Hong Kong Michelin chefs talk about why they chase stars
As acclaimed Singapore-based André Chiang becomes the latest celebrated chef to quit the restaurant rankings, Bo Innovation’s Alvin Leung, Vicky Lau of Tate and Shang Palace’s Mok Kit-keung explain what keeps them motivated
Michelin-garlanded chef André Chiang will happily talk about his childhood food memories, and serve warm foie gras jelly with black truffle coulis during this week’s Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival, but he won’t discuss his breaking news.
The Taiwan-born chef made the shock announcement last week that he will close his Restaurant André in Singapore on February 14 next year, and that he wanted to return its two Michelin stars.
Chiang, who has also asked not to be included in next year’s Michelin Guide Singapore, says he will concentrate on his restaurant Raw in Taipei, where he “can focus on educating, developing others, and cooking”. He doesn’t want to be included in Taiwan’s upcoming debut guide.
Other chefs have given up the quest for Michelin-rated perfection.
It started with culinary enfant terrible Marco Pierre White in 1999, and last month, French chef Sébastien Bras announced he was taking his and his father’s restaurant Le Suquet à Laguiole out of the guide.
In the nine years since the Michelin Guide came to Hong Kong, the number of starred restaurants has jumped from 22 in 2009 to 61 this year.
‘I will be less famous but I accept that’: French chef hands back his three Michelin stars because of stress
Does this prestigious dining guide still motivate chefs in Hong Kong to chase stars? The Post asked some Michelin-starred chefs for their thoughts (Richard Ekkebus, culinary director of two-starred Amber declined to comment, while Umberto Bombana of three-starred 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo was not available).
Alvin Leung, chef-owner of Bo Innovation does not agree with Chiang’s decision.
“If it was me, I would not do it. When you are given a rating by a guide or a list, it’s something people give you. How can a guide give you pressure?” he says.
“You are given a choice to be in the guide or not. People make noises to be excluded but you don’t have to announce it,” Leung says, speaking from Toronto where he is filming the next season of Master Chef Canada.
Bo Innovation was awarded two stars in 2009, it then lost one, and by 2014 had gained three.
“When I first got two stars, I didn’t think I deserved it. Now I have three I think I am worthy,” he says.
Leung uses the guide to motivate himself to improve the quality of food and service.
Asked if striving for Michelin stars stresses him, “Life is about stress. I’m competitive. It means something to me. If I gave it back it would be out of bitterness. This is not the person I am. I take whatever I can get with grace.”
Chef-owner Vicky Lau of Tate on Hollywood Road says Chiang is courageous. “He wants to let go of the accolades and focus on his own creativity without distraction. The ego can affect creativity,” she says. “Sometimes you try to put too much on a plate to show off what you can do, but this can cut off creativity.”
Lau, who earned her first star in 2013, says she is concentrating on improving her skills and giving her diners a better experience.
“Michelin is a good benchmark to be judged by. The guide supports the chef and brings awareness of the restaurants to people around the world. It’s not just about judging people,” she says.
The Hong Kong-born chef admits some days can be tough for her and the team, mentally and physically, having to make sure each dish is the same quality for every customer. “You can’t let it [pressure] get to you … this field is not for everyone.”
Lau says she does it because she loves to cook and wants to serve good food.
That’s also the attitude of Chinese executive chef Mok Kit-keung, of two-starred Shang Palace in the Kowloon Shangri-La.
“[Chiang] has his own reasons for quitting. His own dishes don’t always need stars for validation. The company I work for wants stars, but for André he can decide because he owns his own place. If I have my own place and have stars, that’s different,” Mok says from Singapore, where he is also managing Shang Palace for the Shangri-La hotel group.
“If I really wanted to chase stars, I would have gone to Macau, where many hotels were keen to poach me,” he says. “There I could have got stars easily because I could have access to all the top equipment and ingredients. But here the company supports me and gets me the ingredients and equipment I need.”
Mok, who has clocked more than 40 years in the kitchen, is content with two stars. “Even if they don’t give me stars, I’m happy because I’m cooking my own style. For me, it’s important to serve the customers and teach the next generation what I’ve learned.”