By Carolynne Dear for Hong Kong Livng
It’s been a busy twelve months for chef and restaurateur Connie Aldao-Worker. The beginning of the year saw her making the move from New Zealand to Hong Kong with her two young sons, and by mid-year she was managing the launch of the city’s much anticipated Madame Fu Grand Cafe Chinois inside Central’s Tai Kwun heritage redevelopment.
Designed by Christian Rhomberg (founder and chairman of the now-defunct KEE Club – once voted Asia’s ‘best private members’’ club – and early pioneer of the Lan Kwai Fong scene in the 1980s), the space occupies the whole of the top floor of the former Barrack Block. The huge area has been divided into seven lavishly decorated rooms, including a wrap-around verandah, main dining room, two private dining rooms, a lunch room, library and the gloriously pink Pearl Room – which within weeks of opening had hosted a Victoria’s Secrets ‘Angels’ shoot. Not without good reason has Madame Fu been nicknamed Hong Kong’s most instagrammable restaurant.
The backstory to the restaurant evoques a Shanghai-meets-Paris ‘grand cafe’ of the 1920s, based around a mysterious fictional persona named Madame Fu.
Lavish attention to detail, gorgeous soft furnishings in velvets and silks (my favourite are the lanterns on the verandah that have been created using vintage hermes scarves) as well as much colourful artwork – some of it painted by Rhomberg’s son – has made this one of Hong Kong’s most glamorous spaces.
But of course a restaurant needs substance, which is where Aldao-Worker comes in.
Appointed as the restaurant’s executive director, she is Argentinian by birth, married to the New Zealand consul-general in Hong Kong and Macau, Carl Worker, and arrived in the territory less than a year ago.
Nimbly directing staff and answering queries about various dishes during our interview, Aldao Worker admits she first started out in the restaurant trade as an office-based employee.
Back in the ‘90s, she was taken on by Argentinian celebrity chef and restaurateur, Francis Mallmann, and helped with everything from organising his cooking shows and co-writing his cookery books to putting together his busy travel itinerary. Eventually she started helping out in the kitchen “a little bit”, and this led to her eventually spending more time kitchen-side than office-side.
Her big break came in 1998 when she set up the award-winning 1884 Francis Bodegas Escorihuela restaurant in Buenos Aires. It went on to place seventh out of the top 50 restaurants in the world listed in the UK’s esteemed Restaurant magazine.
“It was a huge honour,” she says. “Of course myself and the whole team were extremely proud of what we’d achieved.”
In 2003 she married career diplomat Carl Worker, who at the time was serving as New Zealand Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. “Francis Mallmann took care of our wedding as a gift to us,” she tells me as we sit down to tea in Madame Fu’s main dining room. “We had a great party. And Nicolas Catena (owner of Catena Zapata Winery and the man credited with putting Argentinian wines on the world map) took care of all the wine.”
In 2009 Worker accepted the position of New Zealand ambassador to China and Mongolia and the family, including Aldao Worker’s two stepsons, Simon and Alex, and her two younger sons, Ollie and Nicky, moved to Beijing.
As an experienced chef, not-to-mention wife of the ambassador, Aldao-Worker took on the management of entertaining at the New Zealand Embassy, which included running the kitchens as well as organising cooking demonstrations and acting as guest chef in several restaurants across the capital – at one point, perhaps portentously, she spent two weeks in the clubhouse of the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Beijing.
“I picked up Mandarin and fell in love with Sichuanese and Beijing cuisine,” she says. When pushed to name a favourite dish, she insists there are too many stand-outs to pick just one.
The Beijing stint lasted until 2015, at which point the family returned to Waiheke Island near Auckland in New Zealand. Here Aldao Worker joined the renowned Stonyridge Vineyard as head chef.
Her husband was offered the role of New Zealand consul-general in Hong Kong and Macau in August 2017 and Aldao Worker moved up at the beginning of this year with her younger boys Ollie, 14, and Nicky, 11, in tow, and who are now happily ensconced at The Australian International School in Kowloon Tong. Her two older stepsons have these days flown the nest. This is Worker’s second stint as New Zealand consul-general in the SAR – he took up the reigns for the first time between 1994 and 1998.
Having settled the family into Hong Kong life, Aldao-Worker landed her current role at Madame Fu just four weeks before the restaurant opened earlier this summer.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” she says. “It’s a great location and a super set up. As with all new venues, there have been challenges (tense moments include electricity not being fully installed until just hours before the launch party – “it’s pretty normal stuff,” she shrugs, unruffled), especially as it’s a big kitchen. Divided into four sections – main kitchen, dim sum, barbecue and pastry – there are 25 chefs covering all stations, so yes, it’s very busy.”
She admits that being in Hong Kong she’s keen to learn more about Cantonese food. “Our dim sum chef has 39 years experience, so I feel I have a good master to follow. I’m hoping to learn a lot from him and his team.”
At the time of our meeting, the restaurant was just about to launch afternoon teas in the Pearl Room. The main restaurant menu is Cantonese with selected Chinese dishes from the northern provinces – for me the standouts were the braised five spice beef shin and the crispy cod with vinegar glaze and ginger.
Of course holding down a role such as this requires judicious juggling with family demands. And her husband is caught in a similar balancing act. But she remains unphased. “Family is very important and I have to find a balance. Sometimes the kids come in to see me here. And on weekends I try and participate in their activities as much as I can,” she says. “At the end of the day, I enjoy being busy.”
Tai Kwun is set to welcome several more dining venues this autumn.
Under the helm of renowned chef David Thompson, Thai specialist Aaharn moves in on the first floor of the Armoury building.
Bar at Armoury on the ground floor will be serving wines by the glass, cocktails, draught beers, premium teas and coffees and a simple menu of modern Thai bar snacks.
hc:Bistro brings light gourmet dishes and community spirit to the complex. The local bistro is the 13th catering social enterprise project of the non-profit Hong Chi Association, which provides training and a safe working environment for people with intellectual disabilities.
And Aqua restaurant group hosts two flagship restaurants and a ‘luxury’ lounge in the main police headquarters block. East-meets-West with The Chinese Library (Chinese specialities) and Statement (British classics), while The Dispensary lounge channels a colonial Hong Kong vibe.