Standing on the slippery, blood-spattered floor of Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan Market, surrounded by dangling cow carcasses and plastic bins brimming with de-feathered chicken parts, Daniel Calvert is unfazed, despite a wicked hangover. The twenty-eight-year-old chef of Belon, the Parisian-style bistro that has quickly become one of Hong Kong’s buzziest restaurants since opening in March, is here to show me his birds.
We weave our way through the aisles—past lines of flip flop-clad ladies drooping with plastic produce bags, and vendors in gumboots wielding cleavers—and into the market’s underbelly, where every day Ivan Wong, the fourth-generation owner of Hop Wo Poultry, sets aside his twelve best, plus a dozen individual wings, for Calvert.
The chickens are beautiful, with bright red crowns, gray-tinged wings, golden-yellow plumage, yellow beaks, and extra-long lizard-like yellow feet. At 1.2 kilos, and seventy to eighty days old, they are corn fed and farmed indoors. There’s not a single commercial free-range chicken in Hong Kong, says Wong, with risk of bird flu and all. They have a thick skin that rarely rips, and a lot of fat, and an equal leg-to-breast ratio that Calvert says is ideal for roasting whole.
The roast chicken is one of his two signature dishes at Belon. The other is the infamous—his word—chicken wing, which comes stuffed with rice, smoked eel, foie gras and costs thirty dollars. On the occasions it includes matsutake mushrooms, it’s a forty-five dollar chicken wing.
On the menu a month after Belon’s opening, the wing was immediately revered for its taste and reviled for its elitism. An August review in the South China Morning Post (“Belon in SoHo – home of the HK$358 chicken wing”) created such an Internet frenzy that Calvert has no choice, really, but continue to make it.
“Even if we take it off the menu for a night, we still sell as many as we do when it’s on, he says. “People will come in and not even look at the menu. They’ll just hold up their phones, show us a photo of the roast chicken or the wing.” He’s capped orders for the wing at ten per service, though. “It’s not fair to the team to have to cook the same thing all night.”
The wing is both a nod to traditional Chinese chicken wings, which are sometimes filled with glutinous rice and fried, and Calvert’s time at three-Michelin starred Epicure, in Paris, where he stuffed morels with sweetbreads, serrano ham, and foie gras.
Back at Belon’s tiny kitchen, Calvert dons his chef coat and sets to work, methodically deboning the wing with a paring knife, separating the meat from the skin by scraping the miniature humerus. He lays out the skin like a taxidermist, and squeezes in the precious stuffing of rice, eel, foie gras, and mushroom out of a piping bag. He then seals the wing in plastic and steams it in the oven while a saucepan of smoked eel and bacon sautés with shaoxing wine, an oxidized Chinese wine fermented from rice, to make the glaze that coats the wing after it’s removed from the oven and pan fried.
During service it takes three cooks to make one wing—one guy on sauce, one guy on glaze, one guy on plating. “That’s me,” says Calvert, as he gently lowers the cooked wing onto a scalloped white plate, careful not to smudge the glaze, as if the thing just got a manicure. It’s clearly a labor of love. He stands back and gives it a good look, and spies half a grain of rice stuck to the skin. He lifts it off with tweezers, Operation-style, then snuggles in a spoonful of spinach. Wilted in butter and orange zest, it’s intended to offset the richness of the rest of the dish.
Which it does, just barely—the first bite is an overwhelmingly sticky, chewy, umami experience. But is it worth it? “That’s what the wing costs,” says Calvert, at this point bored by the question. “If people don’t like it, they don’t have to order it.” But they do. Sometimes twice.
Calvert recently added an equally labor-intensive dish he hopes will become Belon’s new star: the pigeon pithivier, a meat pie served with figs and amaretto sauce, topped with a claw-like roasted foot. It’s seventy-three bucks—but at least you get the whole bird.