(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Chinese culture has always valued continuity and tradition and nowhere is this more apparent than in the traditional Chinese kitchen. Seniority determines where you stand in the pecking order and that has been the ironclad rule for generations. In Hong Kong, a new generation of chefs is bucking the trend. Young and relatively new to the profession, they hold leading positions in the industry and are making their voices heard. Armed with non-conservative perceptions of food and dining, and a different set of skills and passions, they have made a name for themselves and shown that there is more than one road to the top.
Owner, Tasting Court
The man behind this highly acclaimed restaurant is neither a chef nor a sommelier. Quincey Tang was literally born to eat. His father was the executive chef of The Chairman, a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong known for its artisanal ingredients and sophisticated technique. His ancestor was an imperial court official who followed the Song emperor into exile in southern China. Hence, Tang's rarefied taste buds are almost a birthright. When he opened Tasting Court, he recruited the best chefs who were willing to spend time researching old recipes dating back to as early as the Song dynasty. Tang even has a farm in the New Territories to grow his own produce. However, his love for Chinese food was rekindled only when he returned from Australia after spending the bulk of his youth there. At that time, the only Chinese food he remembered was the food served at Chinese wedding dinners and he was not even crazy about it.
Upon his return, his father started to re-educate him on the Chinese classics. His short stint at The Chairman as a service staff also helped expedite his knowledge acquisition.
One year ago, he started Tasting Court in Jordan, Kowloon. With the support of some of the senior chefs, it became an instant hit among foodies. Word quickly spread and securing a table became a challenge. He spared no expense in procuring top-quality ingredients from all over the world. The reason he did this is simple: Replicating old dishes is never easy and one therefore cannot compromise on quality. Even with the finest ingredients, it remains a constant challenge replicating the flavours of old and, very often, it entails round after round of food tasting and readjustments.
The drive to open Tasting Court is partly due to the falling standards of Chinese food. Many chefs have taken short cuts by relying on instant sauces and ready-cooked ingredients. In fact, some chefs have become so used to these instant foods that they have forgotten the basics of making stocks and sauces.
One of Tang's objectives in setting up Tasting Court was to create a platform to promote and create awareness of the finesse inherent in Cantonese cuisine. Naturally, everything in the kitchen is prepared from scratch. Some ingredients such as soya sauce and waxed meat are left to mature further in the restaurant's farm before making their way back to its kitchen.
So, be prepared when you are served a fresh tangerine stuffed with crab meat whose origins could well lay in the Song dynasty.
CHEF MAY CHOW
Owner of Little Bao, Second Draft and Happy Paradise; Best Female Chef on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list
Chef May Chow has a larger-than-life personality to match her biggest professional accolade thus far - being crowned the Best Female Chef on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2017.
Asked about her win, she says: "I was surprised when the organiser's office called to inform me about the award. On the other hand, there are not many prominent female chefs in Asia." She confided that the award came a few years earlier than she had expected, but felt it would help inspire female chefs in this male-dominated industry.
"It is a platform where I can share my personal experience, so that others can follow this path and achieve self-fulfilment in their lives," she adds.
While Little Bao gave Chow her first break in terms of recognition and acceptance, she has moved on to her other ventures - Second Draft and Happy Paradise. The latter represents new turf in the food and beverage industry where cool music and good food meet. Fusion may be a bad word these days, but the 33-year-old is keen to stretch the progressive boundaries by casting Chinese cooking and ingredients in a new light. "This space was offered to me as a platform where specially designed drinks and technique-driven Chinese cooking can come together. It is also a place where creation does not come from one person, but rather, a team with the same mindset," she says.
Little Bao was conceptualised as a marriage of Chinese and American culinary styles. The concept reflected Chow's journey: Raised in Hong Kong, she studied in the United States, where David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar was an inspiration. The concept of Chinese steamed buns as a burger, even sandwiched with ice cream, was an instant success when Chow first sold them at the Island East Weekend Market. That led to the opening of Little Bao followed by Second Draft - a Chinese gastropub in Tai Hang - with three partners.
It is common knowledge that running a food and beverage business in Hong Kong is extremely challenging because of high operating costs and a highly competitive environment. However, it did not stop Chow from injecting a sense of gastronomic adventure into Hong Kong's dining scene. She sees it this way: "Little Bao came too easy, so Happy Paradise is where I scout for new talents and explore new concepts in the global context. Hopefully, I can provide a platform for Asian chefs on the global stage."
CHEF CHAN KEI YING
Executive Chef, Shun De Kung Seafood Restaurant
Chan Kei Ying was conned into being a professional cook when a chef told him that the kitchen would bring him a higher salary than the service floor. Chan says: "When I was a teenager, I would take on any job that earned me more money. I started work in a McDonald's outlet and as a deliveryman, so the offer sounded lucrative." He eventually became a waiter at Shun De Kung Restaurant, where his father was a business partner and its operations manager.
Starting as an apprentice at the age of 17, he soon became bored with the long working hours and the repetitive nature of the job. He hardly interacted with anyone except in the kitchen. Furthermore, the workplace was hot, cramped and untidy.
Gradually, the art of cooking lured him. Chan comes from a family of martial arts masters from Shunde, his grandfather being a direct disciple of the legendary pugilist Yip Man. When times became tough, his father migrated to Hong Kong to work as a labourer. He picked up cooking along the way and, with some savings in hand, opened a restaurant with a group of friends. It became popular with the huge migrant population from Shunde. A saying goes that Shunde has produced the highest number of great Cantonese chefs in the world. Chan has taken full advantage of this august lineage: Not only does he return regularly to Shunde to learn from the masters, he also imports a wide selection of premium ingredients from his hometown for his cooking repertoire.
Most Asian chefs, particularly traditional Chinese chefs, have a natural aversion to stepping out of the kitchen to mingle with the guests. Chan was no different. But when he signed up for the prestigious Masterchef course in a local culinary school, he was taught more than just cooking. This course was highly popular among his peers in the industry, so entry requirements were high. One of the key components in the syllabus was public speaking, demonstration, and socialising with customers.
Chan feels this course changed his perception of his profession. Now, he readily comes out into the dining room to chat with customers and also appears on television and at food events, which raises his public profile.
More importantly, he has developed the spirit of innovation, moving from traditional food to creating new recipes. Traditionally, Shunde food centres on communal dining. Chan has adapted some of his dishes to the Western practice of individual plating. At 32, he heads the third branch of the 17-year-old chain of Shunde restaurants.
Being one of the youngest but the highest-ranking professional in the kitchen requires that he sets high standards for himself. He needs to impress the older cooks with his cooking techniques, interpersonal skills and new ideas. He makes the effort to be the first to arrive and the last to leave, to present a good example.
CHEF JAYSON TANG
Executive Chef, Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong
At the age of 30 last year, Jayson Tang became the youngest chef to attain the prestigious executive chef position in a five-star hotel in Hong Kong last year. Until then, it was an impossible feat, given the fiercely traditional Chinese kitchen, where seniority takes precedence above all else. "It wasn't easy the moment I stepped into the kitchen on my first day," shares chef Tang, a graduate of the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute. "Some of the chefs were older than me and had worked in the hotel industry longer than me." The challenge became how to change the mindset of these veterans, getting them to adapt to new dining trends and concepts. The only thing he could do was to set a high personal standard, hoping the old guard would be impressed with his approach and skills and, most importantly, that it would stir camaraderie in his crew.
Like most Chinese chefs, his early years were tough. A self-confessed slow learner, Tang began in a canteen kitchen. To most chefs, that is akin to a prison sentence - condemned to not ever seeing daylight. But Tang took it as an opportunity to learn, honing his skills to a level to land a post in the kitchen of Lee Garden. The environment was tough: Workflow was regimented and output had to be consistent, but that laid the groundwork for a disciplined attitude.
Like most chefs starting out, Tang saw a phase in his career when gaining media exposure and winning cooking competitions were top priorities. These days, he approaches food on the basis of taste followed by plating, doing away with gimmicks, emphasising on ingredients and substance. And he has two mentors to thank for this: The first is executive chef Dicky To of The Peninsula Tokyo, who helped him lay a solid culinary foundation.
The other, chef de cuisine Paul Lau of Tin Lung Heen, The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, inspired him in menu design, taught him to overcome work pressure and the importance of offering a complete dining experience. In fact, Lau was instrumental in guiding Tang on his career path, by advising him to wait for the right opportunity.
Tang knows that to stay at the top of his profession, there is no room for complacency. He recalls that even when he was cooking at a roadside food stall, he wore proper working attire instead of bermudas and flip-flops. He saved money to buy cookbooks and counts those written by Singapore chefs such as Sam Leong, Jereme Leung and Andre Chiang among his collection. "Cookbooks give me inspiration. The dishes stimulate my creativity and help me think out of the box," he says.
In the past, he added, Chinese chefs stressed traditional techniques and a hand-me-down approach to cooking, but Tang sees no boundaries to absorbing, learning and adapting cuisines from all ethnicities. "I always keep an open mind, so long as it gives me new ideas and I could assimilate Chinese philosophy into my cooking and present it with a modern twist."
With fame comes responsibility. Tang believes in rotating his team so that they would get to try out new roles and, in the process, become well-rounded and more empathetic towards their colleagues' predicaments. While he looks forward to his masterchef course with one of the leading culinary schools in Hong Kong, he is eager to present new ideas and innovative dishes and, most importantly, a complete and memorable dining experience with every meal.