Turning in his power suit for an apron, DB’s John Agusto Rocha has reinvented himself as a cooking instructor and Macanese cuisine evangelist. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
John Agusto Rocha is a walking conundrum. “I’m Eurasian but I don’t know how to speak Portuguese,” begins the Hong Kong-born, self- taught cooking instructor of Chinese and Portuguese descent. “I don’t know how to use chopsticks. I don’t cook Chinese very well. I don’t have a wok at home. I do modern Chinese, to which my mother says, ‘This is not Chinese,’” he admits with a self-aware chuckle.
But he’s forgiven for those minor lapses. After all, John’s on a mission to spread the good word about that other Mediterranean cuisine, and help Macanese food secure a place in the culinary canon.
The blogger and, as of seven months ago, teacher is perched on a stool in Joyce Chow’s The Cooking Alley in Quarry Bay. He looks in his element. A tiny bit of grey graces the temple but the otherwise youthful chef lounges (as easefully as is humanly possible), surrounded by stainless steel workbenches, industrial freezers and chicken breasts. If he’s itching to mince the peeled garlic in a nearby bowl, he doesn’t show it.
Beyond home cooking
After a career in corporate marketing and brand management, and as the boss of his own business, John heeded his gastronomic calling two years ago, ditching a brief semi-retirement.
“I thought I wanted to enjoy my life, travel, but I didn’t want to look like one of ‘those’ types. Facebook can be a bit showy,” he notes, referring to obnoxious social media presences who add nothing to the conversation. “Then I thought why not do something different? I wanted to investigate my background, so I decided to do a family tree, but not just with a list of names. Why not use food to connect all my lost relatives?”
Though the relatives turned out to be less enthusiastic than John, the idea did kick off a project on Portuguese and Macanese heritage cooking. His Facebook page and blog share recipes, history and food anecdotes, while pointing out that food, wine and people go together naturally and always have. “You can’t separate them,” he says. “I want to tell people in Hong Kong that we’re overlooking the very basic pleasures of food.”
That’s something John hopes to convey in the book he has planned for 2018. “You don’t need to go to a fancy restaurant all the time. A nice fish shared with friends or family is perfect. That’s the message I want to convey in my book,” he says. “Sharing is loving.”
Sharing is one of the reasons John’s been living in Discovery Bay for the past 10 years – sharing and two elderly dogs. A long stretch in Central’s rat race got to be too much a decade ago and he decided to “take it down a notch” by selling his business and making the move.
“A lot of people say once you go to DB, there’s no going back. I love it, and I didn’t think I would,” John says. “It’s just so different from Hong Kong. I enjoy going to the island for a night of shopping and dining, and everything is so busy, but once you get to the pier it’s like going someplace else.” He likes the fact that regular supermarket staff and bus drivers will drop a quick hello. “DB is different like that.”
Hail to the chef
Since John’s blog was such a hit, cooking classes were the logical next step. Now his work takes him around the city spreading Portuguese food love. “I don’t know why it’s been overlooked,” John says. “I’m a bookworm, and the more I look into it, I’m noticing Portuguese cuisine isn’t getting any recognition as a Mediterranean cuisine.”
In seven months, John’s taught 80 classes in four locations (like The Cooking Alley), in English and Chinese, for corporate and consumer learners. And he likes to keep it simple. Conjuring up recipes he learnt from his avo (grandmother), John’s philosophy is if you can’t duplicate it at home – in 30 minutes – he’s failed. A story about trying to master a Swiss roll ends with a hearty eye roll and dismissive wave.
John wants his students and Facebook fans to enjoy themselves and happily tweaks his traditional concoctions with local tastes, ingredients and schedules in mind. “Portuguese people love gatherings. They’ll find any excuse to have a party,” he stresses. “I’ve always believed that if you need to spend three or four hours making dinner, you may as well spend your money at a restaurant. Home cooking is all about enjoyment.”
Enjoyment begs the question of alternatives for John. When he’s not working, he’s relaxing with his dogs, learning Portuguese, or dining with friends. Portuguese- style suckling pig is a favourite. “I like the whole idea of it – from the way it’s prepared to the moment it’s served. It’s got that sharing message. It’s made with just salt, parsley, black pepper and lard. That’s it. The skin is paper-thin crispy.”
John travels too, frequently to Bangkok, a favourite for its adventures and receptiveness to new ideas. And is it Babette’s Feast or Eat Drink Man Woman at the top of his food movie list? Julia Roberts’ pasta adventure in Eat Pray Love is up there, as is (no surprise) food blogger biopic Julie and Julia. And it was a Japanese television series, The Emperor’s Cook, which originally inspired the Macanese heritage cooking project.
If all goes well with the forthcoming book, volume two will feature more “creative cooking” – like tom yam risotto – and of course vanishing Macanese specialities. “I fear that in 20 years Macanese cuisine will be gone, so at least I’ll have a record. My book will be out there,” John finishes with a shrug while pondering the future beyond the next class. “I don’t know where this will take me but life is short. You can’t be too rational sometimes.”
Ten-year DB resident John Agusto Rocha hosts Macanese/ Portuguese cooking classes across Hong Kong, and each week at The Cooking Alley in Quarry Bay (3168 6868). He shares recipes on his Facebook blog (@eufoodjourney), and you can follow him on Instagram (@eurasianfoodjourney). To try out some of his recipes, click here.Tags: food, macanese cuisine, db chef, john agusto