Photos by Gideon de Kock
It’s 7.30pm. As diners begin to arrive, the pace in the kitchen picks up. The steamer oven hisses, while stainless steel prep bowls ding against one another as their contents are tipped into woks, which in turn clang against the spatula with each toss. Hot stoves roar underneath. Welcome to the classic Cantonese kitchen.
In most restaurants that serve Cantonese cuisine, the food of Guangdong province (previously known as Canton), the kitchen is divided into three main sections: the dim sum area, where the delicate dumplings and other small brunch-time dishes are made; the barbecue zone, for roasted meats such as glossy honey-glazed char siu pork; and the main kitchen, where all the other work takes place – ingredient prep, steaming and the all-important stir-frying and braising which happens in the woks.
Overseeing it all is the head chef, almost certainly male and over the age of 50. He’s also the “head wok” – top among the chefs working the woks. He cooks the most prestigious dishes such as fish maw or abalone.
To become head wok, you have to work your way up. “In the past, Chinese chefs spent years acquiring the skills of each and every station,” says David Yip, a food writer, chef and respected authority on Chinese cuisine for over two decades.
Most head chefs in Hong Kong’s Cantonese kitchens started out when they were teens. Spending more than 30 years working up the kitchen hierarchy is perhaps testament to the artistry and highly technical nature of Cantonese cuisine, recognised as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions in China.
This prolonged training is also a reflection of tightly held Confucian values, where social order, in this case seniority, reigns supreme. “Most trainees learned through observation,” Yip explains. “The senior chefs seldom provided guidance and they expected apprentices to learn from a distance. Therefore the training period could last for years.”
In recent years, however, there’s been a small but significant shift – head chefs in Hong Kong’s Cantonese kitchens are younger than ever before. A big reason for this is sheer supply and demand. “There aren’t enough young people [entering the industry] and yet it keeps expanding,” explains Jayson Tang, executive Chinese chef at JW Marriott Hong Kong, himself only 33 years old. “There simply aren’t enough chefs on the job market.”
There are other factors at play. The trend for modernising Cantonese food beyond the classic repertoire is also behind the promotion of young chefs with fresh ideas and non-traditional careers. A case in point is Andy Ho, who supports lauded head chef Kwok Keung Tung at Central’s locavore-leaning The Chairman, #11 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list. “If you go to Nordic countries, you’ll see restaurants all cooking Nordic food, but each with their own personalities,” the 29-year-old explains. “I want to do that for Chinese food, and I know I’m not the only one.”
Saito Chau, the 36-year-old executive chef at vibrantly pretty John Anthony, is another example. Under his leadership, the modern Cantonese restaurant by Maximal Concepts is known for dishes plated with the Instagram generation in mind – visually stunning, with responsibly sourced, mostly organic ingredients. “Most chefs want to innovate and serve the best food they can to diners, but it only happens when your company is on board, as mine is now,” Chau says.
Another factor is the relative newness of formal culinary education. Tang and Chau are both graduates of Hong Kong’s Chinese Culinary Institute, the only professional Chinese cooking school in the city, founded in 2000.
“I definitely see the benefit of having a formal education, particularly when it comes to managerial roles,” Chau says. His team at John Anthony includes a number of graduates of the institute as well. “You learn a lot of cooking theory in school, and while it means fresh graduates take longer to perfect practical skills, such as how to control heat when stir-frying, or making a har gow (prawn dumpling) with perfect pleats, it means that down the line, when they need to teach and manage their own team, they’ll be better equipped to communicate these theories.”
We speak to these three chefs about their unconventional routes to the top.
From the world to Hong Kong
Andy Ho 29, chef at The Chairman
Andy Ho laughs as he tries to explain his role at The Chairman: “My name card just says chef!”
While the role of head chef at this award-winning Cantonese restaurant is held by veteran Kwok Keung Tung, Ho has the unique position of shadowing him. But the younger chef isn’t just learning by watching, as would be the case in traditional Cantonese kitchens.
Ho also contributes ideas honed over the years at some of the world’s most forward-thinking Western kitchens, such as Noma and The Fat Duck. Ho decided to become a chef less than a decade ago, in his early twenties, while studying fashion marketing in London and eating at the top restaurants around Europe. “I wanted to know how they made that food,” he says. The curiosity led him to start working in the kitchens of the restaurants he loved.
For a few years, he travelled the world, researching, eating and cooking, documenting his adventures on his Instagram account, a kind of personal take on the world’s Michelin Guides. But his biggest ambition was something far closer to home.
“The whole time I’d been cooking professionally, I’ve wanted to do Chinese food,” Ho says. “It’s underrated. There’s so much culture and history that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.”
It was imperative then that he learn basic Chinese techniques. “Things like controlling the heat of a wok, adjusting the amount of seasoning depending on the water content of a vegetable or how to combine different fats like vegetable oil and lard, are complicated and require experience, as you often can’t just follow a recipe,” he explains. Ho would stage at The Chairman whenever he was back in Hong Kong on holiday, making the transition easier when he finally moved back to Hong Kong. “It’s really hard to switch into a Chinese kitchen. I was really lucky that they took me in.”
The Chairman is known for innovative food that nevertheless remains firmly Chinese. Take for instance the steamed flower crab with Shaoxing wine. Here it is served with thick ribbons of chenchun rice noodles to soak up the sweet juices from the crab. These days, the dish is considered somewhat of a Hong Kong classic. “Danny [Yip, owner of The Chairman] comes up with ideas, then chef Tung and I work on perfecting them,” says Ho of the creative process.
“If you really want to change Chinese cuisine to bring it to another level, you have to think outside the box,” Ho says. But he cites a concept common in wuxia (martial arts) novels to explain that the traditional skills are still indispensable: “When someone learns all the kung-fu moves but isn’t able to under- stand the spirit of the practice, they lose themselves. I’m here to learn that way of thinking.”
Child of the kitchen Jayson Tang 33, executive Chinese chef at JW Marriott
In November 2019, the JW Marriott’s beloved Chinese restaurant, Man Ho, was given a complete facelift. The dining room is new and fancy, featuring hand- blown glass chandeliers, water features and plush wool carpets. The real surprise, though, is invisible to most diners. Where other restaurant makeovers cede kitchen space to maximise seats, Man Ho’s renovation includes a brand new, bigger and better-equipped kitchen. The unusual move is a testament to the high regard management holds for executive Chinese chef Jayson Tang, his creative vision and his diligent management.
Towering at almost six feet, Tang is an imposing figure despite his young age. At the age of 10, he started helping out at his father’s dai pai dong (open-air food stall) selling congee. By the time he was 16, he was earning pocket money by working part-time at the restaurants of family friends. When it came to choosing a career towards the end of high school, he was only interested in two things – design and cooking.
But instead of asking to apprentice at one of the restaurants he had already worked in, Tang enrolled in a two-year certificate course at the Chinese Culinary Institute. The chefs he had grown up around never had the privilege of a formal education, but he was determined to give it a go. “Since it’s available, why not try it? I could still start as an apprentice after the course if it doesn’t work out,” he remembers thinking.
He completed the course, and worked at small neighbourhood joints and even a chain ramen shop before he hit his stride with his first hotel posting at the staff canteen of the Royal Plaza Hotel. This is where he met his sifu, Dicky Kwok-kim To, the master chef under whom he would apprentice. Tang’s sifu and colleagues appreciated the young chef’s energy and talent, and through recommendations, Tang gradually moved on to many of the city’s most prized kitchens, such as Tin Lung Heen at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong.
Back at Man Ho, a brand new kitchen means brand new dishes. Born and raised in Hong Kong, a city many say is ground zero for Cantonese fine dining, Tang’s idea is to reinterpret what Hongkongers like to eat – a milky-hued fish soup loaded with clams, dried shrimp and fish maw, for instance, that harks back to the city’s past as a fishing port; or the crispy skin of suckling pig presented as a sandwich with foie gras as the filling.
“There are dishes I would never change, such as sweet and sour pork or za zi gai [a style of fried chicken],” he says, and hopes that one day, he’ll too create a dish like those, that will stand the test of time.
Showing, not telling Saito Chau 36, executive chef at John Anthony
When Saito Chau took on the role of group executive chef for Aqua Group at the tender age of 33, managing a whole range of Chinese restaurants with contemporary slants, he knew he had to tread carefully. “At Hutong [the group’s Beijing- style restaurant], most of the chefs on the team were over 50,” he recalls. “I was there to change things – that’s why they hired me – but there would have been chaos if I landed and began changing things immediately,” he recalls.
Instead, Chau took a gentle approach, by “showing, not telling”. The team cooked dishes side by side and tasted them together, and gradually Chau gained the respect of the team.
Chau’s humility likely comes from his culinary adventures as a much younger man, which underscored that while youth is a boon, experience still counts for a lot. He started out in his teens, doing front- of-house work at a local cha chaan teng (café), before getting his first kitchen job at well-known restaurant chain East Ocean, as a da hor, an entry-level position in the main kitchen. In his early twenties, he started his own café and got a taste of being head chef, and his own boss. “I thought I knew everything I needed to know,” he says with a laugh. “Of course I didn’t.” It was too much too soon, and he left Hong Kong for a brief stint in the United Kingdom at the age of 24.
He returned to Hong Kong within a year with a renewed appreciation for technique and embarked on what he calls “self-imposed military training”, where he climbed the ladder in kitchens with a reputation for being tough, in order to hone his skills. He joined Xi Yan, the now-closed restaurant by local celebrity chef Jacky Yu, with the express purpose of learning intricate Shanghainese- style knife skills. Xi Yan also became his first foray into boundary-pushing contemporary Chinese food: The restaurant was known for its fresh take on Shanghainese dishes, such as slow-cooked pork belly sliced and rolled into a tower, rather than in the classic cubes.
With skills accrued and hard les- sons learned, Chau helped open the elegantly modern Cantonese restaurant John Anthony in 2018. For the menu, he says he has created numerous dishes that he couldn’t have made in his twenties. “Inspiration can come from anywhere,” he says, “but a lot of it is from experience, because new dishes are often iterations of old ones.”
Luckily for Hong Kong foodies, Chau is using both his creativity and his experience to serve exciting dishes such as translucent beetroot dumplings; jade puff, a Shanghainese-inspired baked dumpling with a multi-layered pastry dyed unconventionally green using spin- ach juice; and scallop “marshmallows”, where he whips puréed scallop and tofu together into an airy mousse and serves it floating like islands atop a broth.
These days, more and more of Chau’s chefs are younger than him, but he continues his philosophy of showing rather than telling. “Cooking is about flavour. There are many ways to make a dish, so comparing how they taste is important,” Chau says. “One day a younger chef might come up to me with a technique that has better results, and that’s great,” he says.