At the helm of Sing Yin Cantonese Dining at the W Hong Kong, Executive Chinese Chef Johnny Chan is constantly looking to elevate the Cantonese dining experience. Food has long been part of Chan’s life – his culinary journey began at home, as he helped to cook for his younger siblings while his parents were at work.
Since his arrival in Hong Kong, Chan’s worked in some of the city’s most famous Chinese restaurants and even helped a particularly well-known fine-dining eatery gain Michelin star status. Now, he’s brought over 30 years of experience to bear on the restaurant’s recently launched Exquisite Delights set menu. We spoke to Chan about his East-meets-West approach to cooking and his determination to innovate in line with current food trends.
How did you get into food and cooking?
When I was small, my mum was taking care of everything at home. As the eldest son, I was responsible for helping out and looking after my siblings. This marked the beginning of my journey with food. I assisted my mom with food preparation at home and had so much fun with that.
When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the food industry was just starting to thrive. Being a chef was quite common among my peers, and so I got into the industry as an apprentice chef.
What training did you do to become a chef?
Not much official training was needed. As an apprentice, I assisted the chefs and learned my cooking skills from them. I learned through observation, taking note of every detail; any spare time I had, I practised. I also acquired some culinary skills myself and got to know more about food and its characteristics while dining out and discussing food with others.
What do you think are the most important attributes for a chef?
Patience and perseverance. You have to stay in a hot, stuffy kitchen for long hours with burning hot woks. Taste is also important. You have to enhance your skills by identifying the tastes and matching the food you have in mind. You also have to stay focused on what you’re doing to ensure the food is properly managed.
Most importantly, you have to have a passion for food and cooking. You have to love what you’re doing and overcome many hurdles on your way to becoming a good chef.
What makes a good dish?
A good dish should be tasty with an appealing presentation. The ingredients have to be fresh and handled with exquisite cooking skills to ensure a quality dish.
What influences your cooking style?
Throughout my journey as a chef, my superiors have influenced my cooking style. By learning from my masters and observing their ways of cooking, I developed my style; my personal food preference and experience also had an influence.
Trends are also important in my cooking style. I change my style with reference to the prevailing trends, including healthy dishes, innovative ingredients, and incorporating special food items and cooking methods in my dishes. Chefs have to learn from current trends and explore more possibilities.
What’s your process for creating a dish?
The first step is to choose the ingredients based on seasonality. After deciding the main ingredients, I will figure out different combinations to match with the theme and think of suitable cooking methods. Once I’ve got the initial creation, our team will try and comment on it so we can revise and improve; we repeat the whole process until we create a satisfying dish.
What do you consider to be the standout moments of your career?
Of course, guests’ appreciation and compliments are the most satisfying moments for me.
However, there was a time I was asked to create a new menu for a luncheon for general managers from various prestigious hotels in just one day. The task was challenging as I had to create an extraordinary menu within one day, and we have to ensure the menu could go beyond the guests’ expectation. So our team, including myself, worked very hard on the menu, from sourcing to cooking, we did not compromise any detail, despite the limited time.
At last, we managed to get the menu sorted. It was praised by every general manager and they even wrote thank you letters to show their appreciation. It was very rewarding. I am also glad to have a good team of chefs with me, who put in a lot of effort and worked together as a great team. So, I would regard this as the standout moment of my career.
Chinese cooking is very different from Western cooking. What skills do you think are necessary to become a successful Chinese chef?
A successful Chinese chef must be a good team player. Compared to Western cooking, Chinese cooking involves much more teamwork as each dish requires different cooking processes; chefs have to work closely and communicate well. Thus, maintaining good relationships within the team is essential to become a successful Chinese chef.
Another necessary skill is physical strength. As Chinese cuisine emphasizes Wok Hei (鑊氣), a Chinese chef has to hold a wok and other cooking apparatus from time to time, which requires physical strength.
You’ve cooked at several prestigious restaurants, including Michelin-starred eateries. What did you learn from these experiences?
I would say I have learned their meticulous attitude. The master chefs at [my previous Michelin-starred restaurant] were very demanding and strict – every chef had good self-discipline, and they always paid attention to every single detail, from selecting ingredients to plating. By working there, I know their success is a result of their discipline and meticulously; I’ve also trained myself and my team to be meticulous.
You’ve just launched a new signature tasting menu at Sing Yin. How did you go about creating this?
I tried to create an innovative menu with new ingredient combinations and tastes. I wanted to incorporate the ideas of Western cuisine into this menu by cooking Western ingredients in a Chinese style. That’s why I created dishes like braised lobster soup with bird’s nest and seafood, and sautéed Australian Wagyu beef with wild mushroom and black truffle sauce in a crispy bun.
The idea came from the trend of fusion cuisine. It took a lot of repeated trials and recipe amendments before we finally finished the menu. Chefs from different hotels and restaurants meet regularly to exchange ideas and talk about food trends and the preferences of our guests; it’s a great way for us to brainstorm new ideas and create new dishes and menus.
What do you hope guests will take away from their experience at Sing Yin?
I hope guests will enjoy their experience at Sing Yin Cantonese Dining – not just our food, but also their interactions with our talent. I always personally greet the guests and interact with them, listen to them, and review our menu and service in order to make their experience more memorable and delightful.
I also hope guests at Sing Yin Cantonese Dining have a feeling of being at home. I want them to feel like they can have any dish they want. Guests should feel free to approach us for special dishes, such as something from their hometown cuisine – we’ll try our best to cook those dishes. We always want to go beyond our guests’ expectations and welcome them back as old friends when they return.
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