Saturday, January 3, 2009

1st Chinese chef to get 3 Michelin stars

Philipp Engelhorn for The International Herald Tribune

The New York Times, January 3, 2009 -- The Saturday Profile

A Chinese Chef’s Long, Diverted Path to 3 Stars

HONG KONG — The world’s big Michelin-starred names — the Robuchons, Ramsays and Ducasses — generally achieve success by breaking free of former employers and opening restaurants named for themselves, followed by offshoots, cookbooks, television shows and other trappings of the celebrity chef.

Not so for Chan Yan-tak, the first Chinese chef to earn, last month, a top ranking of three stars. His restaurant, in one of Hong Kong’s many plush harborside hotels, goes by the name Lung King Heen, or View of the Dragon. And it was only through an odd stroke of luck that Mr. Chan, a stout, plain-spoken man his late 50s, was in contention at all: He had already quit the industry to be a stay-at-home dad when in 2002 the Four Seasons began looking for a master Cantonese chef for its new hotel here and coaxed him out of retirement. He began his career as an under-age kitchen hand but won his stars — not without a dollop of local controversy in this city that takes its food very seriously — on the strength of his delicately flavored Cantonese seafood creations, with a touch of French fusion, truffles and foie gras.

The fact that the world’s best-known restaurant guide had practically ignored one of the world’s best-known cuisines until now was not lost on Jean-Luc Naret, Michelin’s director. The guide had been criticized in past years for not giving credit to top Japanese and American restaurants, and Mr. Naret did not want this to happen with its first ranking on Chinese soil.

“We followed Mr. Chan for years, before he went to the Four Seasons,” Mr. Naret said. “We went to Lung King Heen 12 times this year.”

But there has been some sniping, perhaps inevitable, that Michelin granted its first three stars not to one of the city’s lively family restaurants, but to one in a hotel with ingredients that would appeal to foreigners, and maybe especially the French. The restaurant has fought that impression since the stars were awarded, saying that most of its customers are Chinese and the ingredients a sign of creativity, not culinary pandering.

Michelin is famously terse in its write-ups. It affords one sentence to the views and interior at Lung King Heen and one to its food. “Ingredients here are of the highest quality — particularly the seafood, which is impeccably fresh; all dishes are expertly crafted, nicely balanced and enticingly presented.”

Mr. Chan’s trek to the top of the culinary world was long and hard; he has no heart-warming stories to tell about growing up with Grandma’s traditional recipes and aspirations of culinary greatness.

His mother died when he was young, and he was sent to be a kitchen hand at the age of 13 or 14; he forgets exactly which. It was not out of any particular familial love of fine cuisine, but raw economic necessity.

He washed vegetables, plucked chickens and beat eggs. At his age, he was not allowed to use a knife, much less to cook anything. Nor was it a casual after-school job.

“Back then, we worked long days,” he said. “If you wanted a day off, you had to go find a replacement yourself, maybe an out-of-work guy or a casual, and pay him out of pocket to cover for you.” Mr. Chan said with a gruff laugh. “I guess that was before Hong Kong had labor laws.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Chan caught on as a cook, working his way up at local restaurants. Hong Kong’s culinary industry is less formal than that in the West, and there was no greater school for Mr. Chan than the city’s kitchens and streets.

“You learn at first by copying the big chefs,” he said. “But you also learn just by eating out. I do that even now.”

IN 1984, Mr. Chan went to what was then known as the Lai Ching Heen at the Regent Hotel, where he became part of the opening team that dressed up local Cantonese food into something presentable to world travelers, and made the restaurant internationally known. He stayed there for 16 years, never leaving to seek his own fortune.

When his wife died, he decided to give up his chef’s whites for good. He was not worried about his 20-year-old son, who was already in college, but he wanted to care for his daughter, who was 12.

“I had a hard time as a kid, starting work so young,” he said. “Being a chef is like running in a race, and I’d started younger and run faster than most. I figured I’d done my time in the kitchen.”

“There was nobody to look after her,” he said. “I cooked food for her. I ironed her school uniform.”

When the Four Seasons announced in 2002 that it would open a hotel in Hong Kong, Mr. Chan had no intention of returning to work. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to,” he said. “They just asked me to check out the kitchen specs, maybe give them some advice. And some of my old guys, my old colleagues, started teasing me about when I’d get back to work. I thought they were joking.”

Eventually, he was persuaded to return full time. Today, many of his 23 kitchen staff members are old-timers who had worked with him before.

Three of them were busy cutting baby bok choy into flowers. Others rolled dumpling skins in front of giant bamboo baskets used for steaming dim sum. Against the wall, leaping flames licked the bottoms of seven giant cast-iron woks. From one, a cook lifted a steaming side of pork, dripping with oil.

“It’s flash-fried before it’s slow cooked,” Mr. Chan explained. “We don’t use those — what do you call them? — deep fryers, where you throw your food into a basin and then don’t pay any attention to it till its done.”

There is a refreshing lack of machines in Mr. Chan’s kitchen.

But there is a fish tank, from which he can pluck live lobster and fish.

Mr. Chan describes his food as specifically Cantonese and draws a distinction with what he calls “oi sang” — roughly translated as “other province” — types of Chinese cuisine.

“Oi sang food is heavier on the oil, heavier on the sauce, spicier with chili,” he said. “In Cantonese, there is also the strong and the weak, the sweet and the spicy, but the contrasts are quieter. It’s a difference of what I call ‘taste culture.’ ”

THE Cantonese chef’s goal is to achieve what is referred to as “clarity” — seemingly simple dishes executed with skill and subtlety, to bring out the ingredients’ natural flavors and textures.

The foundation of Lung King Heen’s menu is built on Cantonese staples: roasted meats (pork, duck, goose, chicken, pigeon), more than a dozen broths and a wide variety of seafood.

Mr. Chan often adds an exotic rarity — a sprinkling of black truffle or caviar — to standard dishes like lobster with egg white or a crabmeat omelet.

He is more daring in his signature dishes. A jumbo prawn is simmered in a Champagne sauce and topped with gold leaf. A foie gras half the size of a dinner plate is barely steamed to a soft smoothness, topped with a thick dark sauce and served with South African abalone.

Until asked, Mr. Chan had not mentioned the choices listed at the front of the menu, which are dedicated to very expensive ingredients like shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

“Just because something’s expensive doesn’t mean it tastes better,” he said. “The menu’s not divided up this way, but there are two categories of dishes here: one for impressing your guests, and one for eating with your family.”

Mr. Chan — always the workhorse, never the show horse — had little to say about being a newly minted Michelin-starred chef, except that he was grateful to the Four Seasons and would stay there.

With that, he took off the hat he had donned for the photos and returned to the kitchen.