Top Hong Kong chefs spurn 'cooking wine' - so what do they cook with?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2015, 10:42am

For most of the recorded history of food preparation wine has served not only as a partner to it but also as a cooking liquid.

It plays an important role in marinades and sauces, and a splash of wine added to a dish shortly before serving is a great way finishing touch.

Most chefs seem to agree that using "cooking wine" is a false economy.

Nobody seriously advocates using first growth Bordeaux or grand cru Burgundy, of course, but opinions differ on just how good the wine splashed about in the kitchen should be.

"I'm more and more convinced about the importance of the quality of wine in cooking," says Philippe Orrico, chef patron of Sheung Wan's Upper Modern Bistro and ON Dining Kitchen & Lounge in Central.

Before opening the bistro, Orrico worked in the kitchens of Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental and Hullett House, but starting his own business focused his attention on the bottom line.

"When you are in a five-star hotel you take the best of the best, but when I opened my own restaurant I tried to balance the costs. I tried [cooking with] different wines and I am back with good quality wines," he says.

There are chefs who believe that while the quality of a bottle of red wine can make a significant difference to a dish, when a dry white is called for a more modest investment can be made. Orrico, however, is not among them.

"You can't make a good white wine sauce or marinade without good white wine. You shouldn't hesitate to use a good Meursault or whatever it is," he says, emphatically.

"If you are preparing a lobster with a Meursault butter or a Meursault wine sauce you need a good Meursault - and you need to pour a little more at the end so the guest gets the perfume of the wine. The same goes for champagne. If you make a champagne sauce for chicken, I highly recommend adding some more at the end. One day I had some leftover Krug, and that made a wonderful sauce."

Wine plays an important role in the preparation of several dishes on the menu at ON. Orrico uses port to marinade foie gras, dry white wine to finish the minestrone served with the seared scallops, and vin jaune (yellow wine from Jura in France) in the spelt risotto with comté and morels which accompanies sole meunière.

"Port is interesting, and I really like vin jaune, because of the partial oxidation. You can get some very interesting flavours when you use it as a base, or when you use it as a seasoning. When you reduce it you can get some acidity, and if you reduce it a lot you can get a kind of syrup - very good with foie gras, for example," he says.

"A reduction of wine is interesting because at different levels [of reduction] you get different tastes."

Another believer in the vin jaune and morel mushroom combination is Spoon executive chef Stéphane Gortina.

"One of our dishes - organic egg, giblets, crayfish and morels - uses yellow wine. The wine must have a strong wood flavour to match well with the morels. We use Vin d'Arbois, which is a good quality wine," he says.

In his view the quality of white wine a dish requires depends to a large extent on the cooking time involved.

"If we cook shellfish and need acidity in the dish, we must have a good quality wine, because the cooking time is short. However if we are preparing a dish with white wine sauce which requires a long preparation time, then the quality of the wine is not so important," he says.

However, Gortina is a strong believer in using good quality red wines for red wine sauces.

"When a red wine sauce is reduced, it can become very acidic, which is not good for the recipe or the texture of the dish. Poorer quality red wines will lose their structure when you cook with them and use them for reductions. For a dish such as beef daube, Bordeaux wines are good as they have a lot of tannins and keep their structure," he says.

Mandarin Oriental executive chef Uwe Opocensky is a believer in cooking with good - although not extravagantly good - wine under all circumstances.

"For me, the quality of the wine, white or red, matters a lot. It does not have to be very expensive, but it should be good quality. When you cook with wine, you burn the alcohol off and intensify the taste," he says.

Aqua executive chef Paolo Morresi believes that good quality red wine pays off in both sauces and marinades.

I’m more and more convinced about the importance of the quality of wine in cooking
Philippe Orrico

"White wines are used to enhance flavours in some foods and make them more intriguing, but in my experience red wines are essential to marinate meat such as beef, lamb and game. Red wine is great to use for gravy. If the wine is of good quality, there is little that you need to do - you can just reduce it to make a very nice sauce. All you need is some onions or shallots, garlic, olive oil and juice from your meat," he says.

Like Orrico, Moressi is particularly interested in cooking with port.

"I like port and use it in a few of my dishes. I leave rose petals to infuse and these wine-scented roses are then used for a risotto dish that features on the à la carte menu. We also use port for cooking pears for desserts, or I reduce it to create sauces for pastry. I use Taylor's fine ruby port for this," he says.

Quite right. Save the aged tawnies and vintages for the cheese.

Another fortified wine with many uses in the kitchen is sherry - although here again chefs agree that "cooking sherry" should be avoided.

Orrico uses vermouth in some risottos and says it can also be used in preparing frogs legs, and fish mousseline. He also opts for quality when using other alcoholic beverages in his dishes.

"I'm using Chinese alcohol - I'm not sure it's wine - and I'm using sake. I use cognac and grappa. I've served chicken with a sauce with parmesan and grappa and that's very interesting," he says.

There is one wine on which Orrico is happy to economise.

"The only example I can think of where an awful wine makes a good sauce is Marsala," he says. "I recommend using the cheapest and most acidic wine you can."