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Seven Dishes: Ang Song Kang

After many trials and setbacks in his 35-year career, the man fondly known as Chef Kang has found joy and acclaim with his private kitchen.

By Joyce Huang | 07 March, 2018 | #featurefriday, People, Profiles
2018-03-07 17:57:46 2018-03-09 18:46:58
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Tucked away on the sleepy outskirts of Little India, along Mackenzie Road, Chef Kang’s Private Kitchen has been quietly earning a loyal following and a reputation as a destination for great Cantonese food within the in-the-know foodie circle since the restaurant opened its doors two years ago. The man behind it, 53-year-old Ang Song Kang, however, has actually been wow-ing diners with his own brand of Cantonese cuisine for decades.

His name was catapulted into the limelight earlier this June, when the restaurant garnered a Michelin star in the French food guide’s second edition. Ang says, “I am grateful for the recognition, but I do feel that there are so many more chefs out there who are better than me. Hopefully if Michelin can recognise the efforts of a small-time chef like me, they’ll be able to recognise these other chefs. I still have a long way to go.”

More than just a recognition, the humble chef, who is fondly known as chef Kang, sees his recent accolades as an opportunity to improve on himself and further his culinary career. One that, as he shares with us, has had many ups and downs.

1 BRAISED LUFFA GOURD WITH EGG WHITE

When Ang first started seeking out work in the kitchens, he was fuelled by literal hunger. He recalls, “During the time after my National Service, it was very difficult to find a job. I came across a small zi char eatery, where I noticed that all the staff were busy but they were provided meals. I wanted to find a job and have my three meals a day looked after, so I asked for a job there.

Like most who have no prior kitchen experience, Ang was made to start from the very bottom, taking care of odd chores as a general helper. “All I wanted was to fill my stomach. It was only after the problem of feeding myself had been solved that I started thinking that working in the kitchen could teach me new skills,” he explains. As a primary school drop-out, Ang knew he would have to rely on a tangible skill to earn his worth in life. He was willing to put in the hard work and long hours, to start from the ground and work his way up.

It took a long time before he eventually moved into the kitchen to cook. Early on in his cooking career, there was no point competing with veteran chefs in coming up with creative dishes, so the very first culinary lessons he learnt was the beauty and value in simplicity. “Simplicity done well is not easy to achieve,” says Ang. His braised luffa gourd with egg white is a prime example. Precise cooking is needed to ensure the perfect texture of the egg white and the delicate luffa gourd. For a dish with such subtle flavours, it is important to cook the individual components well, so that each ingredient’s essence shines.

2 WOK-FRIED HOR FUN (FLAT RICE NOODLES)

While working in another restaurant a little later on, Ang came across a chef from Hong Kong and admired his cooking skills and work ethic. “I began to see that cooking was not a bad skill to have and decided to put my heart into learning it. I sought out this Ng sifu (“master” in Cantonese) as a chef mentor and started following him,” Ang notes. During that time, Ang managed to glean much from the exposure Ng provided by bringing him along on culinary jobs across Singapore and to countries like Hong Kong and Indonesia, consulting for other chefs and restaurants.

Wok hei is unique to Cantonese cuisine and Ang considers it one of his specialty skills that he gleaned from Ng, one that took years of experimenting to achieve. He advises: “The cooking has to be fast and precise. Don’t let the fire control you, you control the fire—by controlling the opening and closing of the stove valves. Your hand, eye, and leg (which he uses to control the stove valves) co-ordination needs to be precise. I have a special routine to control the valve while I’m cooking and it’s almost like I am dancing.”

Ang tries to imbue his dishes with wok hei wherever possible but it’s his hor fun that shows his mastery of the wok. The zi char favourite arrives at the table with enticing smokiness wafting along. Every spoonful of the gravylaced noodles is packed with flavour. He says proudly, “I have many customers who insist that I personally cook their hor fun, and they can tell by the quality of the wok hei if it is prepared by someone else.”

3 SIGNATURE VEGETABLE & MARBLE GOBY SOUP (SOON HOCK FISH)

After following his sifu for over 10 years and accumulating almost 20 years of kitchen experience, Ang opened his first casual eatery Canton Wok in 2002, serving high end Cantonese-style zi char. Despite being Teochew, Ang is best known for his Cantonese cooking, which draws heavily from the Hong Kong style thanks to the years spent with his Hong Kong sifu and stints in the country. Even today, he looks towards Hong Kong—as well as Guangzhou, China, and sometimes Japan and Malaysia -—for culinary inspiration and ingredients.

“There are subtle differences between the Cantonese cuisines found in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and even Singapore. I infuse more Hong Kong-style Cantonese food influences into my cooking, to create a unique, localised version of Cantonese cuisine,” says Ang.

Ang’s signature soon hock fish soup represents the perfect combination of his Teochew heritage and Cantonese influences. “Everyone loves my fish soup because it is such a healthy dish. It’s a half Teochew and half Cantonese hybrid. It has the richness typical of Teochew cuisine, and I add Taiwan olives, tomatoes, and cabbage to give it many layers of flavour; it’s very fresh and sweet. Cantonese style fish soup usually doesn’t have so much vegetables, and it has a more seafood umami-ness.

To perfect the art of making soup, he says “You need to put your heart into it and take the time.” That was another time-earned skill he learned from his sifu. But on his own at Canton Wok, Ang started making a name for himself. Diners took to his style of cuisine and followed him when his restaurant moved from Havelock Road, to Serangoon, and then to Joo Chiat. Canton Wok eventually closed down in 2009 and Ang filed for bankruptcy after various failed business ventures. He attributes the setbacks to his youth and inexperience, “I was impetuous and wanted to earn more, quickly.”

4 SIGNATURE STEWED CHICKEN SOUP WITH PIG’S ORGAN

After working at an eatery for about a year, Ang opened Canton Recipe House in 2011. He credits part of his current fame to his signature soups. “The pig stomach chicken soup is another one of my signature dishes. This was adapted from a poster of pig stomach soup that I saw in Hong Kong. It was served in a claypot, with all the ingredients separate. I thought, ‘oh this is nothing special’. Then, an idea struck me: why not stuff an entire chicken into a pig’s stomach to double boil? So I started experimenting and finally found success with it.”

“This dish started out as a special at Canton Recipe House seven years ago. Back then, I served it to my VIPs and regular customers who really liked it. So I have decided to officially put it on the menu here. But this dish requires an advance order, as the soup needs to be cooked for at least 24 hours,” he adds. The soup is thick from the long hours of cooking but the chicken remains juicy and tasty.

Canton Recipe House unfortunately didn’t last long. A few years in, Ang got diagnosed with kidney cancer, which is thankfully now in remission. That forced him to take a break and focus on healing. Still, the chef couldn’t stay out of the kitchen for long and in 2015, he opened Chef Kang’s Private Kitchen.

5 BAKED SCALLOPS WITH ABALONE IN PORTUGUESE SAUCE

As its name suggests, Chef Kang’s Private Kitchen is a rather small outfit. With just four tables and a maximum capacity of 33 diners, the restaurant is just the perfect size for Ang as he gets to stay in the kitchen and do most of the cooking. He says jovially, “[A] Small kitchen means we cannot earn a lot of money. But I’m not here to make big bucks. I’m here to be happy and enjoy cooking for my guests. I can focus on guaranteeing them quality food and a good time.”

Regulars who’ve followed him since his Canton Wok days make up the bulk of Ang’s customers. But ever since he received a Michelin star, his reservation book has been steadily filling up with new customers.

To cater to those familiar with his cuisine and those new to it, Ang is constantly tweaking his dishes. “When I started Canton Wok, Portuguese sauce pork chop served on a hot plate was one of the most popular dishes,” he recalls with a smile. Here, he has upgraded the pork chops to baked scallops with diced abalone, but has retained the curry powder and coconut milk sauce, to which he has added some cheese to achieve a gratin effect.

6 PRAWN PASTE PORK BELLY

In the dining rooms at Chef Kang’s, the shelves and countertops are crowded with empty wine bottles. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see that these are not mass market labels, but those that contained the likes of Premier Cru and prestigious Old World wines, like back vintages of Petrus, La Tache, Cristal: there’s nothing ordinary here.

Ang is a big wine lover although he jokes that his palate has been spoiled by these Old World big names. The restaurant practices a Bring Your Own Bottle policy and Ang relishes the opportunity to match his food with wine: “I often see what wines my customers have brought and try to whip up dishes to pair with them.”

This prawn paste pork belly is a dish Ang specially came up with to match with wine—he recommends a buttery Chardonnay or rich and crisp Champagne.

7 PUMPKIN SALTED EGG SAUCE PRAWNS WITH CRISPY YAM STRIPS

“Because my restaurant is a private kitchen, I need to keep changing and innovating. I need to be fast to adapt to the customers’ tastes, but still keep my traditions and cuisine trademarks. I don’t want to change it to become too Westernised,” Ang says, so he gets most of his inspirations from Asian countries like China and Indonesia. This pumpkin salted egg sauce prawn with crispy yam strips is a new dish he has created.

He notes, “I travel about seven to eight times a year, to purchase ingredients as well as to consult in overseas restaurants. I’ve just started to consult for a restaurant in Beijing, China. Will I do more consulting next year? We’ll see. I’ve learnt my lesson and now I’ll take it slowly. I’ll only take things on if I know I can afford to make it good.” The restaurant closes every time Ang is out of the country, so it’s understandable that he now chooses his international commitments carefully.

When asked how he felt finally opening Chef Kang’s Private Kitchen after so many ups and downs in his culinary career, the affable chef smiles and says, “I don’t remember because I try not to look back. I have no time to look back! Right now, I’m just concentrating on running my restaurant and improving myself. I’m just a small chef in a small private kitchen, that’s why what I do needs to be unique to myself. I’m still learning to better define my own cuisine. I don’t need to be the best chef around, I just want to be the only chef Kang.”

Chef Kang’s Private Kitchen

25 Mackenzie Road, Singapore 228681. Tel: +65 6238 6263

Joyce Huang
Brought up on a diet of books and family dinner parties, it’s hard to ascertain which came first, Joyce’s love for words or her infatuation with food. A writing career that started at a local food magazine meant she didn’t have to choose between either – because her heart, and nose, became fixed on vino. Ever since the job opened her up to the wonderful world of wine, she’s been #alwaysthirsty.

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