Joseph Tse has been learning his trade for 40 years - and is still learning, writes Bernice Chan
To wish customers well in the Year of the Snake, Hotel Icon's executive Chinese chef Joseph Tse Kam-chung wrote out a special dim sum menu in two columns in which the first character of each dish put together created dui lian, or a couplet.
Such is the detail Tse puts into Above & Beyond, the hotel's signature restaurant on the top floor, presenting Cantonese cuisine infused with Western ingredients.
He has more than 40 years' experience in the restaurant industry, entering the kitchen when he was about 16 years old.
"My family was not well-off at the time, with four brothers and sisters," he says. "We lived in one of those wooden huts in Wan Chai. I didn't finish school, so my father was concerned about me finding a job where I could be fed, have a salary and live in a dormitory."
Tse's friend helped him get a job as one of 12 apprentices, and he walked in "like a blank piece of paper".
"In the kitchen there are different stations, washing vegetables, preparing rice, chopping meat and seafood. For example, there were five choppers by rank and it took me 12 years to finally move up to second chopper."
The job was hard work, 365 days a year - if you wanted a holiday, you had to find someone to take your place.
Nevertheless, Tse learned everything from scratch, from plucking a bird (plunge it in water) to cutting up a chicken. "If you ask young chefs to do that now, they can't because the chickens arrive already prepared."
He says Chinese food became more popular in the 1970s, thanks to former United States president Richard Nixon's visit to China. "There were more news reports about Chinese food and China began opening up as well."
Sixteen years ago, Tse began integrating Western ingredients into Chinese cuisine when he was working at Man Wah.
"The Western chef brought an order of Iberico pork and I tried a piece," Tse recalls. "Usually, in Chinese cooking, you have to marinate the pork in baking soda to tenderise it. But here the Iberico pork was already tender and didn't need any further tenderising, so you get more of the natural flavour. And that's what people want now - more natural flavours."
The keen rivalry between Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong keeps Tse on his toes and he is constantly learning new things and trying new ingredients.
"Just the other day, a regular diner told me the next time he came he would give me some Vietnamese peppercorns to see how I could use them. It's always good to have more information. I see creating new dishes as a new challenge. But to create good dishes, you need to have a good culinary foundation. For example, in Cantonese soup, we use spring water, not water from the tap. In Beijing, the water there is very hard, so the soup doesn't taste good."
Tse not only helms the kitchen but is also keen to pass on his extensive experience and knowledge.
"I hope to eventually have a group of apprentices who do well and eventually become executive chefs. I encourage them to experiment, touch and taste the food all the time. I think that if you can't teach them to do something correctly, then you don't deserve to be in a high position. When I don't think my apprentices are learning properly, I have to think of another way I can teach them," he says.
Looking back, Tse says the restaurant industry has changed so much since he started. For one, labour costs and ingredients are more expensive, while owners face inflation and rent rises.
"But in a hotel we have regular guests and we provide good food and good ingredients. Here we use the best sauces, oils such as Japanese sesame oil and hua diao wine. It's not cheap, but our customers know they are paying for quality. We provide the best quality and service but also value for money."
While Tse is always thinking about flavours and how to create new dishes, he himself prefers simplicity when he eats - fresh fish and vegetables cooked perfectly make him a satisfied man.