Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef



The chef-owner of Empress by Boon is on a mission to positively contribute to the world's Cantonese culinary culture while introducing its cuisine to as many people as possible, one dish at a time.

For years, the Grant Building in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown hosted one of the area’s most famed banquet halls, Empress of China. After lying dormant for an extended period, the chic venue underwent renovation and rejuvenation in 2021. Empress By Boon took over the top floor, where guests seated along the room’s perimeter are treated to breathtaking city views. If you’re here for dinner, you get to witness a romantic scene of the Bay that’s laid out before you: warm lights line up the streets of Chinatown below, with a peach-perfect sunset sky as the backdrop.

Empress by Boon, Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef
Empress By Boon’s sophisticated interiors

At this Michelin Guide-listed restaurant, dinner unfolds as a dynamic prix-fixe experience, ideal for groups rather than solitary diners. The meal starts you off with a series of vibrant entrées — largely due to their theatrical presentations. The first of which makes its entrance on dry-ice: a personal bowl containing chilled abalone with fresh figs and pears. The refreshing cold dish is followed by delightful flaky bites of crispy lobster puff and scallop and Keluga caviar on a crunchy wafer-thin roll.

The quirky presentation returns in the form of koi fish-shaped dumplings filled with shrimp and prawn along with tom yum soup, which has subtle yet sharp sour and spicy flavours. Next, a simple arrangement of braised squab breast in rose wine makes a generous finish before a serving of communal dishes.

“My culinary philosophy is to help guests create lasting memories by serving authentic, inspired cuisine that showcases and celebrates Cantonese food,” said Chef Ho Chee Boon, when asked what he sought to communicate in his food when introducing such elevated Chinese gastronomy to the average patron in America. “Cantonese cuisine is characterised by its emphasis on the original taste and combination of food, as well as a small amount but wide variety of spices, such as ginger, garlic, five-spice powder, and white pepper.”

Empress by Boon, Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef
Chef Ho Chee Boon

From Malaysia to the world

It’s evident how Chef Ho has prepared these familiar dishes at an elevated level through the use of fresh local ingredients and traditional cooking techniques to create innovative dishes that are exciting and adventurous — especially in a country where chicken fingers and French fries are common dinner go-tos.

Those acquainted with Hakkasan restaurants and their opulent design themes and contemporary Cantonese cuisine might experience a sense of familiarity at Empress: Chef Ho previously served as the group’s international executive chef. Originally from Malaysia, Ho contributed to the establishment of several acclaimed Hakkasan restaurants worldwide. Noteworthy among these are Hakkasan Hanway Place in London, Hakkasan Mumbai, Hakkasan Dubai, as well as locations in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ling-ling in Morocco, Yauatcha Soho in London, Turandot in Moscow, and Breeze in Bangkok.

In 2012, he transitioned to the United States to spearhead the launch of Hakkasan New York and similar ventures in other American cities. Following the success of Empress by Boon, in October 2023, the chef launched Blue Whale, his latest restaurant-lounge concept which focuses on Asian cuisines. “This restaurant was created because of my Malaysian-born background, and I wanted to create an elevated but fun and relaxing dining concept that reflects my travel and experiences,” he said.

Empress by Boon, Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef
Malaysia rojak served at Blue Whale

Yet Ho believes in innovation and experimentation in the traditional fare. “I want to make sure, today, everyone is able to be exposed to the tradition by mixing cultural familiarity with modern techniques and trends,” he said. “During my years cooking Cantonese cuisine, I have learned to create new dishes that are cooked properly with Cantonese techniques but retain the most flavour.”

And after almost four decades, Chef Ho doesn’t plan on putting on the brakes yet. For the veteran chef, food is a love language. “After opening 20 restaurants around the world, my biggest inspiration is that while every region has a unique culture, food is a universal language that everyone can accept and connect easily,” he said. “This is why I will continue to open more restaurants around the world — to share the language of food.”

Empress by Boon, Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef
Blue Whale’s Roasted Chicken with Cumin

When asked what one area that the restaurant industry can still work towards? “Being in the restaurant industry for years, we have gone through a lot of ups and downs such as the pandemic and the news targeting San Francisco,” he said. “Though I cannot speak on behalf of every restaurant, we are constantly working and helping the community by supporting local or family-owned suppliers.”

“For example, we have been sourcing our well-known Peking Duck from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, which is a fourth-generational family-owned duck farm, and we have been creating a seasonal menu based on what’s available at our local farm in Gilroy. I believe in the restaurants and local suppliers working together to help bring out delicious food to our community,” he shares.

Empress by Boon, Empress By Boon: San Francisco’s Best Cantonese Cuisine is by a Malaysian-born chef
The Bar at Empress

Ho continues, “Prioritising fairness and respect for the community is also very important to me. I always spend a lot of time getting to know the community and the city where all my restaurants are located to understand the local culture and customs.”

“Our staff at Empress by Boon represents the demographic of the local community with a mix of white, African-American, Asian, Mexican, and Chinese-European. We are a very happy family and that closeness and care for one another spreads throughout the community we serve,” he adds.


Text by: Katherine Arteche
Images: Empress by Boon and Blue Whale





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