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Chef elevates Cantonese cuisine with hands-on approach

2019-March-1       Source: Chinadaily.com.cn

Braised fish broth is a traditional dish originating from Shunde in Guangdong province, a city picked by the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a Creative City of Gastronomy in 2014.

Tam Kwok-fung, chef CHINA DAILY

Braised fish broth is a traditional dish originating from Shunde in Guangdong province, a city picked by the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a Creative City of Gastronomy in 2014.

The fish has to be hand-shredded and braised in the cream-colored soup made with the fish bones.

Hong Kong chef Tam Kwok-fung makes his own version of the fish broth based on the flavors of his childhood in his hometown of Shunde, but he elevates the dish by using wild fresh fish such as grouper and adding fish maw, and by incorporating vegetables like black fungus and adding strips of dried orange peel to enrich the flavor.

"I think the essence of Cantonese cuisine lies in good knife skills and the ability to deal with several ingredients in one dish, unlike Japanese or French cuisine, which sometimes focus on one main ingredient in one dish," says Tam, who has made it his mission to bring Cantonese cuisine to more people around the world.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Tam started working in kitchens by helping out with chores at the age of 17. A year later, he began to learn how to deal with different ingredients such as abalone and fish maw.

He took a decade to learn about making Cantonese cuisine before moving to Beijing to help open up a Cantonese restaurant in 1992. Six years later, Tam was invited to work in Bangkok.

He worked for Cantonese restaurants in the Mandarin Oriental and the Peninsula hotels in Bangkok, during which time Tam got the opportunity to serve many heads of state.

"The experience of cooking for VIPs helped me understand the importance of keeping service in mind," says Tam.

He has kept up this habit to the present day, adjusting his menu to suit the preferences, eating habits, and even the health conditions of his guests.

One change Tam has noticed in recent years in Chinese restaurants is that diners better appreciate the chef's skills and ideas.

"Chinese guests used to come in and just order what they wanted to eat, and the relationship between us was like we were just the cooks who processed the ingredients for them," says Tam.

"But now people choose to visit a restaurant to sample the dishes made by a certain chef, which is more in line with the modern dining experience. We chefs now have more of a chance to present our culinary skills and the concepts we have about food."

In 2004, Tam won the gold award at the fifth World Championship of Chinese Cuisine in Guangzhou. Competing in the epicenter of Cantonese cuisine, Tam recalls many renowned Cantonese cuisine chefs from Guangdong and Hong Kong took part in the event.

Chef Tam Kwok-fung's creations include (from left) crispy sea cucumber stuffed with minced shrimp, roasted goose, braised fish broth with fish maw and vegetables, and barbecued black Iberian pork with honey. CHINA DAILY

In the hot dish competition, chefs had to cook two different flavored dishes with two main ingredients and using separate cooking methods within 90 minutes. Tam impressed the judges with his lobster roll and a dish of fried lamb chop with peppers.

In 2007, Tam moved to Macao to work as the executive chef of a Cantonese restaurant in a five-star hotel. After nearly a decade of hard work, he was awarded two Michelin stars for his signature Cantonese dishes in 2016.

Last year, after his restaurant was listed on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2018, Tam accepted a new challenge taking over the kitchen of the Wing Lei Palace in Macao, which involved creating a new menu from scratch with a new team.

"I challenge myself all the time, as I want to stay innovative. I think cooking is like fashion-we have to follow the latest trends to create the most delicious delicacies," he says.

"I spend a great deal of time sourcing top-level ingredients from around the world, to make the most desirable dishes for my diners," says Tam, who now has an unlimited budget for sourcing the best quality ingredients.

Tam has a habit of wandering around local markets each day to find the freshest and most seasonal ingredients, and using them to create new dishes for the daily menu.

"Usually I'll visit the market in the afternoon when the fishermen return from sea with their fresh catches," says Tam.

He believes that maintaining traditional Cantonese cooking methods is essential to creating new dishes. Once Tam finds a new ingredient, he experiments with it and cooks in different traditional ways, such as steaming and frying, to find how to bring out the best in the ingredient.

"The rationality of the combination of ingredients is important when you are creating a new dish, and that is based on how familiar you are with the characteristics of the ingredients," says the 54-year-old.

After having spent more than 30 years in the kitchen, Tam believes his understanding of Cantonese cuisine stems from the basic skills he learned early in his career-and especially how to deal with ingredients.

Speaking of the ideal feedback from diners, Tam thinks there is a simple goal: "I'd be happy if after the diners eat in my restaurant, they would recommend to their friends and family to come and try my food."

Editor: Monica Liu

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