Australian Zacki Hamid moved to Hong Kong two years ago as an IT consultant and today that’s still his day job. But now, he’s also proud restaurateur. Hamid and his business partner Chris Growney launched Big Dill in late May, a new eatery housed inside an existing bar serving 100% vegan food – a first for Hong Kong. Opening a restaurant in the middle of one of the worst years in the city’s recent history and battling a global health crisis would be challenging for even the most seasoned operator. But this first time restaurant owner remains unfazed. Hamid freely admits there have been major obstacles, but to hear him tell the story, it’s just added to the fun of being a first-timer. His mission? To make veganism mainstream, and no pandemic isn’t going to stop him.
Located on Third Street in the hip neighbourhood of Sai Ying Pun, Big Dill is the newest entry to Hong Kong’s incredibly diverse plant-based food scene. Nestled inside Espresso Martini, with their neon sign stealing the show at the centre of the room, their one-page menu reads like the ultimate dream food for university stoners looking for a midnight fix.
Glancing at it, you’d hardly guess the dishes are entirely animal-free. From its namesake dish, the ‘Signature Big Dill’ features a juicy vegan beef patty made from textured vegetable protein, plant-based cheddar, onions, pickles sandwiched in a soft brioche through to its popular ‘Zeus Gyro’, a vegan take on the classic lamb kebab wrap (from a base of vital wheat protein), there is hardly anything on the menu that’s akin to what diners would usually associate with the word ‘vegan’.
We tasted as many dishes as we could find space for (the food is unabashedly rich, there was no need for dinner after lunch at Big Dill) including the creamy truffle-y mac ‘n’ cheese, the ‘Side Chick’ burger, a Southern-style fried buttermilk chicken slider made from jackfruit and topped with their tofu-based house mayo, hot sauce and Daiya vegan cheese, elevated by their kitchen team to replicate the gooeyness and meltability of the real deal. We got to trial some new dishes that have not launched too including the Double Dill, a new burger (and our favourite of all the sandwiches) consisting of two patties, gooey cheese, and a really impressive plant bacon, as well as the cauliflower poppers- deep fried heaven- and the everything nachos.
Hamid, an Afghani Australian who has been vegan for four years, is big on diner food and wanted to recreate some of the classics from his favourite spots in Sydney, where he hails from. “Big Dill is an ode to all the things I missed as a meat-eater that I felt I couldn’t find here,” he explains. “So I thought, why not create it?”
Hong Kongers will be quick to note that restaurants across the city have already been serving plant-based burgers, notably, their own renditions of the now world-famous patties engineered by US food tech giants Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
But Hamid stubbornly prefers to make his own, telling us that he spent months eating dozens of burgers a week to get his just right. Big Dill doesn’t use any pre-made patties for their comfort food creations. Everything is created in-house, using real plant-based ingredients such as soya textured vegetable protein, wheat-based seitan, jackfruit and tofu, and given the results (his burger style reminded us of the uber-popular burger chain Shake Shack), it’s fairly impressive, especially when you consider that companies like Impossible have hundreds of millions of R&D behind them.
“Our casual fast comfort food isn’t heavily scientific,” said Hamid. “If you ask what’s in it, we can tell you. We use real products, no frozen ready-made patties that are overly manufactured. That’s our point of difference – we make as much as we can in-house, all our sauces, all our meats.”
Another point of difference? There isn’t a single thing in their menu that is non-vegan, making the eatery the first bar food service that offers only vegan comfort fast foods, and all made from scratch. Yet it isn’t “in your face,” as Hamid puts it.
“It’s a great food that happens to be vegan, as opposed to vegan food served at a bar. It’s a small delineation we make,” expresses the newcomer to Hong Kong’s food industry. “We don’t press veganism so much, and a lot of our customers don’t even notice until after they try it and we tell them.”
It’s all a part of Hamid’s mission to move away from the novelty feel often associated with plant-based foods, and instead, make it the norm. “Even initially, with the vegan block parties, it was about making vegan mainstream,” he said, referring to the neighbourhood events presented and organised by Big Dill last year before it transitioned into a full-on restaurant concept.
And of course, Hamid believes that offering comfort foods is the best way to get mass consumers to try it and create the biggest impact. “We aren’t just trying to be here for vegans. We want to help people live more consciously, and opposed to salad bowls, these offerings are what people love, crave and enjoy in a bar,” he said.
“So even if a meat eater just swaps out their burger feasts with our plant-based versions that give the same experience without killing a cow or a baby lamb, we feel that we are forwarding the conversation and elevating vegan food.”
However, launching the concept during what is undoubtedly a time of hardship is certainly a challenge. It’s been a full year of volatility for Hong Kong, from months of civil disorder since last year to the coronavirus pandemic that struck the city since January.
“It was scary because we didn’t know how bad it would get,” recalls Hamid. “But for us, it was like more motivation to do this. Especially with coronavirus, there has never been more of a reason to press on. It’s so visible now that we need to change the way we eat to prevent more zoonotic diseases.”
So it was like a calling when Hamid and Growney stumbled across the bar looking for restaurateurs to bring in foodservice. “It was like a happy accident – we wanted veganism to go mainstream, and what better way to do it than in a bar?”
Big Dill, inside Espresso Martini bar, 123-125 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong; +852 5270 6777. Open 5PM until late normally, during Covid-19 government restrictions open 12PM until 9.30PM.
All images courtesy of Green Queen Media.