Top Chinese chefs shun the spotlight

Celebrity is the culinary world's new currency - but China's greatest chefs remain reluctant stars, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 4:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 4:20am

When it comes to Western celebrity chefs, plenty of names spring to mind – Daniel Boulud, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Pierre Gagnaire, to name a few. Some are known as much for their outsized personalities and television shows as for the food they create; others such as Ferran Adrià attract cult followings from around the globe because of their inventive, some might say game-changing, approaches to food.

It’s a struggle, however, to name Chinese chefs with such a profile. Part of the reason is cultural: Chinese society has long cultivated the virtues of modesty and humility, and chefs are traditionally viewed as skilled but uneducated artisans, almost never as artists who work with food.

Moreover, most Chinese restaurants feel that success should be credited to the owners themselves and prefer not to give their chefs too much exposure.
“Chinese chefs have Confucian thinking that you should live harmoniously, be humble, not be outspoken and have collective thinking,” says Chan Chun-wai, a food and travel writer.

“For Western chefs, it’s about individualism – that you should express yourself when you are younger and aim to be No 1. That’s why you see many young Western chefs become famous. In Asia, it’s about following your master and waiting for your opportunity, which takes more time.”

But the spread of foodie culture around the world, along with better-paid chefs who have opened their own restaurants and are keen to articulate their ideas, have started to change that.

And Chan reckons the expansion of The Michelin Guide to Hong Kong (its first guide for Hong Kong and Macau was published in 2009) has accelerated the pace, pushing the city’s chefs – Chinese and Western – out of the kitchen and into the limelight.

“The celebrity culture of chefs in the West is rubbing off on us,” Chan says.

Wong Wing-chee is among the few chefs to embrace media exposure. A three-time winner of Iron Chef contests in Australia, where he settled briefly, Wong has hosted several food and travel programmes on local television, making him something of a household name.

All the same, Wong doesn’t consider himself a celebrity chef. Chinese chefs have yet to achieve the kind of social status as in the West, he says, and his public appearances are more of a promotional exercise for his restaurant business. Wong, 54, runs six restaurants in the city and the mainland, including Dragon Seal, Imperial Seal and Dragon King Restaurant on top of ICC tower. 

Although his father was a prominent chef, Wong didn’t feel any affinity for cooking at first. He grew up in Guangdong, and came to Hong Kong in his teens to seek a better life. Nothing clicked, however, until he began working in the restaurant of a family friend more than 30 years ago.

“His staff taught me how to cook. It was tough working 12 to 13 hours a day – no public holidays or weekends off. But as I worked in the kitchen, I became more interested in cooking,” he says.

Displaying a penchant for attractive presentation and new combinations of flavours, he soon rose through the ranks, moving from Tsui Hang Village to Lei Garden, where he was quickly made head chef, the youngest ever in Hong Kong at the time.

He left in 1987 and spent about five years in the United States and Australia to learn from prestigious restaurants before returning to Lei Garden as executive chef. His ambitions were sparked, he says, when one of the new dishes he presented to the owners for a new menu looked so tempting one of them asked for a tasting.

“That’s when I really started to learn [about business] and it motivated me to have my own restaurants,” he says.

He opened his first restaurant in 2003 when rents had plunged in the wake of the Sars outbreak, aiming to open a new outlet each year. But with rents now sky-high, Wong has scaled back and closed two restaurants.

Nevertheless, he is constantly on the look-out for new ingredients and flavours, to be passed on to his team of chefs. As well as appealing to diners, Wong says restaurants also need to consider what their chefs can execute. “It’s no good if I can cook it, but my staff cannot.”

For the most part, top Chinese chefs are uncomfortable being the centre of attention.

Chan Yan-tak, the executive chef at Lung King Heen, the Four Seasons’ Cantonese restaurant, has been thrust into the limelight in the wake of the restaurant’s Michelin glory. But if he had his way, Chan would rather remain a nameless figure directing the kitchens.

“What if I make a mistake? I would rather people not know it was me,” he says with a laugh.

Chan started as a kitchen hand when he was 14 after his mother died and worked his way up through many of the city’s best restaurants, including Fook Lam Moon, before opening Lai Ching Heen at what was then the Regent Hotel in 1984. 

Chan quit as executive chef in the late 1990s to raise his daughter after his wife died, but in 2002, the Four Seasons lured him out of retirement to open Lung King Heen, where he has earned the restaurant three Michelin stars for two years running. Will it be third time lucky this year?

Ever modest, Chan insists the honours are just luck. “Everyone in the team works hard. Many have worked with me for 10, 20 years. We have good camaraderie in the kitchen.”

Chan is known for introducing Western ingredients in Chinese dishes (his latest creation is Chinese-style “fried rice” made with orzo, or rice-shaped pasta). 
“Everything has to be fresh. You can’t deceive local palates,” Chan says. “Guests who come here have eaten everywhere in town so if they like a dish, it’s important that I know. Any feedback we get, we have to listen to. The most important thing is to improve.”

At the Kowloon Shangri-La, executive Chinese chef Mok Kit-keung also loves to experiment with ingredients and cooking styles. The 50-year-old received a solid foundation in traditional Chinese cooking through the usual apprenticeship.

But it was the exposure Mok gained in Singapore, where he spent almost 20 years in various hotel restaurants, that stirred his imagination.

“In Singapore you have Malay, Nonya [Straits Chinese], Indonesian and Western cuisines so I was inspired by them, constantly thinking of new dishes,” he says. “It’s a bit harder for my staff, who have only done traditional Chinese cooking, but I try to push them by giving them ideas. Then it’s up to them to create new dishes.”

He has cooked for national leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and travelled to Morocco in 2008 to serve for King Mohammed VI, who enjoyed Asian dishes.

But Mok suggests a reason there are few Chinese celebrity chefs: the sheer variety of dishes and cooking styles to master in Chinese cuisine. “In dim sum alone, we have more than 30 dishes,” he says.

Dong Zhenxiang, the chef and owner of Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant in Beijing, is perhaps the closest to the stereotype of a chef who goes to enormous lengths in his quest for just the right flavours and textures.

Sporting shoulder-length hair and a sharp suit on his recent visit to Hong Kong, Dong, 52, is an imposing man, at more than 180cm tall. Dong learned about Beijing cuisine from listening to his father, who was also a top chef, tell stories about the dishes’ origins, and watching him cook them.

At 21, Dong followed his father into the kitchens. To learn how to make regional dishes, he spent several years working in leading restaurants in Sichuan, Shandong and other regions.

“You cannot learn about Sichuan food in Beijing because it tastes different,” he says. “You have to go to Sichuan to taste the authentic food. This period was very tough because I only earned 19 kuai [a colloquial term for the yuan] each day and had to work hard to clean the kitchen, and buy presents for the sifu [master], hoping they would teach me something.”

While chefs such as Heston Blumenthal come to his restaurant to learn how to make Peking duck, Dong also spends time in other kitchens to pick up new skills and ideas. He spent a year learning French cooking techniques at the Maxim’s de Paris restaurant in Beijing. 

In August, he went to Mongolia in search of wild mushrooms for new dishes. “The mushrooms naturally grow in circles in the grass, so I was inspired to also present them this way on the plate with flowers,” he says.

Dong, too, shrugs off accolades as one of China’s top chefs.

“Other people give me this name. I am an ordinary chef,” he says. “I check food quality and create new dishes. That is what I did 10 years ago, my responsibilities haven’t changed.”

However, he recognises the chef’s role now involves engaging with the public. “As a chef it’s important to meet guests and talk to them about the ingredients and cooking techniques “Then when you tell them the story, they have an even memorable dining experience.”