Nicholas Tse talks about how cooking changed his life and how the web lets him learn anything
Singer, film star, chef. Self-taught Tse has many strings to his bow, and he believes cooking has brought him closer to his parents, and making great dishes is easier than people think, as seen with his desserts at a Michelin dinner
The gala dinner at the Grand Hyatt Macau promised to be a sparkling affair. Called “A Night Among the Stars”, six chefs with 14 Michelin stars between them, including Alain Ducasse, served their dishes to 500 guests in a ballroom that was set up like a reality TV show, complete with a stage and screens suspended from the ceiling.
After six dishes had been served, there came dessert courtesy of Nicholas Tse Ting-fung, singer, actor and these days, chef.
Guests who sampled his rose profiteroles with rose water and lychee jelly, dehydrated rose petals and caraway seed breadsticks thought they were passable, considering he made several hundred of them, but it was Tse’s performance that went viral.
He appeared on stage in a military-like uniform à la Michael Jackson complete with gold epaulettes. With intense concentration, he took two squeeze bottles, one with dark chocolate, the other white, and began frenetically making Jackson Pollock-like squirts on several boards, describing it as “chocolate graffiti”.
He strutted off, his performance complete – leaving the audience stunned.
One wondered what all the chefs with Michelin stars in the room – particularly Ducasse and Joel Robuchon – thought of what had just happened.
Those who filmed the stunt on their smartphones immediately uploaded the footage onto social media, and soon it spawned memes online.
One had a Chinese ink artist armed with a traditional Chinese paintbrush in each hand and madly painted circles on his piece of paper; a hairdresser frantically squirted liquid onto a man’s permed hair; and a woman rolled up her sleeves and put her hands out on a table asking for some hand cream whereupon a man who had a tube of cream in each hand frantically squirted a mess all over.
The morning after the gala dinner Tse was on the first flight out to Beijing, and by Wednesday [December 6] will have flown to Norway, where he is filming an episode of his show Chef Nic, cooking on an icebreaker in the Arctic Circle for a week with Taiwanese chef Andre Chiang, who recently announced he will close his two-Michelin-star restaurant in Singapore in February.
Tse’s show is wildly popular in China, mixing travel and cooking with appearances by celebrities such as Fan Bingbing, Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Jackie Chan and Angelababy (Angela Yeung Wing). However, this season features budding chefs in competition, and Tse is looking forward to handing out 1 million yuan (US$151,000) to the winner, who he hopes will use the money to get a leg-up in his or her culinary career.
Seven years ago, Tse started cooking after he watched a television show about pastries and how making a soufflé or a profiterole (cream puff) were the most challenging kitchen tasks to master, which immediately inspired him to try making them.
“I rushed down to the supermarket and I was thinking how hard could it be. So I made my first cream puff and it turned out inedible, which is ridiculous. Why? It’s just flour, water, butter and maybe some milk. But yeah, it was disastrous,” he recalls.
Despite his lack of formal culinary training, Tse believes he can make anything. “With this era with the internet, make use of it. I think everything is learnable these days, whether it be cooking, mechanics, engineering or computer science.”
He likes the immediate reaction he gets when guests and customers try his food, feedback that is even more direct than when he sings or acts, describing food as “the ultimate international language”.
Another reason he enjoys cooking is because it brings him closer to his family.
“I used to be this really locked-up kid, I didn’t talk much, I was on really bad terms with my family – until I started cooking,” he explains. “I found a new medium to converse with mom. And now every time I cook they come to my house, we sit at the table and that is just the best platform to open up – hey dad you want to try this? Before I just didn’t have that bridge.”
Apart from his show Chef Nic, Tse continues to sell his cookies, Chef Nic’s Cookies, with flavours ranging from lemon and chocolate to chilli and Ovaltine, and has developed a new XO sauce for Lee Kum Kee with Tam Kwok-fung, chef of two-Michelin-star Jade Dragon at City of Dreams in Macau.
Tse has also started selling food products on Tmall with the hope of educating Chinese consumers about the importance of eating quality ingredients. When pressed for further details of how this would work, he doesn’t have much more to add.
He isn’t focused only on being a chef – he is still happy to dip in and out of singing and acting.
“People are asking me are you still going to do concerts? I am, but I don’t want to just do a concert. I want to do maybe a carnival thing with food, with DJs, with a lot of electric dance music, and maybe on the last day I’ll come out and do my concert along with video gaming. I think nowadays it’s more about the experience than ‘oh I want to buy some high-end clothing’. Now it’s all about the experience. I don’t need all the vanity stuff – but I want to have fun.”
His latest film, Cook Up a Storm , released earlier this year showed a Cantonese street-food chef battling against a Michelin starred one, which made people wonder if Tse could really cook, or he was acting like a chef.
“I never had any training with singing, nor acting, and I think I’m doing OK. I think everything is learnable these days,” he says. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s not rocket science. You want to do something, you just put your heart to it, a lot of effort into it and time. I don’t take it lightly. I do all my mise en place [preparation of ingredients] at home, I practise my knife skills, I practise everything and read a lot and I’m in the kitchen from the start to the end. I don’t leave until the stuff is done.
“I think I’m back here again at the Michelin gala because they saw that I don’t just come in as the so-called celebrity – I come in as a chef from head to toe.
“I’m probably the last one who left last year. I got a lot of comments from sous chefs, “Man, sifu, you’re still here”, but that’s what I’ve got to do because, maybe with me being from the entertainment business, 99.99 per cent of the people in the kitchen don’t take me seriously. That’s why I’m going to walk that extra mile.”
Does he find it frustrating that people don’t take him seriously?
“No, because that’s how it’s been all my life. My parents were actors, so I got into the entertainment business with all of Hong Kong booing me, if you want to check how I debuted. For the first four years I never got one round of applause.
“Whenever I got on stage it was just boos. I couldn’t even hear one word of what I was singing. But I endured it. Show after show, performance after performance, for four years. Until I got my first [claps hands]. So I’m here to stay … That’s why I treasure every fan, I treasure every round of applause, and if I can get through that crap, I can get through this crap.”