Class of ’97: From chopping ginger to a five-star hotel, chef Tsui Wai believes the flavour of Hong Kong will always appeal
Tsui wants to launch his own restaurant in Hong Kong one day because of the close relationship with customers. ‘If you do a good job here, people appreciate it,’ he says
Meet the class of ’97, born the year of the handover. Their childhoods tell the stories of Hong Kong’s first two decades after the return to China. Some remember Sars, others took part in Occupy. Now, they’re trying to work out what their future holds – and how Hong Kong’s own uncertain future fits into their plans.
Inside the kitchen of a Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant, Tsui Wai spends 13 hours a day chopping vegetables, plating dishes and practising cooking techniques – his dream is to become a master chef in Cantonese cuisine.
It all began 10 years ago, when he saw how his mother turned vegetables and meat into delicious dishes by cutting, boiling, steaming and stir-frying them.
As a child, he often sneaked into the kitchen just to try cutting ginger into pieces, and he became excited when his mother let him stir sizzling food in a wok.
His first work was a plate of stir-fried pork with tomato and potato, which was quickly eaten by family members.
“It was really fulfilling watching people eating what I had made,” he says. “I felt that cooking was an extraordinary job.”
At 16, Tsui was admitted to the Diploma in Elementary Chinese Cuisine programme at the Chinese Culinary Institute. He then worked at a five-star hotel before moving to a high-end Cantonese restaurant.
At school, Tsui would spend hours practising cutting potatoes into very thin shreds. He would also put one finger into a bowl of fried rice noodles he made to test whether the inside was hot enough.
He has no complaints about working from 9.30am to 10.30pm every day in a busy kitchen and is eager to learn.
“All the Cantonese dishes require extensive skills,” Tsui says. “It is impossible to master it the first time. You try and try until it works perfectly, and then you bear it in mind how it should be done.”
Even during the two-hour break, Tsui never takes a nap like the others do. Instead, he stays in the kitchen, practising cooking dishes and comparing their tastes to those made by the senior chefs.
“I don’t feel the work is hard. When you are interested in something, you want to find more time for it.”
While improving his cooking skills, he also learns how restaurants operate because he hopes to launch his own business one day.
When he does, Tsui plans to plate dishes in a Western way to attract young diners, but he will not change the traditional Cantonese taste.
Tsui believes the old flavours will never lose their appeal, even in a city with one of the most international food scenes.
“Our culinary culture has been with us for thousands of years, and there is a reason why people like it,” he says. “In every local household, Cantonese dishes are what mother makes most of the time.”
Tsui also wants to develop his career in Hong Kong because of the close relationship enjoyed with customers. “You often hear that before a restaurant closes, all its regulars return to show their support,” he says. “If you do a good job here, people appreciate it.”
As regards the future, his focus is on work, not politics.
“No matter what happens, Hong Kong is a small place with a large population. Every district can accommodate a lot of restaurants. I don’t read the news a lot because I’m always exhausted after work,” he says.
“I heard about Hongkongers arguing with mainland people and we have a big wealth gap. The government should do more to help the poor.”