Bo Innovation’s Alvin Leung on Eating Dogs, Water Beetles, and Why Hong Kong Street Food Does not Exist AnymoreApril 30, 2015
There are only a few chefs who will admit this shocking revelation to you—that they had no inspiration whatsoever, that no one influenced them even just a bit in their journey to become who they are today. Rockstar chef Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation Hong Kong is one of them. Meticulous and consistently practicing ‘x-treme’ things in his kitchen, he tells us that he needed to cook if he wanted to eat well. “My mother was horrible in the kitchen,” he tells us with a laugh. “She influenced me [in a way] to cook for myself so I could eat better. A lot of chefs have a lot of these romantic histories, you know? I think the ‘I was inspired by my grandmother’s meatballs’ story contains too much fairytale. But that’s just me. I am practical. I get my influence because I’m lazy, so if somebody cannot do something for me, I do it myself. Even at home, my wife does all the cooking! I don’t even bother. At the end of the day, each person has his or her own story. Some like to get romantic, some like to get nostalgic, some like the grandmother story. For me, it doesn’t work. You get where you are because only you can do what it is you do. Leave the grandmothers alone.”
Alvin is a character in his own right. Bold and serious, he likes getting down to business. There’s just no bullshit with this guy. You will hear things that would shake your reality (so you would rather not hear) such as ‘street food destination’ being one of the worst descriptions to give to Hong Kong because “I think people don’t know what the hell street food is anymore. Before in the old days you see these people pushing carts with waffles, satay, fish cakes, offal, but these are things I have not had in a long time. Now people think wanton noodles are street food. Wanton noodles? That’s not street food. You get that in a restaurant off the street! Dim sum? Well, in Hong Kong they’re served in restaurants, but in Malaysia yes, you’ll see them being sold in carts on the street. But not in Hong Kong. “Trends come and go, the prediction a couple years ago was family-style food, and then we had Spanish, then Peruvian, Mexican, South American—the come and go pretty quickly. At the end of the day, the people of Hong Kong, the mass of the population is still very Chinese-driven. I think you know that in other parts of the world, food trends will also come and go, and they will come again and then they will go and obviously, I don’t really try to predict because if I try to predict I’ll be rich!” he laughs, “but I would have to say that at the end of day Hong Kong, is very unique in that I think the Chinese cuisine will still dominate. At the end of the day, the philosophy still stands—very, very tasty food at very economical prices that’s cheap, cheery, and fast. “Hong Kong, I think, has passed its ‘emerging’ stage and I think Hong Kong is the mecca of ingredients where everything you get is fresh. People there have high standards. You could say it’s a finicky population—very demanding, highly competitive, but you know it’s at the top. It’s not emerging—it’s beyond emerging.” When asked about the central point of Chinese cuisine and its bare essence, Alvin admits that it’s very difficult to define. “It’s just so diverse! I am Cantonese, so I have to say that it’s my favorite—very product-driven, simple and straightforward. You get to taste what God has made for you. But you get different flavors from different parts of China. If you go to the north, it’s more about preservation and fermentation, a lot of sauces. Then you get Szechuan, where it’s full of spices. Go down to shanghai and you get dishes that are very rich and strong in flavor, and being a very affluent city in the old days you begin to sense sugar. Everybody sees Southeast Asia as place where there is a lot of sugar in the food, and they see it as unsophisticated and maybe more comfort-oriented. You have to realize that sugar was one of the expensive of commodities many, many years ago, and the reason why Southeast Asian food contains so much sugar is because it was readily available to the region. “So you ask about the bare essence of Chinese cuisine, and I honestly cannot answer because there is so much variety, so much history, so much heritage, it covers almost everything! In fact, a lot of these so-called ‘new’ and ‘modern’ cuisines have been taking techniques that the Chinese have been using for over years. Sometimes, it surprises me how some of these ‘new’ and ‘modern’ chefs have never been to China, yet their food is something that existed in China years ago. Even if you take Japanese cuisine, for example, it has some strong influence from Chinese cuisine and in fact, all over Southeast Asia. The Chinese cuisine has fingerprints in every single one of those countries.” After spending some significant time in Canada, Alvin Leung started to take on his interest in food. “I became interested in cooking. I was always interested in being different, and that goes with my personality and my education. I took eating seriously before I started taking cooking seriously. I think you need to take eating seriously before you start cooking seriously,” his eyes crinkling behind his tinted glasses as his smile broadens. “I like to experiment, to eat everything, to be unafraid, to not be intimated. I ate my first water beetle when I was 4 years old. I couldn’t remember it entirely, but it was salty and liquidy. I didn’t spit it out; though my nanny got into deep trouble when my mother found out I ate that beetle. And the memory is still there…I can still sense that savory bug going into my mouth. It wasn’t unpleasant, I didn’t spit it out, and certainly at that age I had no fear eating a water beetle. So I would say from a young age I am fearless. “I have a particular fondness for dogs, so I probably don’t want to eat dog again. I’ve had it many times but nope, not anymore. I have 9 chihuahuas now, and I don’t think they’ll forgive me for eating dogs. Oh! I had fermented snake in Korea, and I still can’t fight the flavor. It was full of ammonia—it was like putting ammonia in your mouth! Now that, I would say was interesting,” he reminisces. He shares that he carries a particular fondness for congee and everything associated with it, especially yao tiew or Chinese donuts. “Congee really is comfort food to me. One of my favorite places is Kau Kee, which is just like, three steps away from the restaurant. I won’t say it’s the best congee, but it’s very, very good congee. I think favorite places have nothing to do with what you consider to be the ‘best’. I think it has to do with where you’re most comfortable with—and convenience, of course! But the food cannot be bad.” Upon landing in Manila, he tells us that he couldn’t wait to eat some grilled chicken, roasted chicken, and pork. “The pork here in Manila is very nice—crispy, crackling. And that chicken oil that goes with the chicken. The food here [in Manila] is very easygoing and indulgent. It’s simple, and there’s no problem with that. “I think people nowadays are afraid to admit that they enjoy something very simple. People nowadays want to brag, you know? In Facebook, they have to say ‘I’m eating this, and it’s done by this person, cultivated by this, and done with all these things’. All this social media bullshit makes people forget about the basics, and there’s nothing wrong about appreciating that. I notice here that people’s tastes are getting a bit more diverse and sophisticated because they have more money to spend. But they should remember that there’s nothing wrong with the basics. They may not be the taste preference of everyone, but sometimes people are just very afraid to say they like it.” “The biggest lesson my restaurant has taught me is to pay attention to detail—to micromanage. I used to run macro-style in a factor with 300-400 staff members. I look at my restaurant, and my very small staff, and I deal with it on a micro level, which I find more enjoyable. I know it’s different from running a large-scale factory, but I guess I got to appreciate the little things better.” Alvin Leung takes a lot of pride in being ‘x-treme’. He is continues to challenge what is normal and he embodies his philosophy loud and clear. “The best thing about being ‘x-treme’? I get a lot of attention!” he laughs. “You’re only competing with yourself, like Van Gogh. I’m not afraid to admit I’m a guy who always seeks attention—a guy who always wants to be different.”
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