Top Chinese chefs in Hong Kong encourage a new generation to aim high
Long hours, English proficiency and a fair amount of elbow grease are necessary, but a lucrative career as a high-end chef in a Chinese restaurant is achievable for those willing to go the distance
The stereotype of Chinese chefs with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, spouting coarse language and wearing singlets while standing over their woks has dissipated in the past few years, thanks to a new generation of top chefs.
One such chef is Mango Tsang, Chinese executive chef at Cordis Hong Kong in Mong Kok.
One of the first things the 60-year-old told students recently at the Chinese Culinary institute in Pok Fu Lam was that his salary is HK$1 million a year, and they too could make a decent living in the restaurant industry if they work hard.
“I certainly told them that and in fact I make more than HK$1 million including bonuses,” Tsang says later that day. “I want to give them some motivation. We need the younger ones to move up, because I’m going to retire in a few years.”
Tsang has spent more than 40 years in the kitchen, starting at the age of 14 in Loong Wah in Sha Tin. “I liked to cook and I thought I did an OK job. You must have an interest in this field because it’s hot, noisy, wet and dirty.”
He recalls decades ago starting out just wearing a singlet, shorts and clogs when he toiled at a dai pai dong called Sun Kee in Jordan.
“Working in Chinese cuisine is not like Western – you must start from the bottom up. You have to be able to work the long hours, 365 days a year. When I started working decades ago, we had no holidays and earned a little more than HK$2,000 a month. If you wanted a day off, you had to find someone to replace you and pay HK$10 to make this change to the roster.”
Looking back, Tsang says he had a pretty smooth career path, grabbing opportunities as they came to him. At 35 years of age he became executive Chinese chef at the (now-closed) Furama Hong Kong Hotel, working there for more than 20 years, then at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, which at the time was in Central, for six years, as well as a string of other top hotels in the city.
He stresses that if young cooks today want to get ahead, they need to be proficient in English. “When I worked at the Furama Hotel, the department meetings were conducted in English so I had to be able to communicate,” he says. “I learned by listening to English songs by The Carpenters, The Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel. I would listen to the music and check the translation of the lyrics.”
As one of the top chefs in the city, looking after Cordis’ two-Michelin-star restaurant Ming Court, Tsang says there are not enough young people going into the business, and even fewer into high-end Chinese restaurants.
“While it’s good they go through the culinary institute, some are lazy and choose the easy route and work in a cha chaan teng. That’s because they find working in a hotel is tough; you need to invest more time in the job, but you can take courses to better yourself and career. Other [young cooks] would rather play mah jong.”
As the Vocational Training Council’s programme manager for Chinese catering and operations, Pierre Lau Wai-ping invites chefs to come to the school at least once a month, where they demonstrate how to prepare a dish and then give a talk.
“They encourage the students and prepare them for what they will face, expectations, relationships with people and how to deal with guests,” explains Lau.
“Mango [Tsang] wants young people to become chefs in the future. If they do well, then their salary can be high. Your respect is higher when you have a higher salary.”
Lau knows this first hand, having started in the industry as a bus boy at The Peninsula Hong Kong in the late 1970s and worke his way up to food and beverage manager, then general manager, in several hotels in Hong Kong and Macau.
“Twenty to 30 years ago, chefs were very rude and wouldn’t teach their skills and knowledge to their apprentices so it was hard for them to learn properly,” Lau recalls.
“But now the mindset has changed and the master chefs need the younger generation to take over, so they need to care more about their younger chefs. There aren’t enough young people going into the industry, so if you help them, they will appreciate it and work hard.”
One recent graduate from the Elementary Chinese Cuisine programme who is keen to take on the mantle is Wong Pak-shing, head steamer at Federal Palace in Jordan.
He says the institute taught him all the basics, and his instructor even helped him get a job at the Cantonese restaurant, where he was promoted soon after he joined.
“One chef left and then the company gave me the opportunity to replace him as head steamer. I was scared at first because I wondered if I was qualified to do it. But the chef said he would keep an eye on me. I was very nervous every day. I would ask questions if I wasn’t sure and they would tell me what to do. I’m very happy here.”
Wong started cooking when he was seven years old, and remembers standing on a stool in front of the stove in his attempt to make fried rice, something at which he gradually improved. By the time he was 11, he would buy ingredients at the wet market and cook for his parents, getting ideas from television programmes or recipes in magazines.
“After studying at the institute, I was exposed to so much more – complicated dishes such as eight treasure duck, braised fish maw and goose webs,” says Wong. He adds that learning about hygiene is crucial, and notices kitchens these days are also cleaner than they used to be.
“I’m the youngest in the kitchen at 19 years old. I was afraid to do something wrong, but also I had to remember how to do all my tasks otherwise I’m holding up food service. I can work hard and when you have that attitude, the master chefs will teach you. If you want to learn how to make, say winter melon soup, the chefs will teach you. Everyone is busy so he can only teach me once so I must pay attention. Many of the chefs here [at the restaurant] are in their 60s, others in their 40s.”
Although he knows he has a lot more to learn in his culinary career, Wong has already set his long-term goals.
“These days I think of myself as a ‘half chef’ because I feel like I don’t know everything yet, but I’m on the way. I really like cooking and I don’t mind the long hours. I’m interested in learning more than what my salary is. In the end I want to be able to manage a restaurant and open my own.”