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Young punk chef

Updated: 2013-09-14 07:47
By Wang Kaihao ( China Daily)

His boss admits he took a chance employing this offbeat culinary genius, but quickly adds that the gamble paid off handsomely. Wang Kaihao talks to a street-smart Hong Kong chef in Hohhot who admits he draws inspiration from Japanese manga.

In the intensely competitive world of hotel food and beverage sales, most general managers must be on their toes and on a constant lookout for talent in the kitchen. Sometimes, these come in unexpected packages.

At the Shangri-La Hohhot in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, one hotel boss took a huge risk, crossed his fingers and waited to see what the results would be. He scored.

In employing a very young executive chef for his Chinese kitchen, Victor Ng was running very close to the precipice, but his instincts paid off.

 Young punk chef

Menex Cheung ranks among the very few young executive chefs in five-star hotels. Photos Provided To China Daily

Menex Cheung had comparatively little hotel experience, having worked mostly in private clubs. But the plus factor was that he had a better start than most other young chefs, having been apprenticed at the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club, where some of the world's richest choose to dine.

Here, he had the benefit of being mentored by some exceptional chefs, who later also influenced his career path. It was through this channel too that his current boss got to know of him.

"Not long after he joined us at the Shangri-La Hohhot, he dyed his hair blonde. That first day, he mostly hid in his office so I wouldn't see him," Ng says, laughing. Fortunately for Cheung, Ng was more concerned about his cooking style than his personal style.

As an executive chef in a five-star hotel, the young man strays far from the standard stereotype of the kitchen boss. His impish good looks reflect a free spirit, which is in turn mirrored in his surprising creations, like his signature Crackling Rice in Seafood Soup.

It is a theatrical dish that is also very delicious.

As the waiter slowly pours freshly fried rice crisps into the hot red broth, diners are mesmerized by the spectacle, which literally snaps, crackles and pops with color and sound. The huge bowl usually returns empty to the kitchen, testimony to the taste of the dish.

The chef is a little like his signature dish, too. Surprising and colorful.

His strongly accented Mandarin and his stylish blonde head of hair make Cheung stand out among the locals in Hohhot. Nevertheless, the young chef, at 31, already knows he is comfortable being a maverick, not just because of how he looks, but also for what he creates on the dinner table.

"There is no delicious or horrible food for me because I keep an open mind on everything," says the Hong Kong-born Cheung, executive Chinese chef at the Shangri-la Hotel Hohhot.

"What matters most for chefs is whether they can make something no one else has ever made."

He attributes inspiration for his signature dish to Chuka Ichiban!, a Japanese cartoon series on Chinese cuisine, which has influenced him since childhood.

"It needs imagination to cook. When ordering food in a restaurant, I always prefer to order dishes with bizarre names. That can be interesting and challenging."

What did shock Cheung when he first arrived in Hohhot was the Inner Mongolian staple of naked oats noodles.

"The sticky noodles steeped in the strongly-flavored mutton soup was totally different from what we have back in the south," he recalls. "I found so many new things here. I love the sheep entrails soup best among local food, even though that may not be the most healthy."

Although Cheung has only been in Hohhot for a year, he has many reasons love the unfamiliar place and culture.

The vast grasslands offer him mutton of the highest quality, which has inspired him to roast legs of lamb over traditional charcoal. The excellent dairy produce allows him to experiment with various yogurt ice creams, and he uses fine Inner Mongolia white spirits on traditional Cantonese steamed chicken to give it a rich fragrance.

Now, Cheung plans to create new dishes using organic lamb reared in the Daqingshan foothills on the northern outskirts of Hohhot.

"My mentors told me to make fine Cantonese cuisine with local ingredients wherever I go and this is my chance."

Cheung started learning to cook when he was 17. He had wanted to be a Chinese chef but somehow, he was allocated pastry classes instead because of his "poor English".

His determination paid off, however, and he started apprenticeship in the Chinese kitchen of the Hong Kong Jockey Club in 2002. Along the way, he learned many more lessons on how to be a top-notch chef, including why he should not steal time off work.

"Once, I cut my finger and was given a full week sick leave, which was obviously not necessary. The chef got angry and told me not to do anything else but wash vegetables for months after."

Since then, he has learned to focus in the kitchen, and pay attention with heart and soul.

Like most artists, Cheung feels inhibited by administrative work, which he finds complicated and bothersome. For him, being able to personally take charge in the kitchen and fire up a dish or two is a good way to release stress.

Another stress-reliever is the chef's 4-year-old Husky, whom he pampers.

"It is difficult to become a leader among people of the same age or older but it is never too early to be a chef and let more people enjoy your creations. How many people can claim the privilege of having a job that is also a personal interest and hobby?

"I am very fortunate to be one of them." It is certainly a sentiment shared by his boss.

Contact the writer at wangkaihao@chinadaily.com.cn.