Before joining the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute in 2005, Chef Leung Kin Sum had been the Head Chef of several Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and in the Mainland. With his extensive experience in Chinese cuisine, he is now the Senior Instructor, Food Preparation (Chinese) of the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute. Chef Leung was awarded the Occupational Qualification Certificate – Second Level (Technician), Chinese Food Preparation, the People’s Republic of China in 2005. He participated in 2009 World Street Food International Conference & Festival organized by The Culinary Institute of America in the United States. Chef Leung won “The Best Presentation Award” and “The Best Vegetarian Dish Award” in the first and second “Nanhai-Hong Kong Chefs Challenge” in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
After a full day of preparing and marinating, which are characteristic of the Chinese cuisine, chefs Hung and Sum set aside some time to share with us their passion for cooking, the culinary traditions of Cantonese cuisine, and their experience working and living in a city with one of the fastest growing restaurant scenes.
Kul IN: Where do you originally come from and how long are you working in a culinary profession?
Chef Leung: Hong Kong, I have been working in this profession for over 35 years
Chef Chan: I was born in Hong Kong too, me, over 40 years.
Kul IN: How did you start your career? Why did you want to become a cook/chef?
Chef Leung: My brother was a chef and his good food impressed me a lot. He encouraged me to join a restaurant as an apprentice after my graduation and I thought it’s great to learn a professional skill which can develop to a life-long career.
Chef Chan: As a kid, I loved dim sum very much and I was crazy for Steamed BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao). It was my childhood fantasy to imagine myself working as a dim sum chef so I could make Siu Bao and eat it. The life at that time was much harder so I worked at my tender age to support my family. Seeing the growing number of Chinese restaurants, I thought chef is a career with high job security so I joined the apprenticeship as a dim sum chef once I quitted my study.
Kul IN: At what age did you start to work in a professional kitchen, and how would you describe your beginnings? What did you learn the most?
Chef Leung: I started working since 18, I started with learning a lot of basic skills which was indeed very essential. Cooking may look simple but as a chef, there are a lot of skills that one has to acquire, from cutting, cleaning to cooking, the knowledge of nutrition and ingredients etc. It is a highly professional career in which experience is very important.
Chef Chan: I started working when I was around 15, I learned making dim sum from scratch, yet one has to cultivate a good aesthetic sense to excel as a dim sum chef.
Kul IN: In which restaurants did you work or collaborate with them? Who were your mentors?
Chef Leung: I worked in hotel restaurants in Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well, some sizeable Chinese restaurants. I had a lot of good mentors and among all, the late Chef Tsang famed as “The King of Cantonese dishes in Hong Kong” was my favourite one. He taught me a lot about authentic Cantonese cuisine and I developed my real passion in traditional cuisine with him.
Chef Chan: Before joining CCI, I worked in different kinds of restaurants, those in 5 star international hotels to traditional tea houses. As apprentices, we respected a lot our mentors and I admired my first mentor Chef Chow very much. Not only that he taught me technical knowledge but he was also the first one teaching me what means by a good chef. He said, in order to respect our guests, we have to give them the best food. He was always positive and I learnt a lot from him, not only how to cook but how to be a good chef.
Kul IN: Hong Kong restaurant scene changed a lot and today is very popular and world known. Can you describe Hong Kong restaurant evolution from your career beginnings till today? What is the main factor of such a big growth and professionalism of restaurant scene?
Chef Leung: Nowadays, I see more the diversity of Chinese restaurants. When I first started my career as a chef, we had only traditional dishes and customers were not so open-minded. Since the chefs nowadays are equipped with a widened international scope, they have good knowledge about western cooking skills, ingredients and culture which facilities the growth of the restaurant scene.
Chef Chan: In my opinion, I would consider 70s was the time for Chinese Catering industry to grow, 80s was its golden time. From 90s to now, it’s a kind of “diversification and integration”. From a vast diversification of Chinese restaurants, now people tend to “synthesize”. From traditional to modern Chinese cuisine, not only the restaurateurs and the chefs, the diners are also equipped with more understanding about Chinese cuisine, of different provinces, from classical to modern.
Kul IN: Could you describe the dishes you prepared? Where do they originally come from, what techniques of cooking does a chef needs to know in order to prepare them?
Chef Leung: I prepared 4 very traditional Cantonese dishes, which express different kinds and levels of culinary skills required. My favourite one is the Deep-fried crab claw, a dish always seen in traditional banquet which can demonstrate the beauty of the delicate Cantonese cuisine. And one can understand the wok-fried skills easily via the Stir-fried Chicken Fillets.
Chef Chan: I prepared 4 dim sums including Steamed mushroom buns, Poached cuttlefish dumplings, Deep-fried spring roll and Baked black pepper pancake. They can easily reflect the essence of Chinese dim sum which about the pursuance of perfection in the shape, the taste and the fragrance. And these dim sums can help one to understand how a dim sum chef should “feel” about the shapes.
Kul IN: What is Cantonese cuisine specific about, and what are its traditions?
Chef Leung: Guangzhou has a history serving as the southern gateway to China, an important trading port for the Mainland and overseas. It has resulted in a unique blend of northern and southern style Chinese cuisine. Cantonese cuisine emphasizes the control of heat, hence a good chef should have a great skill to control the heat throughout the entire cooking process of a dish. It has to be precise and one has to have thorough understanding of each ingredient being used.
Chef Chan: Cantonese dim sum is renowned internationally. Cantonese cultivated the culture of visiting tea houses to enjoy dim sum since Qing dynasty. Dim sum plays a very important role in Cantonese dining culture. Dim sum is delicate and delicious; as well with a lot of diversity. It is not difficult to find over 100 choices of dim sum being offered in a Chinese restaurant. Dim sum is small but it requires all kinds of skills that one may use in preparing a dish, from stir-fried fillings, to finishing with steam or deep-fried. Making dim sum is sophisticated, and it is one of the important elements of Chinese culinary arts.
Kul IN: What is your professional philosophy?
Chef Leung: I take myself as an ambassador of Chinese Cuisine. Particularly with my huge passion in Cantonese cuisine, I wish to introduce it to every part of the world.
Chef Chan: Culinary art is part of a culture, as a chef, not only that I should cook well but to pass on the next generation all I know about culinary art, my knowledge and my experience.
Kul IN: What is your mission as a teacher?
Chef Leung: Not only that I pass to them all I know technically, I wish my students can preserve the culture of culinary art particularly traditional Cantonese cuisine
Chef Chan: With the advanced technology and the fast pace of the world, some very nice dim sum we had when we were small can hardly be seen nowadays due to the sophisticated techniques and time required to prepare those old dim sums. As a teacher, I wish to pass on to my students everything I know in order to preserve all the beautiful handmade dim sums and to prevent them not to become “legends”.
Kul IN: Please finish the sentence, Cooking for me …
Chef Leung: Cooking for me is a kind of passion, I enjoy cooking every day in my life.
Chef Chan: Cooking for me is a ritual, cooking is a kind of art that I always take it seriously; on the other hand, it becomes part of me and it is my culture.