Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Hong Zhou Restaurant - A Star In His Own Right

It was elite credentials by any standard – to be among the first batch of chefs awarded the country’s highest culinary honor, the National Grade of China; and to be recognized as one of China’s 8 most illustrious chefs. But these were not Chef Wu Rui Kang’s, they were his dad’s.

Photo by Isaac Lau
Chef Wu’s entry into Michelin fame was dramatic. His restaurant’s non-inclusion in the inaugural Michelin Guide Hong Kong 2008 was greeted with howls of disbelief and derision from local food magazines and netizens. The credentials of the Michelin arbiters were questioned, in particular their knowledge of the Chinese food scene in Hong Kong. The following year came the much-deserved nod from Michelin, with a one-star ranking.

In fact Chef Wu’s sterling career was hardly heralded. After graduation from university he held a senior post in the Chinese civil service, from which he left to start a small restaurant in Hangzhou. As business grew, he decided to shift his base to Hong Kong, where his father was working at that time as executive chef for a renowned Hangzhou-style restaurant.  Chef Wu opened the Hong Zhou Restaurant in 2006.

Top right, clockwise: Stuffed Lotus Root with Glutinous Rice; Drunken Smoked Carp;
Cooked Bamboo Shoots; Chopped Vegetable with Bean Curd and Fried Vegetarian Goose.

“Hangzhou cuisine is one of the eight great cuisines of China; Sichuan and Cantonese being two of the others,” said the Chef. “But while Sichuan and Cantonese food has become well-known inside and outside of China, Hangzhou food is just beginning to get popular, especially in China”, he adds, “and in Hong Kong, Cantonese and Shanghai food is still king”.

Fish Balls with Chinese Ham
So while the Chef is highly esteemed in Hong Kong food circles, his audience remains small, ardent, and focused. But Chef Wu is patient and resolute.

“Hangzhou food is pretty pared down; ingredients are the focus, and the main ingredient always delivers the key flavor,” he explains.  “Not spices, not the sauces…but the main ingredient itself; even salt and oil are used very sparingly”. Presentation, likewise, boils down to the deftness of skill of chef and knife. “Hangzhou food,” enthuses Chef Wu, “has lasted so many centuries because of its simplicity and strong traditions”.

Fried Fresh Water Eels
That’s why tweaking his flavors to suit the Hong Kong palate is something he has stood against from the start; while the use of air-flown ingredients all the way from Hangzhou is a practice he has always insisted upon. Such rigorous measures -- and not half-efforts and compromises -- are what he believes authenticity and reputations are built upon, and what he believes will ultimately win him a large audience for his beloved cuisine. Now he has the star to prove it.

But what makes a great chef? “It takes a combination of assets -- kitchen ethics, intelligence, and innate gifts”, says the Chef. Kitchen ethics implies respect and humility, especially before teacher or master, he says, and the willingness to give your best in everything from cooking to personal hygiene. In short: attitude.

Smoked Yellow Croaker
Intelligence is the drive for technical mastery. Chef Wu lists essential areas such as kitchen skills, cost control, and financial/business acumen. Finally, innate talent and passion is a factor. “But”, stressed the Chef, “it must be coupled with a lot of hard work”. Only then will innate gifts make a difference, and raise the aspiring chef above all the other chefs to allow him to achieve greatness.

Dong Pu Pork

Hong Zhou Restaurant
1/F Chinachem Johnston Plaza
178-186 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2591 1898