Max Levy, head chef and co-founder of Okra Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a place full of talented and scheming people. Every week in 27 questions, we connect with the city's notable personalities, discovering their quirks, dislikes, crucial moments in life, hopes and dreams - all in about the same amount of time it takes to make a date. you quick two minutes. In this […]

Hong Kong is a place full of talented and scheming people. Every week in 27 questions, we connect with the city's notable personalities, discovering their quirks, dislikes, crucial moments in life, hopes and dreams - all in about the same amount of time it takes to make a date. you quick two minutes.

In this week's 27 questions, we met the chef and co-owner of Sai Ying Pun izakaya Okra, Max Levy, who recently took over as Culinary Director at one of Singapore's newest trade shows, Beats Bites & Cocktails.

Every night at the Sai Ying Pun Refuge, you'll see Levy running up the pass, pouring sake, slicing fish, preparing dishes - all while the protagonists of a Toshio Saeki's salty mural watch. The New Orleans native has a resume perhaps as quirky and fascinating as his choice of artwork: years before he opened Okra's kitchen and floor omakase sushi bar in 2015, Levy found himself in Tokyo as a tuna handler, worker in an eel farm, as well as a stint as a biodynamic salt producer, before returning to the United States to Alaska where he also quarreled over the salmon. He rose through the ranks at some of New York's most revered sushi counters, before heading back east where he started a number of culinary concepts in Beijing.

Levy has gradually made a name for himself with his homemade charcuterie and barbecue, recalling his southern roots and his fascination with Asian meat preservation techniques. He experimented with a Japanese menu with flavors of North China in the former Bei restaurant of The Opposite House; contemporary Creole cuisine and cocktails with homemade spirits and cold cuts at Apothecary Cocktails and Dining; then later, to pop-ups like Traitor Zhou, a non-kosher deli in Beijing's 798 Art District that served unusual dishes like bacon matzo ball soup.

He launched the Okra brand in Beijing as Okra 1949, a sushi and cocktail bar in Sanlitun that operated until 2017. Based in Hong Kong since 2015, Levy has also been involved in several meaty projects such as The Chicken Bar, known for its delicious fried chicken sandwiches; and Sausage engagement, a passion project created with the Thai-Australian grill maestro Siam Sattayaphan and focused on homemade charcuterie as diverse as northern Thailand sai oua Louisiana andouille sausages.

Dashi Bacon - Okra Hong Kong
Bacon Dashi in Okra Hong Kong.

In a year characterized by remote working, Levy has also glanced at a new project in Singapore - he is now also the Culinary Director of Beats Bites & Cocktails, although he will remain in Hong Kong for the post. With this rendezvous, our neighbors in Lion City can now munch on Okra Hong Kong favorites such as the popular eggplant nanbanzuke and tender smoked mala ribs.

In the midst of these events, we sit down and get to know the chef on a more personal level - discussing everything from his upbringing to the wise words he received from his role models; his obsession with time; and the most curious guestlist for her dream dinner.

Last name: Max Levy

Age: 42

District: Sai Ying Pun

Occupation: Chef and Co-Owner of Okra Hong Kong, Culinary Director of Beats Bites & Cocktails Singapore

1. What was your first job?

My first job was to work as a dishwasher at Downstairs at Eric's, a pizzeria in Breckenridge, Colorado. I was 12 years old.

2. What is your favorite drink?

Sake.

3. What is the best meal you have ever had in Hong Kong?

It's tough, but I think the best meal I've had this year should be at Your life, the food and hospitality of Hideaki and his wife Hiromi is truly unmatched in Hong Kong.

4. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Canned razor clams.

5. What is your greatest guilty pleasure?

A McDonald's Angus mushroom burger.

6. What does your typical Sunday look like?

Coffee and breakfast, then kettlebell workout and lastly we're heading to Sai Kung beach which is usually followed by a casual dinner at Yè Shanghai or Pica pica.

Sando Chicken - Okra Hong Kong
Sando Chicken in Okra Hong Kong.

7. If you could invite five people from around the world to your dream dinner, who would they be?

Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Greta Thunberg, DMX and Haruki Murakami. I gave them a live sheep, a carrot and a Zippo and let them discover the menu. I don't have much opportunity to go to dinner parties so it's all about entertainment.

8. If you could ban someone from Hong Kong forever, who would it be?

Anyone who treats or judges someone differently, based on their skin color or where they were born.

9. Where do you go when you want to be alone?

I just walk the streets. There are so many people that it can be the loneliest place in the world.

10. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?

WeChat - it makes you feel like you're using WhatsApp like a Blackberry.

11. What is your biggest regret in life?

Not being more patient with my family when I was younger.

12. What is your favorite childhood memory?

Walk barefoot everywhere.

13. What is one thing that you never told your parents?

If I revealed it here and they read it, then what? After my mother died, I always told my father everything that happened. I always let him know that I might have a hangover and not be able to call tomorrow. We don't agree on everything, but I don't have much to hide.

14. What is your favorite scent around the world?

Louisiana honeysuckle.

15. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?

Louisiana is the “land of rice,” so I grew up eating a lot of rice and making it in my house was reserved only for my father. I've been studying sushi rice since I was 17 (almost 25 now), so I always enjoy doing it well.

Okra - Koji rice pudding
Koji rice pudding in Okra Hong Kong.

16. Your favorite coffee order?

Sale (a double espresso with cold milk for the "champion" coffees who refuse to prepare it). It reminds me of the latte coffee I grew up with in New Orleans.

17. What is your biggest fear?

That I'm wasting my time.

18. Who is the best teacher you have ever had, what is an important lesson they have taught you?

[Sushi master] Naomichi Yasuda. "Your only real competitor is yourself."

19. What's your unique party tip?

My unique party thing was to drink an entire bottle of sake in one sip. Now it only expresses me with my eyebrows.

20. Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Tell us about it.

Second sight. I married her. I met her for about 20 seconds five years ago in Beijing, but I only remember meeting her and nothing more. We both met up in Ibiza for a friend's birthday in 2018. As soon as I saw her, I knew she would be moving to Hong Kong soon, or that I would move to Barcelona.

21. What is the scariest thing you have ever done and why?

Take JFK's last smoking flight to Beijing on my own, to China in the midst of SARS.

Max Levy (Image credit: Izaskun Levy)

22. Do you have any favorite tattoos or special birthmarks? What is that?

I don't like to think too much about my tattoos and prefer them to be representative of me by the time I get them. A friend was visiting a few years ago and was doing work by a "really, really famous guy" and she asked me to come in and out. When they were done they said I should get one too as it was very difficult to book. "Sure." "What do you want?" he says. I put my hands in my pocket to think about it and noticed my 759 membership card and pulled it out. There was a picture of Thomas the Train on it and I said “I want Thomas in a balloon”. The guy was so pissed off, but he did it anyway. It never fails to make people smile when they see it, and that's all that matters.

23. What is your favorite tradition?

Halloween.

24. What was the best gift you have ever received?

Time. I am always honored and happy when people choose to take time out or spend time with me.

25. Would you rather never be alone for a moment, or be alone for the rest of your life? Why?

I have no problem with either, but I prefer to spend the rest of my life with my wife.

26. A genius makes you three wishes - what are they?

1. That there are no more questions; 2. More time; 3. That the film “Idiocracy” does not come true.

27. If you could start over, what would you do differently?

Smoke tobacco better and drink more water.


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