Man Sing Lee is the executive chef at Chinese fine-dine Mott 32. He tells Adele Wong about Cantonese cuisine’s trump-card dish, and how to make a killer steamed fish.
A little background
Man Sing Lee started out in the F&B industry when he was 14 years old, running delivery errands for a humble Central restaurant called Lai Yuen cha chaan teng (now closed). He worked his way up to prominent Chinese restaurants around town, eventually becoming head chef at the prestigious Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental. Nowadays, chef Lee helms the kitchen at Maximal Concepts restaurant Mott 32.
You started working when you were really young. How did you choose the F&B path?
I knew I wasn’t so good at school, and people would tell me to pick up a craft that wouldn’t starve me to death. So I picked cooking. At the beginning, I was running delivery errands [at Lai Yuen]. It was fun back in the day, and you would get tips. I did that for half a year and the chef asked me to work in the kitchen, because it was hard for him to find people and the salary wasn’t high. I have been in the industry ever since — that’s 35 years total.
How was working in the kitchen then, versus now?
Times have changed. Chinese chefs now face the world, and the quality of the kitchen staff has been elevated. In the past, we were called “chu fong lo” (kitchen men) and got blamed for all the kitchen problems. But now we are called chefs. I’ve been to different places around the world to perform and promote Hong Kong food culture. I’ve grown accustomed to the media.
Things are better now. The kitchen used to be hot, with wet slippery floors. Now the equipment is safer and better. It used be dirty in the kitchen and now it’s much cleaner [in general].
The government started the Chinese Culinary Institute more than 10 years ago to start training new foot soldiers for the industry. So now it’s a bit easier for us to find people, we don’t have to take a stab in the dark.
What’s the difference between working at a hotel restaurant compared with a restaurant group?
When you work at a hotel, there are a lot of back-up staff that can help you. Whatever you need, you can get. At the individual restaurant groups, you need to search for and do things yourself, and you learn more in the process. We need to do the procurement, the accounting, everything.
What is one dish that makes Cantonese cuisine stand out?
Crispy chicken. When western chefs try to copy this dish, they just never master it. The Chinese have a long history of eating chicken, they’ve studied it lots, including how many days to grow them, what to feed them, keeping them free-range. Chinese chickens are better that way. And we still have the luxury of eating fresh chicken these days, which is rare in the western world. The fattiness of the skin is also very important. Longgang and “yellow oil” chicken are very suitable for crispy chicken.
Secondly, the western chefs wouldn’t think of air-drying the chicken, then deep-frying it whole, then chopping it up. Western chefs would just coat the chicken with starch, dump a few cut-up pieces in oil, then eat everything immediately afterwards.
Also, when people ask me what the Cantonese do best, I always say steamed fish.
How do you make a killer steamed fish?
Steamed fish is easy. Wash the fish first and get rid of the blood in the stomach, then soak it dry. Then put it on a plate, put a bit of oil on it, and steam it. If the fish is fresh you wouldn’t even need ginger and scallion to go with it — the toppings can kill the fresh flavors of the fish. Watch the temperature and the time, then when the fish is cooked, add some more oil and soy sauce and some green garnish on top.
Some fish are thicker so will take longer to steam. It really depends on the fish. We usually have the fish cooked 80 to 90 percent before taking it out, where it’ll continue cooking on its way to the customer’s table. My favorite fish to steam is the estuary grouper.
You’ll be opening a Mott 32 in Vancouver later this year. I hear that the Cantonese dining scene there is quite impressive. Is that true?
It’s like this. During the pre-handover period in the early 90s, Canada had a welcome immigration policy and a lot of Hong Kong chefs went over. The older generation with better skills all went to Vancouver or Toronto, leaving the younger generation in Hong Kong to pick up the slack. But now it’s been over a decade since the movement, and even Hong Kong’s food culture is not the same as it was a decade ago.
Toronto and Vancouver had the original masters, but they are all retired now. And the old sifu liked to keep all their secrets, they hated teaching people. Chinese people are like that, they won’t pass on all their knowledge to the next generation.
So Toronto and Vancouver’s Chinese food culture is starting to be “ching wong but jeep” (Roughly: There is no one to keep things going). Toronto and Vancouver used to compete in the quality of their Chinese restaurants, but nowadays they only compete in how cheap and how large their dishes are — kind of how Hong Kong was back in the day.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.