Jackie Macdonald travels to the heart of Asian kitchens in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau to discover authentic Asian fare.
Published Selector Spring 2013
I’m in a Shanghai bar, cocktail in hand and everything’s upside down. While the drink packs a punch, I’m only a few sips in, so it can’t be blamed for the topsy turvy surrounds. The decor has been literally turned on its head in one of the four themed alcoves in The Peninsula Hotel’s Salon d’Ning. This glitzy venue is named after the fictional Madame Ning, a 1930s Shanghai socialite, traveller and collector of exotic souvenirs, and the recessed rooms – Azure, Indian, L’Atelier and Movie – reflect her eccentric flair.
Salon d’Ning is a f lamboyant prelude to a meal in Yi Long Court, The Peninsula’s Cantonese restaurant. I have a seat in the private dining room, the ‘Chef ’s Table’, where I have an exclusive chance to speak with and, hopefully learn from, Chef Dicky To.
On the cusp of turning 40, Chef To has been cooking for almost 25 years. His career started in Hong Kong where he was lucky to be mentored by the legendary Paul Lau, who is now Chef at the Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen at Hong Kong’s Ritz Carlton. Chef To says he credits Paul with teaching him, “various cooking techniques, but, above all, how to become a good leader with knowledge and respect.”
It was into the shoes of another Michelin-starred Chef – Tang Chi Keung – that Chef To stepped when he took on his current role at The Peninsula. But rather than try to emulate his predecessor’s approach, Chef To has taken Yi Long Court in a new direction.
“Chef Tang is very strong at traditional Cantonese food and I like my dishes to still be based on authentic Cantonese flavour,” he describes, “but I include different international elements as well as simple and elegant presentation.”
One of the attractions of the Chef’s Table is the window on to the kitchen, providing a live performance of the crème de la crème of Cantonese cookery. Chef To and his team manage the giant woks with composure, their movements exact and the results sensorially spectacular.
It’s all in the preparation, Chef To later reveals, “The most important part of cooking is how you chop it, then how you manage the temperature.”
“But how do you know when the temperature is right?” I enquire. “Experience”, he says with a triumphant smile.
Prowess at the stovetop I may be lacking, but at enjoying the spoils I’m an enthusiastic participant, especially when I see what’s on the appetizers list.
Under the barbecued Jiang Su kurobuta pork and the pan-fried bean curd sheet rolled with assorted fungus is this happy diner’s piece de resistance – steamed pork dumpling “Shanghaiese-style”. A single sphere in its own bamboo steamer, this pot-sticker presents a trial for the chopstick-challenged, but in the tastebud test it passes with flying colours.
Authentic Cantonese flavours abound on Yi Long Court’s extensive menu and it’s Chef To’s hope that Western guests will push the boundaries of their experience of Chinese cuisine. He says, “Certainly, it’s our Chefs’ responsibility to impress our guests by our good cooking skills and creativity. However, if our Western guests are too conservative to try the dishes they have never tasted, they will never find out how many bountiful and wonderful Chinese dishes are on offer out there.”
A fiddly fold
Inspired by Chef To’s Shanghai dumpling, a trip to Hong Kong provided a unique opportunity to master that local symbol of sustenance, the dim sum.
Who better to show me the ropes than Chef Henry Fong, who heads a team making 1000 dim sums a day for The Peninsula Hong Kong’s Spring Moon restaurant. Chef Fong started making dim sum as a child, he explains, “Having been born into a family of chefs, I made dim sum for fun at the family-owned Dai Pai Dong (open-air food stall) when I was 12. As a dim sum lover, I was curious to learn how to make these bite sized delicacies. I gradually developed other cooking skills, but my interest and curiosity for dim sum never diminished.”
Dim sum making classes are part of The Peninsula’s Academy Programme and keen cooks go behind the scenes into Spring Moon’s kitchen to benefit from Chef Fong’s incredible expertise.
“The motion of folding is similar to knitting”, he explains, “in that you move one index finger at a time. The key to great presentation is to make sure the fillings are in the centre of the dough or the dumpling will look too full.”
As we fumble over the delicate cases, inevitably failing on the vital one-finger action, Chef Fong is effusive in his polite praise, even when our split, lumpy balls are the lowly lackeys in his kitchen of dim sum superstars. But at the end of the day, when they’re whacked in the steamer for the requisite five minutes, they don’t look so bad and turn out to be tasty bites.
And, after all, as Chef Fong, who took five years to master the folding technique, says, “Perfection is only a concept as there is always room for improvement”.
And refinement of his specialty is always front of mind for Chef Fong. “I always taste dim sum from other restaurants”, he explains. “I also study cookbooks and shop at local food markets for inspiration and ways to improve. I get tired from working, but I never get tired of my job.”
While he recommends white wine with fried dim sums, Chef Fong’s beverage of choice is Chinese tea – Pu-er specifically as, he says, “Its fermentation eases digestion.” However, if Chef Fong’s recommendation is not your cup of tea, Spring Moon has another 24 to choose from and the resident Tea Masters will find the perfect match.
When I asked Chef To what his favourite restaurant outside of Shanghai was, he said that two months after dining at Joël Robuchon in Roppongi, Tokyo, he could still vividly recall all the details, so excellent was their food and service.
That’s no surprise given Robuchon holds 28 Michelin stars, the most in the world, spread across his restaurants in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Monaco, Paris, Taipei and Macau. It was at Robuchon au Dome in Macau that Chef To was introduced to the ‘Chef of the Century’ and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Just a one-hour trip on the TurboJet, Macau, with its intriguing blend of local and Portuguese culture, is a great side-step from Hong Kong. These days, however, it’s gamblers who make up the majority of Macau’s visitors. Macau has become known as the Las Vegas of Asia thanks to the explosion of casinos and it’s now pipped Las Vegas as the world’s top casino market. Arrive at night and you’ll be met with a dazzling rainbow of illuminated buildings, enticing punters with a plethora of gambling options.
Dominating the scene in its gaudy magnificence is the Grand Lisboa, the tallest building in Macau, designed to represent the official emblem, the giant golden lotus flower. It’s at the top of this lavish edifice that you’ll find Robuchon’s three-starred restaurant.
But it’s during the day that Robuchon au Dome offers the best dining deal. Book for lunch and you’ll get two courses plus dessert from $HK458, or pay an extra $HK280 for two perfectly matched wines. That’s around $AUS90 for some of the world’s best cuisine, exceptional service and sweeping views.
The kitchens of Joël Robuchon have shaped some of the world’s leading chefs, one of whom is now making his mark in Macau. At Sofitel Macau At Ponte 16, Chef Yannick Ehrsam last year launched Privé, a boutique French restaurant that seats just 24 diners and is where, Yannick says, he’s able “to entertain guests as if they were in his own home”. This is a dream position for a Chef who loves providing a personal touch. Yannick explains, “Working in a great place like Sofitel Macau enables me to meet with different kinds of people and guests with different expectations and requests, which stimulates my creativity.”
Yannick’s signature dishes include steak tartare, chateaubriand and scallops with green apple and passionfruit puree. Another unique aspect of Privé is its
views. The Sofitel is just far enough out of the casino chaos (although it has its own small one) to offer a more serene setting overlooking the old city. An evening at Privé can be spent planning a morning’s leisurely exploration of the World Heritage Listed historic centre.
At the end of this trip, my cooking still falls short, but with so many talented chefs out there, someone’s got to eat!