Tell us about your childhood. “I grew up in Sham Shui Po and my older brother would sneak me into the Golden Theatre to watch movies. We’d eat chicken feet with mustard and sweet sauce. When you dropped the bones you would feel the rats running around your legs. We lived on a housing estate and a guy selling Chinese olives would whistle very loudly on the street. You threw the money at him and he would throw you the [pack of] olives, which we called ‘airplane olives’.”
Why is food so important to you? “Food is connected to our memories – without it we’re vegetables. With wonton noodles these days, you can’t taste the chai yu [dried fish] in the broth – it used to be so rich, with a smokiness [similar to] bonito flakes. I remember eating beef brisket noodles; I watched them being made in a huge wok into which the cook would add ginger, star anise and onion, chu hou paste and then tomato paste. It was so good! Now, at my restaurant in Singapore, Tung Lok Heen, I tell my chef to add tomato paste, as it brings out the braised sweet and sour taste.”
Why did you to move to Canada in 1980? “I fell in love with this girl [his first wife, Marilou Covey, who taught in Hong Kong and who died in the 1983 Korean Air Flight 007 disaster] from Tillsonburg, Ontario, and she went back so I followed her. She studied for her PhD and I worked in the kitchen. Toronto is a place to make a living – not to learn how to live. But I learned to be comfortable with different cultures – Greek, Italian, French, German, Korean. Everyone spoke with a heavy accent. They always talked politics and food. It was a big education in multiculturalism.”
Why did you become a judge on MasterChef Asia? “I want to show the contestants there’s more out there. They are home cooks who have a true love of food. But at home there is not a time limit or a business side [to cooking]. I can teach them what it’s like being a [professional] chef. I also learn from the contestants their techniques and cultures.”
How are your two eldest sons, Levi and Kai, involved in your restaurant business? “They are running it, mostly front of house, so now I find myself being more creative and focusing on the food. In the beginning, I wanted to teach them everything about the business – management, food, relationships. Now they have lots of experience. They are opening their own restaurant in a few months – a kind of supper club. I really treasure seeing them grow, how they think.”
What do you do when you’re not cooking? “I love yoga. It changes me mentally, physically and emotionally. I also love to travel and meet people, and learn new things.”
How does your mother inspire you? “[Laughs] In a negative way! She was a tea lady who worked for the British Army. She worked long hours and is a tough lady. She’s 91 years old and has had her leg amputated. When I visit her in the old folks’ home, she is often in her wheelchair exercising. She is so determined, still sharp and still has a hot temper. I left home at 14 so I didn’t have much of a relationship with her. When I was a kid, I told her she was a terrible cook – but now I realise she worked so much she had no time to cook for six kids, so she always made one-pot meals. Maybe that’s why my father took me out to dim sum. He passed away two years ago. He would read his horseracing paper and not put it down while he ate dim sum. He would remark, ‘This tastes sour, too sweet …’ Always talking about taste because he was very particular. He taught me that and I paid attention.”
MasterChef Asia airs on Lifetime, on Thursdays (at 9pm) and Sundays (at 7pm).