Wednesday, 29.3.2017

Alvin Leung - Demon Chef From Instant Noodles to Molecular Gastronomy

[12/08/11] 

Served instant noodles five days a week as a child growing up in Canada, Alvin Leung is now recognized the world over for his impact on Chinese cooking. His Wan Chai restaurant, Bo Innovation, has drawn him comparisons with Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, a signficant feat for someone who was an engineer by trade. We sat down with Alvin to find out what's cooking.

What are you currently working on?

I am opening a restaurant in London in 2012 and it’s taking up a lot of my time. It’s going to be in Mayfair and has been three years in the making. As far as my schedule goes, I actually spend about three weeks per month away from Hong Kong. I’ve also been working on a TV show which involves me travelling round Asia deconstructing and reconstructing various national dishes. It will be screened on NOW TV in November. I’m also finalizing my book which is about my relationship with Hong Kong, some of my recipes and some of my inspirations. That’s been a real passion project and will be released early next year.

One of the greatest treats of molecular gastronomy is taking classics and re-inventing them. In London many of your customers won’t be familiar with the classics in the first place. Does this mean your dishes will lose some of their impact?

London is a hub for Chinese cooking. It’s why I picked it over Paris or any of the other major dining cities because people will be familiar with the cuisine. Besides it comes down to the quality of cooking. If what I cook doesn’t taste good, customers won’t come back - and that’s the case for any restaurant. If it tastes poor, no matter how much you deconstruct and reconstruct the dish it will still be poor. On the other hand, if it tastes good, they’ll come back and that’s what I’m hoping for.

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What are the particular challenges that come with Chinese molecular gastronomy as opposed to Western?

Texture is the main thing. The aim of molecular gastronomy is to surprise the customer and because texture features much more significantly in daily Chinese cooking it’s harder to surprise with it.

Are there particular techniques/foodstuffs you want to explore?

There’s nothing in particular I’m exploring but I’m constantly trying to create. In fact depending on your point of view, you could say I’m in a perpetual state of creativity or never creating at all. What’s interesting about food is that it’s first and foremost for nutrition but creativity has seen us go from cooking with fire to cooking with nitrogen, and that's what makes it interesting.

How do you react to criticism of your food?

You’ve got to listen to your customers and adapt. You can’t just do what you want otherwise they won’t come back.

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What technique have you personally struggled with more than any other?

None. I was originally an engineer which means I approach challenges very practically. I don’t attempt the impossible, instead I choose to do things which are difficult but achievable and then produce results. I’m not intimidated in the kitchen.

Is the restaurant business a more interesting place to work in than a decade ago?

Definitely. It’s certainly more competitive, chefs are higher profile today than they were a decade ago and there are plenty of places that have gone food crazy such as England. Hong Kong’s also got wealthier which means the fine dining scene has continued to develop.

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What are your favourite things & why:

      • Drink? Though it’s clichéd, San Pellegrino.
      • Hotel? George V in Paris.
      • Drive? Oxford to Cheltenham in England but I’m not a big driver. I don’t like trips.
      • Airline? Probably BA - they’ve got nice seats.

If you could have dinner with anyone throughout history, who would it be and why?

Matt Groening – I love The Simpsons.

If you could pass on one characteristic to your children that you think you have, what would it be?

Creativity, it gets you in and out of situations like few other qualities.

What is your biggest vice?

Hyperactive energy.

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What do you carry with you when you travel?

A notepad so I can jot down things I might forget. I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t remember things he doesn’t think are important, and I’m similar. The notepad’s very useful, whether it’s for remembering an idea for a recipe or simply someone’s name.

What would you most like to change about Hong Kong (aside from pollution)?

I love Hong Kong and its people but if I could change one thing it would be the gullibility of the people. You remember the run on salt we had at the beginning of the year? It was fiction. People here are sadly very gullible.

Worst dining experience in Hong Kong?

It’s difficult to say because dining is based on expectations. If you have low expectations and the food’s poor it doesn’t matter. If you go somewhere you think will be fantastic and it turns out to be awful that’s when you feel let you down. For instance I took a trip to Las Vegas at the beginning of the year and was hugely disappointed with a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Those are the worst dining experiences.

If you can take visitors to just one place in Hong Kong, where would it be?

The Peak. Then you can show them the whole of Hong Kong and point out the sites. You get a good sense of perspective up there.


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