Tsang Chiu-king: Balancing classic and creative Cantonese cuisineBy LE PAN staff - February 17, 2017
Cantonese cuisine does not come easy. Hours of painstaking preparation and marination precede the wok’s fiery blast. Indeed, some time-honoured recipes – such as deep-fried chicken – are so laborious that Cantonese chefs have been dropping them from their restaurant menus. Not Tsang Chiu-king, a traditionalist at heart whose two Michelin stars affirm his status as one of the Chinese dining world’s most creative chefs.
At Tsang’s new restaurant, Dynasty Garden in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Bay, classic Cantonese cuisine takes pride of place, along with twists on traditional recipes. The challenge and reward, he says, comes from cooking the classics “beyond the standard”, and settling for nothing less than perfection.
His chicken is deep-fried with minced shrimp and sesame, and served with deep-fried crab cake and honey-glazed Yunnan ham. The dim sum menu runs the gamut from well-loved standards such as shrimp dumplings and barbecued pork buns to contemporary additions like deep-fried puffs with foie gras and bean curd; and steamed crab meat dumplings with egg white.
Tsang’s experiences abroad are reflected in dishes such as sautéed Australian wagyu beef cubes in a black truffle sauce with pumpkin and wild mushrooms; and Iberian pork belly, which he flame-broils before tossing in mushrooms and black pepper and dousing with red wine.
At 26, he headed for the Swiss Alps to take up a sous chef position at a Chinese restaurant in Zermatt, where his eyes were opened to European fine dining. “I learned a different dining culture and procedure – like serving individual portions rather than placing communal dishes on the table as we do traditionally in Chinese restaurants,” he says of these five formative years.
“I also acquired an appreciation of luxury ingredients such as caviar and truffles as well as cooking with cheese and red wine, which we don’t normally use in Chinese kitchens.” Gold leaf also appears on Tsang’s table today.
Following his return home in the early 1990s, Tsang was among the vanguard of Chinese chefs, working mainly in hotels, who brought fine-dining elements familiar in the West to their restaurants. He built up a strong local following for his signature dishes, which balance classicism with creativity, and gained his Michelin stars during a lengthy tenure at Ming Court in the Langham Place hotel (now Cordis Hong Kong at Langham Place), the first in 2009 and a second the following year.
Despite the city having a generous sprinkling of star kitchens, Tsang believes that Hong Kong chefs have to fight harder to gain the respect that their Western counterparts enjoy; the local diner can be fickle. “At the best restaurants in the West, they proudly serve their most authentic dishes time and again. But in Hong Kong diners are always seeking novelties so they have less patience for traditional recipes. They want to be wowed every time. I like to respect and celebrate tradition with my signature dishes, as well as bringing something new and creative to the table.”
Scrambled egg white with shrimps and perilla leaf crisp is one such creation. Only the most skilled Cantonese chef can handle this dish, which requires great dexterity when cooking at high temperatures. Tsang, who modestly states that his success stems from “learning the basics right”, ensures his kitchen team, many of whom have worked with him for years, are trained to the highest standards.
His passion for cooking began as a schoolboy after his elder brother, also a successful Hong Kong chef, got his first job. “I couldn’t wait until school was out every day so I could go to the restaurant and help out. I was just chopping vegetables and other chores, but I loved it. I left school as soon as I could, and went to work.”
It was a move that paid dividends, taking the tireless Tsang to a 30-year career at top Chinese kitchens in Hong Kong and abroad. Prior to opening Dynasty Garden, he had spent two years in Australia, helming Silks Chinese restaurant at Crown Melbourne, and a year back with the Langham hotel group as master chef for its Chinese restaurants. It was a plum job, jet-setting between the group’s properties worldwide, but Tsang missed running in his own kitchen.
He is now back in his element at Dynasty Garden, which opened in December last year. The restaurant, wrapped in marble and steel and dotted with Chinese ceramics, suits his artistic presentation; when he puts down his wok on a rare day off – a perfectionist, he is an almost permanent fixture in the kitchen – he might pick up his brush to practise traditional Chinese ink painting.
Five private rooms give him the opportunity to tailor menus for groups. “It’s most important that the restaurant is customer driven, as is the tradition in Western countries and Japan,” Tsang notes. He also enjoys creating wine-pairing dinners. Dynasty Garden’s sommeliers can select from a 1,000-bottle cellar shared with sister restaurants Le Pan (contemporary French) and Matsunichi (Japanese), all in spacious premises on the lower floors of a new luxury commercial building.
And if you go, we recommend the deep-fried chicken with minced shrimp. It may take Tsang hours to get this dish just right, but it’s worth it.