Into the kitchen at 13, onto the woks at 15: an early talent
Who introduced you to kitchens and to this profession? How did you start as a chef?
I started working at 13. On the weekends, I was a waiter at a local chain. Eventually one of the older chefs, who would become my mentor, recognized that I was more diligent than the other waiters. For example, I didn’t mind working extra hours. Others spent 10 hours at the restaurant; I spent 12. The chef noticed that and picked me for the kitchen when I was 14. That chef was Yau Ka Ming. Once I got into kitchen, I started doing small work like passing around sauces or separating ingredients. After a month, the chef assigned me to be a da he (打荷), a special position first created in Cantonese kitchens. [Da he are assistants to the chefs who work the woks. The system is now widely used in many Chinese kitchens. It is also considered the most desirable role for newcomers to the kitchen, as they get to see first-hand how food is cooked.]
That was fast!
Chef Yau thought I was talented! (Laugh) Actually I was always extra diligent. If work started at 10am, I’d be there at 8.30am. I cooked staff meal alone when the senior chefs were resting. That led to my promotion in the kitchen, and then at 15, I began cooking for customers.
What about school?
I came from a poor background, my parents were divorced, so I needed to be dependent on myself. So I quit school when I was 15 in order to cook.
Did you like the job or was it just a way to get by?
When I was 10, I invented a dessert with mango juice and coconut and sago, which would later be made famous by the Hui Lau Shan chain as yang zhi gan lu**. I was just messing around, making things for my family. At the time, people made the dessert with coconut milk, but I had the idea to use the mangoes from the street sellers around our house, and I got a lot of compliments on it by family and friends. So you could say I always liked cooking.
In terms of the job, I didn’t have an affinity for it at first, it was just for money, but I wanted to do it well. Gradually, I began to get positive feedback from celebrities and rich people, when I was working in hotels, and I began to get a sense of achievement and to like the job.
**Yang zhi gan lu is a Cantonese dessert made using mango puree or juice, coconut, and sago pearls, and is now considered a classic Hong Kong dessert.
From standalone restaurants to the world of luxury hotels
Your career started in standalone restaurants and chains. Later, you moved into hotels. What was the difference?
In standalone restaurants, the main requirement was to be fast. But in hotels, it was to be good.
Could you talk about that shift?
I started with the Maxim’s Group. They made their reputation for being a big chain with more than 30 outlets in Hong Kong then. But I wanted to improve my cooking skills, so I went to Lei Garden. It has a unique culinary style and management system. I stayed there nine months before I wanted to keep improving my skills and learn about management, and that’s when I decided that five-star hotels would be the next step. I was about 23 or 24 at the time.
Lei Garden is very well-known in Hong Kong for its quality. It’s also famous for having a very tough boss. Did that match your experience?
Yes, the boss was very tough, very creative in his cursing. (Laughs.) But everyone got that. It was difficult to get through. But on the kitchen side, they were very strict. They would give you a method to follow and you couldn’t deviate from it at all, or you’d get cursed. To their credit, they used much higher quality ingredients with better natural flavor. But the management… they call this style of management the “Parenting Method”. It was very tough on everyone. On the other hand, everyone also improved very quickly.
It’s common to have tyrannical chefs in western kitchens, is it common in Chinese kitchens?
Lei Garden was exceptional. They are famous for being tough. My personal point of view is that chefs should be decent, not going out in a chef jacket and smoking, and there are other methods for managing a kitchen that are not so harsh. I don’t follow the “Parenting Method”.
What’s your personal management style?
First I set the rules and show people how to do something. If they can’t do it right the first, second or third time, then I show them again. You have to demonstrate for them. Once they admire you, they’ll follow your way. A good chef should be able to show his employees what to do and how to do it right, so they’ll respect you, admire you and eventually follow your instruction. It doesn’t require yelling.
Do you think your style works better?
I think my method is more efficient. I’ve been using it for more than decade, and a lot of people followed me here to T’ang Court when I got the job.
You became the executive chef at the five-star Ningbo Shangri-La Hotel when you were 33 and moved to mainland China.
Yes, it started because of Ming Court, which now has one Michelin star. That was at the Langham Place Hotel in Hong Kong (now rebranded as the Cordis), and I worked there for two years with chef Tsang Chiu King. [Chef Tsang is nicknamed the Superman of Chefs in Hong Kong, not only because his name sounds similar to Superman in Cantonese, but for his work over the past three or more decades. He is the mastermind behind numerous dishes at Ming Court in Hong Kong, and like his brother, also a chef, very well-known in the world of Cantonese cuisine. One mark of his style came from a five-year stint he spent in Switzerland, which has led him to incorporate Western ingredients like foie gras into classic Cantonese recipes.]
Working with Tsang, and the experience there, inspired me a lot in terms of management and culinary styles, and it became a new foundation for my career. It was after that that I joined the Shangri-La and decided to continue in the luxury hotel world.
How did that change things for you?
As a chef, the most basic issue to deal with is flavor, flavor and flavor. As an executive chef, it’s not flavor anymore, it’s management. All of a sudden, you don’t control the flavor, your team does, and so there are many factors in delivering quality. And you start to have problems like insufficient training and bad quality ingredients. It’s not as simple as flavor anymore. Being a good chef is not about a dish from the kitchen, it’s about how long it takes from the kitchen to the dining room, and every part of that process. It’s all about communicating your thoughts to everyone involved.