Karl Whelan and Will Dempsey are 12-year-old first-year students at Terenure College in Dublin in 1991. They share a desk – and an inclination for messing – and a lifelong friendship is forged. Their academic paths will diverge when Whelan leaves school early and heads to catering college.
Dempsey graduates, trains as an ECG technician, goes to work for his dad’s medical equipment company in a sales and marketing role, then segues into a career in the entertainment industry, booking acts and running stages at music festivals such as Body & Soul.
Whelan’s career as a chef takes him to Germany, Australia and to France, before he returns to Dublin, working in Cooke’s Cafe, Chapter One and then Fade Street Social, before becoming executive head chef at SMS Sue and Luna.
2012: Decades have passed, but the two are still good friends, with a shared appreciation of good food, particularly Chinese food, as well as music and film. They've shared flats, and stayed in touch even when working in different countries. Now they have a plan, and it is to open a Chinese restaurant in Dublin – when they find the right premises.
It's going to be called Hang Dai, meaning brothers, or like-minded partners, the inspiration coming from a repeated refrain in the HBO series Deadwood, of which they are both huge fans.
August 2014: Several premises have been investigated and discounted, but now Dempsey finds an interesting opportunity in Dublin's up-and-coming Camden Street. "The place was in a mess. There was a lot of work needed," he says, but they both like the vibe on the street, and the former Camden Jewellers at No 20 is where they want their restaurant to be. Negotiations begin.
February 2015: The deal is done, and work starts on the extension and renovation of the building. It won't be easy, and there are pitfalls or "speedbumps", as Dempsey calls them, along the way.
Design company Twisted Image is hired to bring the pair's vision to life – Blade Runner, Chinese style – is the initial brief. Builder Kieron Byrne, who worked on the Richmond restaurant nearby, is signed up to do the construction work.
Shush, a specialist soundproofing company, is involved too, because the restaurant will have a strong music element to its offering. After dinner, cocktails and good music will take over from the food. Dempsey has designed a custom-made analog sound system and it is being crafted by specialist Toby Hatchett in west Cork.
January 2016: There's a third amigo in the gang, restaurateur John Farrell. It's midwinter in Dublin, but they're escaping the short, dark days and the restaurant off-season to travel to China for 3½ weeks. Farrell is onboard as design consultant and adviser. "That was always the understanding, even before Karl went into Super Miss Sue – that Karl was helping John out and then John would help us," Dempsey says.
The trio are visiting Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong to do menu research and in particular to learn the secrets of how to prepare Beijing duck in a wood-fired oven.
Tom Lyons, deputy editor of the Sunday Business Post and a school friend of Whelan's, has put them in touch with his brother Dr Mark Lyons, who is global vice-president and head of Greater China at Alltech, based in Beijing.
Lyons gives them intros to all the best restaurants in Beijing, but the real breakthrough comes when they chat with their driver, and ask him where he likes to eat. Plans for that night’s fancy dinner are shelved and instead they eat “the best kung po chicken of my life”, according to Dempsey, in a backstreet joint.
They also make it to Li Qun in Beijing, famous for its roast duck. "Once you navigate the alleyway and walk through the PVC walk-in fridge flaps, you enter the world of wall-to-wall duck. You are greeted by a large, open brick oven with ducks roasting in it," Whelan says. Duck prepared this way will be "a cornerstone" of their menu in Dublin.
Dempsey’s logistics training springs into action, and the trio find themselves eating at least five meals a day in all three cities, relying on local contacts to get them to the best, most authentic places to eat. An outline of what will become Hang Dai is taking shape.
June 2016: Back home, word is out that the trio are planning a Chinese restaurant and music bar that will be a completely new departure for Dublin. I start asking questions, and we agree that I will chart the progress of the restaurant right up to opening day, expected at this stage to be some time in September.
A few days later, a video pops into my WhatsApp account of a plump chicken on the end of a metal pole being being swung into a redbrick oven fired by flaming wood. It is a trial run of the bespoke duck oven destined for the restaurant. The oven has been constructed at an industrial estate in Kilbarrack.
“Really good first run. Super happy. Ready to do the first ducks now. Flavour off the charts,” is the message from Whelan.
August 2nd: We are in M&L Sichuan restaurant on Catherdral Street, just off O'Connell Street. Dempsey and Whelan are regulars here – it's one of the places they first began to explore the "off-menu" options in Chinese restaurants.
“This all comes back to Will’s accupuncturist, Nina,” Whelan says. She has returned to Hong Kong now, but when she was working at Melt in Temple Bar, Nina gave the pair – who used to drive around town picking up specific dishes from various restaurants rather than just order takeaway from one place – the inside track on where to find authentic Chinese food in Dublin.
“She would write things out for us in Chinese and I’d come in here with a list and hand it to the owner, Angie, and all the food would come out then,” Dempsey says.
“Nelson, the waiter used to say ‘too spicy for you’ and we’d say no, bring it to us. They have a Chinese menu, and there is more secret stuff. We’re still working our way through the menu here,” Dempsey says.
November 4th: September has come and gone, and October too, and one delayed opening email message after another has arrived in my inbox – nothing specific, just the usual snags that crop up with a big build.
But today, it’s day two of soft opening. After a family only trial run the night before, Hang Dai is welcoming 120 guests tonight, 70 for dinner (it seats only 55) and a further 50 for drinks later on.
It’s lunchtime when I arrive, and to be honest, the place looks like a bomb has hit it. There’s miscellaneous stuff everywhere, builders are still at work, and when I take a look into kitchen porter Leo Crixi’s domain, there’s a terrifying mountain of filthy pots, pans and kitchen equipment on every surface. The sound system, Dempsey’s pride and joy, is being tweaked, and it’s not easy on the ears.
The premises is big – upstairs there are two floors of offices, staff rooms and what will become another bar and a private dining area. One room has been entirely clad in reclaimed rough-hewn timber and kitted out like a replica of Ian McShane's office in Deadwood (they really are big fans of the 1800s Western series).
Working diligently amid the chaos is bar manager Gill Boyle, who is preparing the syrups, sherbets and infusions that will go into the cocktails. General manager Aoife Walshe, formerly of Fade Street Social, is dispensing a cocktail of her own making, Aoife's Mega Mix – Solpadeine, Berocca and Dioraltye dissolved in water – to anyone that needs a bit of help after the previous night's party and late finish. Floor staff member Avril Dowling is everywhere – hoovering, tidying, and turning chaos to order.
By 5pm, things are starting to take shape and the room begins to look more like a functioning restaurant. At the staff meal (fried rice and an Asian salad), Walshe briefs her service team. “We’re all in this together, we’re all new at this,” she says. “We’re here to have the best fun we can, under these specific circumstances.”
Walshe has been working 20-hour days in the run-up to opening. But it hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm. “In any other job you’d give out about it, here you wear it like a badge of honour. You work harder for people that value your opinion.”
As 6pm rolls around, the tables are all set up and those glossy, mahogany skinned ducks are starting to appear out of the oven.
A call for the first-aid kit turns heads, but it’s just a plaster that’s required for one of the floor staff who has cut his finger on a broken bowl. Back in the wash-up room, Leo has mastered his mountain of dirty dishes and is ready for the next round.
Minutes before the first guests are due to arrive, Whelan gives his kitchen team a final run-through, and they put on their pristine white aprons. “Fourteen minutes to go and you’re not even in your uniform,” he admonishes a passing staff member.
Right on cue, the first to arrive are ushered to their tables, the music is turned up, and it’s game on . . .
Tuesday, November 8th: The shutters come up for real and Dublin newest and coolest Chinese restaurant and music bar is open for business.
HANG DAI: MODERN CHINESE FOOD AND GREAT MUSIC
Behind a modest black-painted shopfront on busy Camden Street, distinguishable by the large red Chinese letters above the entrance, there’s a small reception area, the walls clad in faux jade marble.
A red and gold lucky laughing cat is waving from a counter beside a stack of menus, and through a small hatch window, glimpses can be caught of chefs in black tee-shirts, toiling away in a stainless steel kitchen.
So far, so traditional Chinese takeaway. But head through the tacky plastic strip curtain, and it’s a different story. “We’re in Camden Street, in the middle of the day, but you could be on the moon, in 2050,” is how executive head chef and co-owner Karl Whelan describes his new restaurant.
The colour scheme in the long narrow windowless room is predominantly black and red, once you’ve passed through the kitchen area, where rows of roasted ducks behind glass screen the prep area from the entrance.
Passing by the giant wood-burning oven, with its cavernous interior stacked with rows of glistening ducks, roasting to a mellow burnished bronze, one side of the room is taken up by seating booths designed to look like a subway train carriage, complete with grab bars and backlit advertising panels, in Chinese of course. There’s a mirrored bar on the other side, and at the end of the room, a DJ booth.
It’s a lot to take in, and that’s before Whelan wheels out the machine he uses to separate the skin from the flesh of the ducks he is cooking, to get the authentic crisp skin finish to the Skeaghanore birds.
“It’s an air compressor, used in dentistry. The bird inflates like a balloon and if you keep inflating it, you can see the fat cells explode and you get this sort of honeycomb effect on some of it, so when it cooks up some of it is super-thin and crispy, and some of it is puffed up like a chicharrón [deep-fried pork rind]. It’s mind blowing, I couldn’t believe it,” Whelan says.
The ducks are glazed repeatedly with “a secret recipe” mixture that involves hoi sin, ginger, coriander, spring onion, salt, sugar and five spice, and in between being painted with the glaze, they spend the best part of a day in a fridge rigged up with fans, to dry the skin to a parchment-like texture.
“We’ve taken some parts of the Beijing method and some parts of the Cantonese method, so it’s become a sort of a hybrid,” Whelan says.
The oven can accommodate up to four ducks at a time, and the roasting, over a mix of ash and apple wood, takes 50 minutes. “A little bit hotter for a bit less time and it’s coming out pink and really juicy,” Whelan says.
The whole or half roast duck must be pre-ordered when booking a table, and is delivered over three courses. First, duck broth – a crystal clear consommé – is served with Chinese pickles. “The flavour of the broth is off the scale,” Whelan says. This is followed by the legs, served Cantonese style, chopped, on the bone, drenched in a mix of cooking juices and sweet soy. Then you get the breasts sliced paper thin, with crispy skin, pancakes, spring onion, cucumber and cherry hoi sin.
Early intentions to serve the duck feet and tongues have been put on hold after menu testing. “Irish people don’t really go for the feet at all. The tongues were really, really good, but I have to sort out how to get them in Ireland.”
The menu isn’t just about duck though. There’s a snacks section, from which the prawn toast with yuzu mayo is proving a hit. Starters include soups, duck yuk sung, lacquered aubergine, and pork dumplings, as well as a couple of less traditional dishes such as steak tartare with sesame, daikon and red onion, and scallop ceviche with soy beans and soy dressing.
A wok and steam section has sea bass, beef hot pot, dry fried pork belly, roast cod with ginger, prawns in fermented chilli sauce, dry fried green beans with pork, kung po chicken and braised pork cheek. The oven will also be used to roast char sui, made with Iberico pork neck. “It’s a fun place, but the food is refined and it is elegant, we’ve done a lot of work on it ,” Whelan says.
He intends to retain his position as executive head chef at Luna, and fill the same position at Hang Dai, and his secret weapon in achieving this aim is his Chinese head chef, Bibo Yang, who has worked at the excellent China Sichuan in Sandyford.
There’s clearly a lot riding on this venture for the co-owners, but they’ve surrounded themselves with a handpicked team that seem to be as invested in the project as they are. “The Hang Dai thing – got your back – really means something to everyone involved here now. This is the fifth time I’ve opened a place, for various people,” Whelan says, admitting that this time “it’s a very different feeling”.
Hang Dai, 20 Lower Camden Street, Dublin 2, is open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm-11pm. See hangdaichinese.com