Q&A with Alvin Leung
Alvin Leung is not the kind of chef you would bring home to meet your mother — not unless she's ready to receive an edible condom, pregnant with a honey and Yunnan ham mixture, casually cast on a bed of powdered shiitake mushrooms.
Nicknamed the 'Demon Chef', Alvin Leung has defiantly carved his own brand of 'X-treme' Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong, a city saturated with some of the finest Chinese restaurants in the world. His inventive riffs on Chinese cuisine are a synthesis of classic Chinese ingredients with progressive techniques that take a leaf from the rituals at Ferran Adrià's kitchen. Whether his creations raise an eyebrow or arouse the appetite, the success of this self-taught chef is undeniable. Leung's culinary skills has earned Bo Innovation, his flagship restaurant in Hong Kong, two Michelin stars.
Here in Hong Kong, not all foodies and gourmands are impressed by the showiness of Leung's food, but this has not stopped the restaurant from being visited by highly-regarded chefs, making a pilgrimage to Bo Innovation whenever they stop in Hong Kong. Just last week, chefs Anatoly Komm of Varvary in Moscow and Adam Byatt of Trinity in London were two of the guests. With his second restaurant opening soon in London, we catch up with the Demon Chef to see what he's all about.
Asia Tatler Dining: What has been keeping you busy?
Alvin Leung: I've been traveling a lot: making guest chef appearances, filming for television and going to London to prepare for my new restaurant, Bo London. I'll also be spending some time in Asia to film the second series of The Maverick Chef. That's the show in which I travel to different countries to reinvent their signature dishes with my 'X-treme' approach. The show will take me to India, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, China, London and other parts of Europe. I'm also designing my own line of tableware. With that, I want to create a broader sensory experience for my guests. When you see food being presented differently, it doesn't alter the taste of the food physically. But visually, it affects how you interpret it, and all that adds to the experience.
ATD: You're publishing your first book as well.
AL: My book's titled My Hongkong because most of my inspiration was drawn from there. Part of my book reveals the inspiration behind my creations and how they relate to Hong Kong. It'll also share my favourite places to eat in the city. You could use it as a culinary guidebook.
ATD: What can diners expect at Bo London?
AL: Bo London will open in Mayfair later this year. Pan-Asian cuisine is a big thing now in London, and Bo London will play around with some Pan-Asian influences. However, I still want to stick to my roots, which is Chinese cuisine. That will still form the DNA of my food. I might open Bo China, Bo Canada and Bo Singapore, too.
ATD: In what ways do you see the culinary scene evolving?
AL: Food, like fashion, runs in cycles. It's common to see variations on the same theme. At this point, I don't think any chef is going to make a game-changing move that affects the way we eat. Food must taste good and intrigue our senses. In the beginning, we ate to live; then we decided to introduce flavours — which made food more pleasant, and we started to eat more than our bodies required. Then we discovered that if we fashioned our dishes to look good, eating becomes more enjoyable. At the end of the day, when you put food in your mouth, it nourishes your body, provides you with comfort and entreats your senses. Sometimes it excites you, but at the end of the day, it is doing the same thing as it did from the beginning of time. True evolution in the kitchen comes from the tools we're working with. Advances in kitchen technology means that we can prepare and cook a meal faster than before.
ATD: You've been careful to steer away from the term "molecular cuisine". Why?
AL: Molecular cuisine is a show, a performance, a way of presentation. Molecular cuisine excites you, but it has to keep reinventing itself to excite you. You always have to create new dishes to do that. At the end of the day, it's important that food tastes good. This is what will keep diners coming back. It is important to me that people say, "His food tastes good. I can eat it again. I crave for it."
ATD: Tell us about "Parfum de Hong Kong".
AL: "Parfum de Hong Kong" is an oyster dish on my menu. "Hong Kong" means fragrant harbour, so the dish alludes to the smell of the harbour. In reality, the harbour stinks and I use fermented shrimp paste to conjure that smell, so it hits you before you taste the oyster. It's not a pleasant smell. It's not roses. But does everything have to be pleasant all the time? Here, the smell affects the way you taste the oyster. I don't think smelling roses will make the oyster taste better; smelling something from the sea will improve its taste. It's an experience in itself.
Photos by Graham Uden.