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Culinary man on fire

Published on Friday, 15 Feb 2013
Leung Fai-hung
Photo: Berton Chang

Hoi King Heen chef Leung Fai-hung has blazed a trail to the top of the industry

If master chef Leung Fai-hung is not in the kitchen cooking and designing dishes, he is sitting at a computer, uploading pictures of his new dishes and sharing cooking tips with his fans via social media.

Despite just learning how to use a computer, Leung, executive Chinese chef of the Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Hoi King Heen, at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, has more than 10,000 followers on Facebook and his microblog.

Leung believes in life-long learning and managing his social media activities is only one of his new skills. The veteran chef is convinced that a willingness to learn is the key to success in whatever a person does.

Why did you become a chef?
I came to Hong Kong from the mainland at the age of 16. I didn’t really know what to do – all I knew was that I needed a job to support myself, so some relatives referred me to work as an apprentice at a Hakka-style Chinese restaurant. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, when I got started, there was no open recruitment. People got jobs or apprenticeships through referrals. At the time, I had no idea what it was like to be a chef and I didn’t really have a career plan – I entered the industry by chance.

What is the work culture like in a kitchen?
The kitchen is a rather hierarchical place. If there are 30 men, there are 30 levels. Even for apprentices there are different levels, and being the least-experienced apprentice is the worst. I still remember my days as an apprentice, when everyone in the kitchen was my supervisor and would lecture me or, even worse, give me an earful. In the kitchen, you cannot rebut a senior. When I was an apprentice, I cried myself to sleep every day – it was brutal!

Back in the day, chefs were less educated and they were not good communicators. They were willing to teach you, but they did not care about being understood. In the past, chefs also didn’t know a lot about occupational safety. We often suffered wrist sprains while working with the wok, but nobody said a word. We just suffered in silence and went home to rub ourselves with medicated oil or tieh-ta wine [Chinese medicated wine]. If you complained about the pain, others would think you were unprofessional.

The tough work made me think about abandoning cooking, but late one afternoon, a customer arrived at the restaurant for lunch. All the chefs had gone for their break except me. I told the customer I could not serve him because none of our senior chefs were there, but he insisted I should get him something to eat. I prepared fried noodles and tofu for him. The customer was quite impressed and he told me to keep working hard because I had potential. Those words inspired me to stay and be a chef.

What changes have you seen in the local restaurant industry?
The late ’80s and early ’90s were the golden days of the restaurant business, as Hong Kong’s economy and service industry were taking off. During those years, it was easy for chefs to get promoted or their salaries increased, and everyone was keen to move on for a better employment package and more benefits. But in the past 10 years or so, economic growth has slowed and fewer people have been willing to join the industry because it is tough work. The market’s growth has slowed but it has become more mature.

How did you move up to your current position?
I think my career as a chef began to blossom when, after 10 years, I moved up to be a “Wok Five”, which was my first actual chef position. I was pretty nervous because I was in a position where I got to make my own decisions.

After I became a Wok Five, I moved around quite a bit like everybody else, because at the time, the industry was booming and there were loads of openings. I also spent five years in Japan. I came back to Hong Kong in 1995 to be the assistant executive chef at Hoi King Heen. In the same year, I was promoted to executive chef.

What inspired you to keep upgrading yourself?
A chef needs to have an open mind. I am open to learning about different cuisines because they inspire me to come up with new dishes. During my holidays, I visit places around the city to try different food. It is my hobby and also a source of inspiration.

I think it is important for one to keep learning and improving. In my free time, I take courses in English and how to use a computer. I ask my colleagues to teach me the English names of ingredients and dishes.

As a chef with more than 30 years’ experience, I have tried the cuisines of various places and I think the more I learn, the more I know that there is much more to be explored.

What are the challenges for today’s restaurant business?
Today’s restaurant-goers are very well-informed. They know a great deal and have tried different cuisines and cooking styles. The market is ever-changing and I have to keep myself up to date. I do a lot of research online and attend cooking seminars to learn about new ingredients and the latest cooking techniques.

Food safety is also a growing concern for chefs. Excessive use of chemicals for agriculture and livestock is putting consumers at risk. Chefs are the last line of defence in protecting customers from contaminated food.

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