Ip Chi-cheung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am

How did you become a chef?

'I started at the age of 14. My mum was working in a Chinese restaurant and nightclub that was a hot spot for the famous and affluent. She used kitchen leftovers to cook delicious noodles and fried rice for late night snacks. That's when I first thought of taking up restaurant work. I thought it was an attractive job because the restaurant covers all the chef's meals and accommodation. I wasn't doing well at school, so my mum encouraged me to become a chef, [to] learn some practical skills to support myself and my family.'

Where do you find inspiration?

'I love shopping in wet markets. The sauce and spice sections in large supermarkets are also great places for inspiration. Although my style is traditional Chinese, I look for ideas from different cuisines. I'm often inspired by the ingredients they use.

'I also like to explore imperial Chinese cuisine. Once, I saw a photo of an imperial dish from a palace banquet - it was bird nest and shark fin swirled into a yin and yang symbol. I was inspired by the design and used fried black glutinous rice and long-grain white rice instead of the original ingredients and added fresh mushrooms, wolfberries, egg white and crabmeat. It's now one of our most popular dishes.'

What challenges does traditional Chinese cuisine face?

'The lack of experienced chefs is the main challenge. Fewer local young people want to apprentice in Chinese restaurant kitchens so this has led to more demand than supply. Since they don't have much competition, young chefs only focus on short-term benefits and don't take their jobs very seriously. They are not as hard-working as the chefs of my generation.'

What has been the most satisfying part of your career?

'It's when customers love my food. When I was invited to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, in the United States, I prepared a traditional Chinese gala dinner along with the university students. After the dinner, all 150 guests stood up and applauded our efforts. This had never happened to me in Asia; I felt a bit awkward when the applause went on for several minutes. But I was moved by their sincerity and respect.'

Is Chinese food changing?

'It's evolved from the traditional use of abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin and fish maw, to seafood restaurants that focus on the delicate dishes and now fusion food and organic healthy cuisines are on the rise. It's important to keep up with trends, especially for our regular customers, so they are always surprised by something new.'

Is there an advantage to working for a big hotel chain?

'Because we have hotels all over the world, I have had the chance to travel abroad and work in kitchens in different regions. I've been to Japan, Switzerland and the United States. I have also had the chance to study various types of cuisine. I learned how to decorate Japanese dishes and I was introduced to various kinds of cheese and sauce and other ingredients in Europe.'