Discovering Food Accademia’s world of fine flavours at a Hong Kong cha chaan teng

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

When two of travel retail’s most renowned gourmets come to town and join you for lunch, you take them to a suitably epicurean restaurant, right?

Especially when one is from Italy, the other from France, arguably the respective homes to the greatest cuisines on the planet. And even more so when the town in question is Hong Kong, one of Asia’s and the world’s best cities for foodies (and Moodies), which boasts an estimated 15,000 restaurants – the highest density of eateries in the world

The gourmets in question were Fabrizio Canal, Founder & CEO of Food Accademia – the Italian connection – and Eric Carlier, a French veteran of the confectionery sector who spent two decades with super-premium chocolate house Valrhona.

Eric Carlier (left) and Fabrizio Canal are bringing the tastes of Italy (and a little bit of France) to the world of travel retail

Eric, who headed Valrhona’s travel retail division for seven years, set up his own consultancy after a three-year stint with French organic chocolate house Saveurs et Nature but after a meeting of minds – and no doubt tastebuds – he agreed last year to work alongside Fabrizio as Head of Sales in growing the eclectic Food Accademia portfolio of fine Italian food & beverages in travel retail.

Fabrizio is a man on a mission I consider as noble as any in travel retail. He works with artisan Italian producers to bring to travel retail an array of oils, vinegars, chocolates, wines, liqueurs, pastas… well, the list goes on, we are talking Italy after all.

“If you’re looking for truffle, you came to the right place,” as Elvis (nearly) sang. From parmesan to pesto, Prosecco to pasta, Food Accademia offers an affectionately curated, 40-strong array of fine Italian products.

Fabrizio is an engaging character, bursting like the bubbles in a freshly poured Prosecco with enthusiasm for his country’s “amazing casket” of fine foods and beverages.

He created the company in June 2015 after a chance visit to the TFWA World Exhibition the previous year. Not knowing anything about travel retail, he strolled the packed halls with a growing sense of wonder. But also a mounting sense of opportunity. There were plenty of chocolate, food, wines and spirits exhibitors but where were the independent Italian producers so synonymous with the country’s great culinary traditions?

You can read all about how Fabrizio seized that opportunity in my forthcoming interview with him in our May edition of The Moodie Davitt Report Magazine, whose publication coincides with the TFWA World Exhibition in Singapore. But first, of course, every good face to face interview needs a good – and preferably quiet – setting.

I duly met Fabrizio and Eric at their hotel in the heart of bustling Sheung Wan and we promptly set off for lunch with no pre-planned venue. It’s almost impossible to not find a restaurant in Hong Kong without taking a few steps but we must have headed down every street that was an exception to that rule.

With all of us having follow-up meetings in the early afternoon, we needed to find somewhere quickly. As we turned into busy Des Voeux Rd West, a solution across the road presented itself.

“There’s one!” I said, like a Texan who had just discovered a gushing oil well in his backyard.

Encouraged by the resigned shrug of four shoulders, two Italian and two French, we crossed over and entered the New Five Dragon Chinese restaurant. It was jam-packed with diners – a good sign – but the briskly efficient waiter quickly found us a spare table, wiped it down and gestured for us to sit.

The New Five Dragon is not gourmet fare. It is a traditional Hong Kong cha chaan teng (‘tea restaurant’), café-like venues that form an integral part of the vibrant local dining scene. The vibe is more 1970s than 2020s, the service as quick as a Usain Bolt 100-metre sprint with roughly the same amount of dialogue. The waiting staff are in charge, not the guests, and leave you in no doubt about the pecking order.

The emphasis is on hearty, tasty food served quickly without any frills in terms of cutlery, service or options. The waiter slapped down the menus, presented in an old-style laminate covering, and pointed to the budget-priced set lunches. This time it was a six-shoulder shrug, including two Kiwi ones as a duo of European foodies and a Moodie foodie all opted for the diced chicken in a variation on black bean sauce.

Diced, not dicey, I emphasise. The bowl of chicken pieces had more bones than a 500-year old cemetery, so many it could have modelled for Kiehl’s in fact, but as we chatted we all agreed the offering was delicious. Naturally the need to not only eat but to remove bones from my mouth every few seconds meant I conducted the interview using a digital recorder rather than taking notes.

Now a good cha chaan teng is not known for its serenity. In fact the noise level – a wonderful symphony of slurps, slapped plates on tables, noisy waiting staff and Cantonese chatter – makes even hearing your dining companions difficult at times.

“This conversation might be difficult to transcribe,” I said to Fabrizio and Eric, with a nod towards my digital recorder, which, if you will pardon the personification, must have been saying something like, “You expect me to work in conditions like this?”

Well, work it did. Just about. Playing back our dialogue a couple of weeks later, I admit I have to stop the recording to relisten to sections as frequently as I had to extract those chicken bones. But the end result is worth it, full of narrative flavour as rich as the wonderful culinary journey through Italy that Food Accademia offers.

“Everybody in the industry is saying that we must offer the passengers experience,” says Fabrizio. “Absolutely. If you’re not offering people something really different where is the experience? Italy has a very global good reputation for food and wine. When people come to our country they enjoy even a simple Trattoria, they eat well, they like our wines, but when they return home [through airports], they often don’t find the same quality.”

Food Accademia, bolstered by the enlightened support of a growing band of retailers including Lagardère Travel Retail, Avolta and DFS Group, is determined to change all that. As we shook hands and posed for a selfie outside the New Five Dragon restaurant, we vowed to meet again at the Singapore show and to enjoy a nice dinner at the earliest possible opportunity.

Italian cuisine no doubt but maybe with a touch of French fusion. And perhaps accompanied by a pre-meal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to warm up (or chill) the tastebuds.

Those attending the Singapore show can meet Fabrizio and Eric at the Food Accademia stand (Basement 2, No 2). There will be lots of fine Italian products on display and not a chicken bone in sight. ✈