In this episode of Entrepreneurs For Good, I interview Peggy Chan, the founder Managing Director and Executive Chef of Grassroots Pantry, about her mission to bringing the vegan movement to Hong Kong through a strong ethos, her passion for food, and delivering an amazing menu that reminds her customers of their favorite food memories.
As always, I hope you are inspired and engaged by the conversation!
Peggy’s story is one of a passion for food, and the commitment to delivering on that passion every day
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
About Peggy Chan
Peggy Chan is the founder, Managing Director and Executive Chef of Grassroots Pantry, a homespun restaurant in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong serving innovative plant-based cuisine with the highest standards of hospitality. Through Grassroots Pantry, Peggy shares her passion for organic produce and supporting local sustainable agriculture by educating the public about the issues that face our food systems today. Grassroots Pantry, as a result, has grown to be more than just a restaurant: it is a highly regarded platform that highlights pressing issues and encourages all to make a difference through action and collaboration, while providing a world-class dining experience.
Since opening in 2012, Grassroots Pantry has enjoyed great success, community support and media coverage in publications such as CNN Travel, Cathay Pacific Discovery Magazine, Travel & Leisure SE Asia and National Geographic India, and Peggy remains determined to create an independent business that will continually challenge the way diners view food production and consumption.
Follow Peggy and Grassroots Pantry:
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: Welcome back everybody. Rich Brubaker here with my friend Peggy from Grassroots. An amazing story about a young executive chef who has opened up a very unique place here in Hong Kong that serves only plant based foods. We speak about her journey, what drives her, how she stays humble and…thank you very much. The food is amazing.
Peggy thanks for meeting with us. Tell me a little about yourself as a individual and also Grassroots,which we are sitting in here.
PEGGY: Sure, thank you for having me. My name is Peggy. I am the executive Chef and founder of Grassroots Pantry, also managing director. We are a five year old vegan vegetarian organic restaurant. We source as much as possible locally and over 90% of our ingredients are certified organic. I’ve been an avid sustainable consumer or conscious consumer for the past 17 years, so that my lifestyle. So for me it’s about how do I balance my food intake and nutritionally but also create food that is fun, interesting, and innovative.
RICH: How does that work in a city like Hong Kong where consumption is at a whole another level. Why did you choose this city to get started?
PEGGY: The challenge was really to take on what the city needed. The city that I grew up in, the city that I know and that I’ve worked in for many years. Take that challenge on and really to offer, offer our city and community something that is different.
RICH: How did you come into this?
PEGGY: Well, along with what I was doing in hotels in corporate, I was always on the back of my mind really wanting so badly to do something about the food industry and what was or raise awareness about what was going on thin the food industry. So back then, 12 years ago, was when I first read an article on Gourmet Magazine. That was in 2005 and that was the first article that had actually showed me what food was and where food came from. That was the first time I’d heard about Monsanto and genetically modified organisms. That really led me to do my research.
Throughout University in Switzerland I was continuously doing my research and figuring out what was going on with the meat industry, watching gorilla films. It was always in the back of my head even though I was working in corporate, I would be talking to my colleagues. They would ask me why I was vegetarian and I would tell them, do you know that? How cows are actually raised these days? No, well they’re being pumped with RB/GH growth hormones. Do you know any of this? No. It’s scary.
RICH: Why didn’t you just become an activist for ya know for the human society, an existing NGO? Why didn’t’ you go that route? Why go into a restaurant business?
PEGGY: I really thought that I was going to leave the industry for good and go into academics and go into social work. Which is very normal for a lot of people, but I knew that I had my passion was really and my career ya know. Everything that I’ve honed for 12 years was in food and beverage and my craft is culinary. It’s hard to leave all of that when, you know, it’s kind of like a part of you.
I decided that after my Eat, Pray Love moment of traveling to Bali and India and everything, I really just felt that there is a way for me to do this. I can combine my love for culinary and running restaurants with my passion and activism for sustainable agriculture and combine that together and make Grass Roots Pantry my first pantry business and something that is more of social entrepreneurship base.
RICH: When you set this up, I mean the entire menu is completely Vegan, what were some of the core principals when you said you were going to build this restaurant that you had to adhere to and how challenging…what was the opportunity with all the challenges of sticking to those principals?
PEGGY: When we opened Grass Roots 5 years ago, we weren’t opening it to become a vegan restaurant. It was only over the years and last year was when I decided after watching cowspiracy was when I,not realized that I really decided that.
RICH: Because you knew, but you like that was it.
PEGGY: Exactly. It was getting that push in. These food documentaries are so crucial to getting people to just, ya know do something. Plastic Oceans as well. So I really, with that we I decided to get rid of all the dairy. Not that we used a lot anyway, I just said we’ll get rid of it overnight. I think many times when you’re an restaurant operator and a chef with a big ego, you do what you want to do, but you fail to see what the market wants. If I made those decisions overnight and I made all these like funky stuff all wrong, all ya know cold foods and you know cold press all very like too hippy and stuff. I think It would deter people from trying.
RICH: Because whether they think… I mean to me it’s like tofu. There’s a preconceived notions that you can break through. How did you…like what was your process for once you knew that it was a problem, how did you then create a menu or how did you look at that part of the business.
PEGGY: In order for us to get our consumers to…our customers to really feel like they are a part of that experience, I wanted to create a menu that was something they could recognize. So let’s say if I were to make a Thai dish, I would make it as authentic as possible but give it those Grassroots tweaks. Which is to make it plant based, super food laced, all wholesome foods, 100% organic, all of that. So when they eat it, they’re like oh, I remember this flavor, oh I remember that. But actually it’s actually something so much more healthier than you would normally get. So like one of the examples that we do is popcorn chicken that we do which is super popular here. It is my memory from middle school after school we would go to KFC and buy these buckets of popcorn chicken and pop them in our mouths.
So the taste and the memory and the flavor and fragrance, all of that, just made me realize that I can recreate that with an ingredient called hedgehog mushroom. Just batter it, toss it in galangal powder and there you go. So everyone who comes here they eat it are like this is just like chicken.
RICH: So are you trying to fool them? Like the beyond burger it’s actively trying to fool you so that you’ll just make the switch more readily. But how much for you is just looking at the food and going this just makes amazing food, but the flavor speaking for themslevs and hopefully….the tica I just had, **** amazing, how much is just you looking through food and this is what I can do and I know that this will be amazing. How much is people is people like pop corn chicken and I’m going to created it and fool everybody and they’re going to keep coming back?
PEGGY: I wouldn’t use the word fool though. I’m proposing an alternative. So actually we have a catering arm called The Alternative Caterer. What I’m doing is really proposing you a different option as what you would normally have and still have it taste just as good. You’re experience won’t change whatsoever. You can still bring your friends who are meat here and everyone can have their own meals, different style of food. We can have India, Thai, Italian, Chinese, all on the same table at the same time. But you’ll will experience something that is memorably.
RICH: What are the best ways for you to break through the noise of what’s happening here in Hong Kong food and dining. How do you get your message out and how do you attract new consumers that are outside your friend’s circle, the people you are actively going after? You need the masses to come here to make sure you have a stable business? Is it Facebook, is it events, is it speaking, is it everything? What’s worked well for you as a story teller?
PEGGY: When we were smaller, social media definitely worked, but now that we are at the stage of business, our public relationships team really does help us give us a push. But most importantly, I think it’s the messaging, it needs to be consistent. So no matter what channel you use, the message needs to be consistent. So we do this thing called the Collectives Table. It’s an initiative we started a year ago and the whole idea is to get, ya know the restaurant is great as a platform to touch to the community, our guests. Change the ways that they think.
So most of our guests who come here, they are not vegetarian/vegan. But the collectives table is really to tap within, infiltrate within the industry so that we can get the suppliers, the chefs, ya know the big restaurants, the corporates to start changing their systems, system change. So what we do is challenge them to cook plant based over one special dinner and part of the proceeds goes to a certain charity. We created a lot of buzz, a lot coverage for them because everyone is talking about plant based food now, vegetarian, putting more like wholesome foods on your menu. So we kind of help them as well tweek their image to the public and vice versa.
So we’re doing it globally and we’ve been able to successfully change some of the chef’s, like not purposely, but they are so inspired. Through that pop up, through that collaboration, they’ve been able to feel so inspired that they will change, maybe the percentage plant based verses meat dishes have shifted.
RICH: What are the big challenges that you face? Like day to day, like your vision perspective. What are the challenges you are facing and how do you get through them everyday? How do you wake up like alright look, we’ve got all these problems and we can get through it?
PEGGY: Well, the biggest problem in this industry no matter where you are, big corporate hotels, or small startups…people. We are a human intensive human based industry where everything is based on communications. That is always a problem and we have a massive shortage of qualified skilled workers in this industry right now because no one wants to go into food and beverage. Noone wants to go into hospitality. So that is one thing.
RICH: How do you fix that? Robots? Right!!
PEGGY: Gosh, how I would fix that is really just to go back internally and say how do we become better. How do we attract quality staff? We have to be role models for what we do so if we…we say all these things like…we do all these things, but we’re not really good with our work ethics and even if I attract great people they would see us as they’re just ya know, it’s just all poster, messaging. So I first of all make sure that my team, the ground team, the skeleton team is strong and they are ya know, their ethos is exactly like mine that if I say segregate your ways, you have to segregate your ways. That has taken a lot of time. Like 2 years ago was not like this. There were a lot of chefs who came in and there were multiple shortcuts. So it takes time to build.
So that’s one way that we’re tackling why, how do I wake up in the morning and feel 100% to go to work and continue what I do? I see everything with a bigger picture and the bigger picture here is we need to do something about the system here.
RICH: What inspires you about the food sector right now?
PEGGY: What gets me the most excited is really to be a part of that system change. So because I’ve worked in food and beverage for 17 years, it’s really knowing the industry from inside out and knowing how to fix it, know how to change it. Of course, I don’t know everything around the world, but I’m starting in Hong Kong.
RICH: How do you measure your successes? How do you measure impact?
PEGGY: That’s a good question. People have their conceptions about you a certain level. To me it’s all about my confidence within. I don’t need someone else to tell me who I am or whether I’m doing well or not. As long as I feel confident and comfortable with the correct feedback and being open to accepting feedback, staying humble with humility and then just focusing on doing better than I have before the previous day. Then I know I’ve done my job well.
RICH: What advice would you give to a young woman about how to be yourself, get it done,…?
PEGGY: One of the things the words that was used on a chef’s table, I don’t know if you watched it, but Chef Nikiama, she uses the word, it’s a Japanese word Kreashi, which means to allow the negative energy that people give you drive you to prove them wrong. I mean that sounds reactive, but actually if you have that mentality all the time, it can become proactive and become a part of you. So, let any doubt, anything that is negative that enters you be produced back as something productive and positive.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.