 2001 rolled around and news of Enron’s scandal broke, Keung joined hedge fund, Acqua Wellington Asset Management LLC, managing $US300 million.
In 2004, she left to try her hand at real estate investments in Vietnam, but was once again pulled back into Hong Kong’s orbit in 2009, joining publicly listed company, Sustainable Forests, as chief financial officer.
She enjoyed it, Keung said.
She flew business class, ate everywhere, and enjoyed the work. She was once offered a chance to stop in Paris, just because, by her company. But she shot down the opportunity, thinking: “Why would I waste a vacation day when I could be finishing work?”
Unlike many who left banking behind because they found it boring, Keung enjoyed her time in finance.
“I actually always thought cooking would be kept as an interest,” she said, her voice is gentle with an authoritative edge. “It gives me a very different high from what I got in banking.”
The journey to becoming a chef
As a child, Keung learned all the basics in the kitchen from her mother, and by the time she was in her teens, she was doing all the preparation — cleaning, chopping, marinating — while her mother would just handled the stove.
In college, her limited funds meant she cooked often — though mostly with frozen and preserved goods.
But Keung didn’t have an audience to cook for until Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, where she hosted dinner parties weekly to make social and professional connections.
“The catch was, I would invite people, and they were only allowed to come if they brought a friend, and they were only allowed to come back if they brought back someone I didn’t know,” she said.
She filled notebooks with tips on presentation and recipes — which eventually caught the attention of a French restaurant she frequented in Ho Chi Minh city, “Ce Page.”
The chef there asked Keung to guest chef monthly — but even then, she couldn’t see herself as a full time chef.
“I started getting my confidence up,” she said.
When she returned to Hong Kong, she started catering and helped serve at her friend’s bar. At the same time, while working as a CFO, she invested in a fish farming system out of Australia. It allowed buyers to recycle 100% of the water from fish tanks, which makes farming fish in a high-density city like Hong Kong easier and less costly.
Even though Chinese consumers love seafood, the technology wasn’t selling. In a bold move, she went from a passive investor to an active one and bought the system.
She turned the depuration system into a seafood cleaning system — which gives her seafood the freshness and soft texture it’s known for — and opened up a precursor to Table in 2013.
It was a tiny kiosk on the streets of Hong Kong serving high quality seafood, but things didn’t work out with her partner.
Poaching a sous chef from Bo Innovation, which has three Michelin stars, Keung decided to open Table, with herself as the executive chef.
She left finance behind in 2013 — and by August 2014, Table was open for business.
“I don’t really know,” she said when asked why she left finance. “I think it’s like this — after a while the finance numbers get a bit removed. You cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, and if you keep doing the same thing over a long period of time, you become numb to it. You have to change it up and magnify that …. I think that’s a natural tendency for people.”
This is Table
Table is 2,000 square feet located in a sliver of a Sheung Wan building that looks bigger inside than out.
It’s an eight floor ride up in a cramped elevator — typical of Hong Kong buildings — opening up to a sign on wood paneling with the letters “Table” followed by four Chinese characters that spell: “Depurated Seafood.”
Three full-timers and a handful of part-time staff serve the 60-seat space.
Her cooking style?
“Anything,” she said — though the tinges of Japanese, western, and Chinese cooking styles come through. The restaurant is ranked 15th among Hong Kong restaurants on Trip Advisor — flanked by Michelin-starred giants such as NUR Restaurant and Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental.
Her customers are mostly business people, older and close to retirement. She does attract some second-generation rich kids — the so-called “fuerdai,” that snap instagram photos and check-in on Facebook, but they tend to move quickly from restaurant to restaurant.
“The atmosphere is simple because it is more about the quality of the food and the personalised service,” said 58-year-old semi-retired logistics consultant, Deborah Salivar. “[Table had] the best oysters I have ever eaten anywhere, and the freshest.”
Salivar, who is based in Hong Kong, began visiting Table regularly after her partner, who works in international logisitics, made reservations at the restaurant for her birthday.
“I was completely surprised. She was a darn good chef,” said Wence Chan, who went to university with Keung and saw her by chance managing Table a year ago.
“I knew her as a very focused person in finance who was very determined — and then I met her in Hong Kong, and she told me she had always had a passion for cooking!”
Chan, who works in advertising but is also a certified wine specialist, recalled a line of courses including a melt-in-your-mouth Iberico ham, soft and buttery clams, and snappy and sweet Spanish red prawns.
“It’s simple, and it’s very artful, the ways she presents the plates. She’s very meticulous with the ingredients that she uses, so her dishes are always amazingly balanced,” Chan said.
Keung also seems to like visiting every guest at their table, something most restaurants don’t do anymore, Chan explained.
“Cooking is more personal [than finance],” Keung said. “There’s a distinct difference from something you create with your hands … and I don’t know, it’s hard to describe when you actually put your heart into creating something and finishing something.”
Keung wakes up at 6:30 am rather than 5:30 am, as she did when she was CFO. When she comes home from work, it’s midnight, not 8 p.m. At Table, Keung even cleans the toilets herself sometimes, since there just aren’t enough hands on deck.
“Basically I have no life and time outside of job — but at least it’s not a strictly desk job, so you get to interact with a lot of people so you’re not stuck in a room,” she said. “But from time to time I do miss the days off work. They all say investors and bankers work very long hours — and they do … but I think food and beer has longer hours.”
And yet again, she’s working in a male dominated industry.
Her sous chef Ken Tam said through a translator that, “I think’s it’s quite strange for me … because I’ve never worked with a female boss before.”
In an even stranger twist from twenty years earlier, it’s her mother who had reservations when she jumped into the world of food and beer, rather than her father.
“She thinks I’m going to have no friends, I’m working too hard, I’m hurting myself all the time, scars and rough hands, all that kind of stuff, and long hours. So for many months she didn’t want to come,” Keung said. “It was my dad that helped me bring her over. After that it was ok and she didn’t have a problem.”
Expanding the Empire
Despite her transition to a full time chef, Keung’s finance background comes through easily in her vocabulary.
She talks about consumer behaviour, R&D and low cost of entry. She calls the renovations “investments” and mentions the capex of her business. She also knows she needs “scale.”
Recently, Keung bought up Good BBQ, a 38-year-old Hong Kong shop for take out in Sai Wan Ho. She is planning to open a third barbecue shop, soon in Central.
These shops, common in Hong Kong, usually offer a full and fast meal for $US5 to $US10. It’s a far cry from “Table.”
“For Hong Kong people, it is comfort food. Someone is eating this product at any price point, something that during a rainstorm or typhoon number 10, they get some to supplement the meal. It’s actually in Hong Kong’s DNA,” she said.
“It’s about thinking of new ways of preparing an old product,” she said. “I’m approaching this a lot more from the business side than purely the food side. I would be deluding myself to think my technique and skill would be that amazing,” she said.
After all, business is her strong suite — and she’s always looking for a challenge.
“Who knows,” she says laughing. “So maybe 20 years from now, maybe I’ll say, ‘I don’t know, hedge funds were more fun.'”
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