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Entering a new generation of restaurants reimagining Cantonese cuisine, YAO, by Chef-Owner Kenny Leung and Co-Owner Thomas Tang of the acclaimed August Gatherings, will be an evolution of the beloved dishes cultivated there over the years, along with new creations and their unparalleled dedication to culinary excellence and service.
Chef Kenny’s journey began at the tender age of 15 when he immersed himself in a government culinary program in Canton, China, delving deep into the artistry of Cantonese cuisine. His formative years were spent honing fundamental skills, complimented by an apprenticeship in Canton Culinary School. After graduating, Chef Kenny flourished at Canton’s prestigious White Swan Hotel and Restaurant, an institution revered for its Cantonese gastronomy; it was the only restaurant to earn a Michelin Star when Michelin Guide graced Guangzhou, China. There, he collaborated with acclaimed chefs from diverse provinces, exposing him to various cuisine techniques. In 1988, he moved to New York City, venturing into the bustling culinary landscape and further enhancing his culinary repertoire. In 2015, he co-founded August Gatherings with Thomas Tang.
Thomas Tang, Owner-Operator, has been immersed in hospitality since he was a child. He grew up as the son of one of China’s top chefs who catered for regal events. Thomas shopped in the local markets with his father for the best ingredients which were used in the elaborate banquets that his father would prepare for his clientele. As he matured into an adult, Thomas moved to New York City to set his own course in the culinary industry. He met Chef Kenny while working together in the original location of August Gatherings. The two became fast friends and decided to join forces to purchase the Canal Street location of August Gatherings and have been partners ever since.
For YAO, Chef Kenny and his team of 20 cooks will create a canvas for showcasing the past, present, and future of Cantonese cuisine. Center to the YAO’s ethos are the crown jewels of Cantonese cuisine, abalone, sea cucumber, and fish maw—textures less familiar to the American palate—emphasizing their gelatinous, chewy nature and remarkable nutritional value.
Chef Kenny’s modern innovations and standout signature dishes include the Traditional Chinese Salt-Baked Free-Range Chicken. Although Chef maintains the tradition of the dish, he modernizes it by air drying the chicken, then wrapping it in parchment paper and manually basting it in an old and new salt combination (the old for smokiness, the new for saltiness) then slow-baking it for one-and-a-half hours, producing a bird that is tender, moist, and rich in flavor. It is presented to the diner in an ornate clay pot, then cut and portioned by the server. The Fusilli with Wild Octopus and Bone Marrow is a nod to the chef’s admiration for Italian cuisine. The dish is innovated by braising the noodles instead of frying them. He creates a tomato-based sauce made with fresh Chinese salted fish instead of anchovy giving it an umami flavor. He then adds a cilantro and oyster sauce made from dried oysters and bone marrow, enriching the depth of flavors into the noodles. For the Fried Rice with Roasted Eel, Chef Kenny wraps the rice in an egg wash so the rice adheres to the grain, creating a soft texture. This technique was used for the kings of ancient China. Chef Kenny uses a long-grain Jasmine rice from Thailand and a short-grain rice from Japan. Dry-Aged Tomahawk Steak, a classic Western dish that has a Cantonese twist by using black salt to harmonize the richness of the steak. He then creates a special sauce infused with red wine and hibiscus, combining traditional techniques with modern flavors. The Portuguese Egg Custard Tart, the chef’s gem, is a very sentimental dish to Chef Kenny, as it brings back childhood memories. It takes eight hours of preparation to hand-kneed the dough into more than 20 layers. For the egg preparation, he uses fresh, local milk and farm raised eggs to prepare the perfect custard and is then caramelized Portuguese style. August Gatherings sells more than 500 tarts daily.
Chef Kenny has also created a tasting menu, named “Jia Yan”, a Chinese word loosely translating to “a celebratory family gathering” or “banquet”. The tasting menu begins with an amuse bouche, a refreshing chilled Jellyfish with balsamic, wasabi, and tangerine. The banquet continues with Fried Abalone wrapped in Gold Leaf, sustainably sourced grade-6 wild abalone from South Africa that is deep-fried, sitting atop a housemade sauce on a crispy wonton skin, wrapped in edible gold leaf. This creates several layers of texture, notable in Cantonese cuisine. Shrimp Dumplings with Black Truffle is a complex play on the traditional Chinese dumpling. It is made by combining charcoal and bamboo from Japan, grounded for two weeks to produce a black color. The filling is made with head-on shrimp, which is then shelled and hand-minced to create texture through aeration. The broth is created with free-range chicken stock boiled for two days using 10 pounds of chicken to 10 pounds of water and chef’s herbs and spices, making for a golden, sparkly broth. It is finished with shaved black truffle and served in beautiful pottery from Spain. One of the main stars of the progression is the Crab Meat Wensi Soup, which Chef Kenny uses immaculate knife skills to create razor-thin slices of tofu, taking hours of preparation, producing 800-1000 identical slices of tofu in each portion. The broth is a two-day production, made from the shell of the crab with ham and chicken, not boiled, then placed in a water bath. The meat from the crab is then pulled from the shell and hand cut in large chunks and added to the soup. Short Rib is tenderized with kiwi, drizzled tableside in a pear and oyster sauce. Fish Maw is a jewel in Cantonese cuisine, aspired for its health properties and richness in collagen. The fish maw is pan-seared, giving it a crispy shell with a soft, tender interior. It is then laid on a bed of Hong Kong style longevity noodles, imported from Hong Kong, and wild mushrooms that are cooked with olive oil and infused with abalone sauce. The final course of the progression is their seasonal signature dessert, a warm Deep Fried Mochi Sesame Ball filled with Red Bean Paste served on top of a homemade seasonal fuji apple sorbet, providing a contrast in flavors and temperatures.
Beverage Director: Michael Goff will be creating a concise and tightly curated wine and cocktail list, utilizing his extensive culinary background, working with the likes of Chef Markus Glocker at Koloman and Tuxedo Hospitality Group (Chinese Tuxedo). Michael also served as head bartender at Le Crocodile in Brooklyn. Michael holds a degree as a Certified Spirits Educator from WSET/Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
Pastry Chef: Zhihan Luo holds a master’s degree in strategic communication from Columbia University. Growing up watching her aunts make cakes, breads, and pizzas and often joining them in the preparation, as an adult, she returned to her roots and delved into researching how to bake, often lingering into the late-night hours. She bid farewell to her corporate role and embarked on a new journey, enrolling in the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in downtown New York City, earning a degree as a pastry chef. She then began her career in the pastry department at Jean-Georges, a prestigious Michelin starred French restaurant.
Interior: Every detail of YAO’s interior reflects the harmonious blend of Chef Kenny’s culinary art and meticulous eye for design. As you enter, there is a reception area with a green jade fountain and copper crane sculptures, which represents longevity in Chinese culture. Adjacent to the reception is a private dining area, named the Summit Room. The large bar area is graced with a grand Yingde Stone, one of the four famous types of Chinese scholar stones native to the Guangdong province of China. In the main dining room stands the iconic copy of the painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival”, a depiction of the capital city during the Song Dynasty by painter Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145). Also on display in the main dining room are porcelain buddha statues, each representing a different meaning essential to the fabric of Chinese ideology, including patience and fortune. The Garden Room features 34-foot-high ceilings, which can be extended to accommodate 50 guests. Also, YAO has incorporated the use of robotic servers to assist the wait staff in expediting orders and allowing more time for the wait staff to educate diners about the menu.