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Photography courtesy of Park Chinois

As I was about to tuck into Park Chinois’ famous dim sum, a man in a chef’s uniform rushed to our table, apologising profusely for arriving late for our interview. “I am so sorry. This is unacceptable. Please accept my apologies,” he said. For someone who has been working in the kitchen since he was 10 years old, Lee Che Liang knows a successful restaurant needs to be run with military precision.

But the Executive Chef of the fine dining Chinese restaurant and supper club in Mayfair in London can be forgiven for his tardiness. He was kept busy by an officer from the city’s food safety department, who had been in the restaurant since morning conducting their regular checks. The timing couldn’t have been worse as the lunch crowd was streaming in.

When Lee finally sat with me, it was worth the wait. The down-to-earth chef, originally from the southern Malaysian state of Johor, said his on-the-job training in the kitchen at the tender age of 10 came of necessity rather than by choice. His extended family had owned a seafood restaurant in the state of Melaka, where the young Lee helped out, doing everything from washing the dishes to serving food to earn some money. “I did everything there – washing, cleaning, serving, learning how to cook, everything!” he said. Two years later, he left to work in restaurants in Singapore, where his mother is from.

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While Lee was initially not keen for a life in the kitchen and saw it only as a way of making a living, that changed when he attended a food and hospitality exhibition in Kuala Lumpur when he was 16 years old. That visit would become the turning point for him, igniting his passion for cooking. “I saw so many different and interesting aspects of cooking such as carving, plating and pastry-making, and it really opened my eyes. It was then that I fell in love (with cooking),” he said.

At 16, Lee applied to work in the kitchen of a hotel, which became the launchpad for his introduction into the world of competitive cooking. “The golden age for me was between 17 and 19 years old, when I represented Malaysia in cooking competitions in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan,” he said. In 1996, Lee was crowned champion in a World Chinese Cuisine competition in Taiwan. “I was very proud to win awards for my country. I did it without any formal training. I studied on my own and experimented with the processes until I perfected them,” he added.

Park Chinois in London

It was in Singapore that Lee became the master of his profession. As junior sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton, he learned the importance of having the highest level of quality, service and hospitality to succeed. It was also at the Ritz-Carlton that fate would eventually bring him to London, the city he has called home for more than 20 years. Lee met and befriended Alan Yau, the London restaurateur famed for founding the Wagamama food chain and Hakkasan restaurants at the hotel. Yau persuaded Lee, then 25 years old, to move to London to help him set up the first of his group’s Hakkasan restaurants in 2001.

“I had only planned to be there for two years. At the end of the term, I handed Alan my resignation letter. I didn’t like London then. At that time, I hadn’t experienced the real London. But Alan refused to accept my resignation, so my wife and I ended up staying another four years. By that time, my wife and I had started to really love the city and the quality of life here. So we bought a property and my son, who was born here, is already 11 years old,” said Lee.

Lee, who does not have formal training at a culinary arts school, does not believe in hiring someone based on their academic qualifications. “I’ll give you a scenario between an American company and a Japanese company. An American company will look at your CV and hire you based on your CV. But a Japanese company will put your CV aside, tell you to start work and evaluate your performance in three months. That’s the Asian style. And this is how I hire my kitchen staff. I give them three months to prove themselves. You can’t tell if a person can do the job from an interview. What if that day wasn’t his good day? Maybe he didn’t get enough sleep because he was nervous about the interview. So he fails the interview, but does that mean he can’t do the job?” asks Lee, who runs a 65-person kitchen at Park Chinois.

A real chef cooks from the heart, a trait that is sorely lacking in young chefs today, said Lee. “They can cook but without any soul. There is no heart, no culture. Even for something as simple as fried rice, you have to look at the fundamentals, not just the presentation. You need to understand your ingredients, know where they are from or how they are grown and cultivated.”

Prior to the opening of Park Chinois, Lee and his team spent three years sourcing for all the ingredients in their menu, taking time to understand the origins of each of the components they required for their dishes. For example, for the restaurant’s stand-out dish, the Duck de Chine or Cantonese-style roast duck, Lee spent three days at Silver Hill Farm assessing its processes, from breeding the waterfowl to cooking and packaging. The team still travels the world to sample different produce. They work closely with their suppliers to gain insights into new produce or emerging food trends.

For Lee, passion is everything, for which he has paid with his health. He was hospitalised and diagnosed with pulmonary edema in 2015, the year Park Chinois was launched, and is still recovering from it. “It started as a minor flu. I didn’t take care of it and continued to work. The lung became infected and it took me nearly a year to recover. I still need to be careful because it hasn’t completely gone away,” he said, adding that the incident has taught him to appreciate life and the need to have a healthy balanced diet.

It’s clear that Lee is a traditionalist at heart. His menus display dishes that combine Eastern traditions and ingredients with fresh European produce to create the flavours of the season. “I usually create my own recipes. I modify traditional dishes by keeping the (Eastern) sauce and seasonings, for instance har cheong, har kow and mui choy, and combining them with European ingredients to make contemporary Chinese cuisine,” said Lee, who scoffs at cooking techniques such as molecular gastronomy. “The only kind of molecular cooking I will allow in my kitchen is in the making of pastries,” he said.

Lee cautions that there is a difference between a chef and a cook, saying a chef needs to have a fondness for the arts and music. Someone who appreciates music knows how to sway to the rhythm and that means he enjoys what he does, while someone who appreciates art will have a keen eye for detail. “If you don’t like these two, don’t be a chef, be a cook. A cook needs only to follow the formula, while a chef needs to manage. That’s the difference.” Lee speaks from experience, having been invited to cook for heads of states, including twice for Chinese President Xi Jinping at Downing Street when the latter visited London. Singers Rihanna and Rita Ora as well as Hong Kong artists Jackie Chan and Maggie Cheung are fans of his and regulars at Park Chinois.

Now 42, Lee wants to return to Malaysia one day to impart his knowledge to others in the industry but says it would depend on the opportunities available. “I want to share my experience, maybe do a bit of lecturing or write a book. I also want to start a restaurant school, where anyone can come in to learn how to be a chef,” he said. But all that will have to wait. For now, Lee’s priority is to train more chefs for the restaurant market in London, which he says is facing an acute shortage. Perhaps along the way, he will have time to live a little according to his philosophy in life. No doubt he deserves it.

Cook Like A Chef

Chef Lee shares his recipe for Chao Zhou-Style Wild Seabass, a classic homecooked dish.

(Tip: To achieve the perfect base for the broth, boil the chicken stock with all the bones of the fish at high temperature for 15 minutes.)

Ingredients:

  • 100g Chinese cabbage
  • 15g Chinese celery leaves
  • 20g Chinese celery stems
  • 50g taro
  • 30g whole dried shrimps
  • 600g wild seabass (deboned)

For the seasoning:

  • 250g pure chicken stock
  • 50g taro paste
  • 1g five-spice powder
  • 3g sugar
  • 3g Maldon sea salt
  • 40g rice wine

Method:

  1. Steam taro paste for use in stock.
  2. Cut taro into small square pieces.
  3. Cut the leaves of the Chinese cabbage into squares.
  4. Dice the stem and shred the leaves of the Chinese celery.
  5. Debone the wild seabass and cut into squares.
  6. Deep-fry the dried shrimps, taro and wild seabass.
  7. Wok-toss the stems of the Chinese celery and Chinese cabbage.
  8. Pour the chicken stock into the wok. Add taro paste, sea salt, sugar, rice wine and five-spice powder.
  9. Boil for one minute.
  10. Add in all the fried items. Slow cook for one minute.
  11. Remove from fire and serve.