Known for his modernist techniques, “Demon Chef” persona and highly innovative approach to Chinese Cuisine, Alvin Leung is no stranger to controversy. The chef heads the three Michelin-starred Bo Innovation, where you’ll find dishes like a spherified xiao long bao, and his controversial dessert “Sex on the Beach”, a jelly “condom” filled with a honey and Yunan ham mixture, sitting on edible sand made of shiitake mushrooms.
The engineer-turned chef and restauranteur will be participating in a four-hands collaboration with chef Liu Ching Hai of the one Michelin-starred Summer Palace, where each chef will showcase their take on Chinese cuisine. Expect a yin-yang combination of contemporary, boundary-pushing dishes from Leung; and classic Cantonese treats from chef Liu. Highlights include Drunken Foie Gras from chef Leung, and Chef Liu’s signature nutritious Double-boiled Dried Scallops with Hairy Gourd and Bamboo Piths.
There’ll also be a exclusive dim sum menu from chef Leung, who will be presenting dishes like the Bo Chilli Crab Xiao Long Bao ($9/3 pieces) and Durian Fried Rice with Wind-dried Duck ($12).
We catch chef Leung for a chat before his four-hands collaboration.
You’ve opened a few restaurants over the years–how was the transition like, moving from being primarily a chef, to a restaurateur?
I was always a restaurateur. The transition was more from a restaurateur to a chef. I used to manage my family engineering business so operating a restaurant is similar. But as a self-taught chef, I have had to learn a lot about cooking and techniques and developing my creative identity. After 14 years now, as a professional chef, I think I am a more skillful chef which helps in creating new dishes.
You have a reputation as a ‘bad boy’ in the restaurant world. Do you see this sort of rock n’ roll persona mellowing out over the years?
This is a persona I have somewhat created based on me on a bad day. To be honest, I was never a bad boy, I just play one in the kitchen. Being a bad boy doesn’t actually accomplish anything. It’s good for a show. People are more aware of me by image but my food is about flavours and reinterpreting comforting tastes. That’s not being a badass but creativity and innovation.
You have restaurants in Hong Kong, London, and China. How do the markets differ? Do you get different responses from diners from each country toward your style of Chinese cuisine?
Diners don’t differ from country to country. Diners differ from person to person. Often you have to skillfully take people’s responses and read between the lines, whether it’s a personal comment or professional criticism. People just have different tastes too. The challenge is finding the right taste in the right market at the right time.
You’ve mentioned that you want to bring people to the edge of discomfort with your food (like what you did with the Sex on a Beach), do you feel it’s much harder to do that now, since people are much more well-travelled and fed these days?
Not necessarily. People’s comfort level is based on what they have experienced. It’s not like just adding an extra chili to Thai food to push the envelope that way. I don’t see culture as a barrier. I agree people do see and try more things now so they are less conservative that way. But I don’t apply shock tactics to flavours, maybe just presentation sometimes. When I do push the boundary I extend it far far away. Travelling a lot and eating at a lot of restaurants doesn’t mean they are still comfortable with an edible condom.
What do you think is the future of Chinese cuisine?
Chinese cuisine has existed for centuries and it is growing rapidly. It is the reach that is expanding. From the age of European explorers, which took noodles to turn into pasta, now Chinese food is all over the world and evolving in interesting ways everywhere. It is a cuisine that most people are becoming comfortable with. I don’t foresee any massive changes but technology and new techniques are being incorporated more and more in classic Chinese cooking now. So maybe robots making fried rice is the future.
We also spoke to both chefs on the upcoming collaboration:
Both of you have very different approaches to Chinese cuisine, how did you come up with the menu for the collaboration?
Leung: We collaborated but separately. Obviously, we both had an idea about what each other was trying to accomplish, so the goal is to complement the courses and make it work together. Like a duet song, you want to harmonize together, not take over the stage or dominate the tune. In a way, it’s yin and yang. We’re opposite but interdependent, two sides of the same coin. It’s a good contrast and balance of different philosophies.
Liu: It is all about balance. The menu that Chef Leung and I have created works out well because of how different our approaches are. The extremities of our styles and the flavours of our dishes complements. Imagine just how exciting it would be for the senses to go through each alternating dish… It’ll be like experiencing old and new Hong Kong on your palate!
Both of you also took very different routes when training/learning to be a chef — have you learnt anything from your interactions with each other while planning for the collaboration?
Leung: I learn all the time from traditional classic chefs. I think chef Liu’s classic dishes last the test of time so this way it’s a good platform to compare styles. It’s not a competition of good or bad. He is a standard by which I try to broaden and bend the rules without breaking the ruler.
Liu: We did not work on the menu together physically but I think I remain a bit more conservative in my approach. I always want to showcase the traditional style of cooking and the authentic flavours of Cantonese cuisine in any dish that I present to my guests. It is important to me that my creations do not lose that essence. It is what gives the dish character and history. One thing that is fundamental in Chinese cooking is the quality and the freshness of the ingredients. I believe that is where Chef Leung and I are in agreement. Ingredients are so important for the overall success of a dish. It simply cannot be compromised.
Eight-course “X-treme Classics” Four-hands Dinner Menu with Chef Alvin Leung and Chef Liu Ching Hai
April 6 to 8, 2018 | 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. | $98 per person
X-treme Dim Sum
À La Carte Menu by Chef Alvin Leung
April 7 and 8, 2018 | 12 to 2:30 p.m
Regent Singapore, A Four Seasons Hotel, Level 3, 1 Cuscaden Road, Singapore 249715. Tel: +65 6725 3288