CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF KELVIN CHEUNG
I wanted to meet the Chef of Bastian – the soon to open seafood restaurant in Bandra. I thought it would be nice to get a first peak, but a leading fashion magazine had beaten me to it. But as with everything in Bombay, solutions always come about. I did meet the Chef – Kelvin – but at his current pub-grub restaurant. With nearly answer starting with ‘Right now’, you knew Kelvin’s answers were valid for the moment (some of them might be out-dated by the time I type this). I think that is how he lives his life – in the moment. Thanks to some very unusual set of coincidences and circumstances, Kelvin landed in Bombay in 2012 – a city that has given him a home, a name, friends and it also happens to be the city where he met his wife – Andrea. It’s also a city that Kelvin can’t seem to stay away from too long, or the city has not yet had her fill of him – he left, only to return again by sheer chance. Say what you will, the food scene in Bombay just got a little better thanks of Kelvin.
Name: Kelvin Cheung
Restaurant: One Street Over, Bandra, Bombay (Mumbai)
From: Toronto, Canada
Culinary School: Kendall College, Chicago, USA
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I went through different phases. When I was much younger I ate everything. Then during my pre-teen era, I went through a phase of only protein – I just seemed to one of those kids who just liked to eat a lot of meat. During my teens, probably until very very recently I ate very unhealthy. I began to work for my father in his kitchens at a very young age – I am a third generation of chefs/restaurant-related professional. So I guess the whole kitchen lifestyle introduced me to my junk food years – you are working such long hours and you only get such a short period of time to eat and get other things done, so fast food and junk food become a very normal part of the diet. I was very unhealthy, very overweight, very out of shape. I started exercising about two years ago, quit smoking, slowed my drinking down quite a bit and I decided out of the blue to try cross-fit. And slowly my diet began to change as well.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I probably fill the proper stereotypical Asian boy – my parents are originally from Hong Kong. My mom wanted me to be a doctor. I even pursued a science degree and started pre-med and was on my way to becoming a doctor. But I just got bored of it and one day just decided to quit. I must have been about 22 years old. After that I knew I would be a Chef – there was no other option. That is when I went into culinary school. I did an accelerated Associates Degree in Applied Culinary Arts which I completed in under two years and then started working in Chicago. I worked there for a little bit. Since I was still holding a Canadian passport, in order to stay in Chicago, I had a couple of options – I could either get married or go back to school. So I decided to go back to school again. So I went back to culinary school a second time but this time for a Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Science. It was also when I started teaching at the college as well – I taught the final class which they call the Dining Room class because not only is it a functioning dining/dinner room open to public, but we also ran and administrated the final practical and written exam. I have been working in restaurants now for 24 years.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Probably at my first western kitchen that I worked in Dinant, Belgium. It was a couple of hours outside Brussels and it was where I had my first taste of true classical French cuisine and it is pretty much where I learned everything – like my basic French fundamentals of butchery, sauce-work, breads and cakes. I was there for almost 2 years.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I luckily have a very good network of friends and they tend to feed me quite a bit. I’m not too fond of eating out at Indian restaurants anymore – I find them very over seasoned or very greasy, very heavy. But I love homemade Indian food. So a lot of my friends will send me random dabbbas (food boxes) from their home whenever their moms or grandmoms cook.
When I do go out, which is not very often, I tend to go to Matunga area. We go to Madras Café for South Indian food and I love eating their dosas for sure – especially their plain paper dosas.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I find that changes quite a bit. Currently I seem to be in a miso/Korean chilli paste phase. They are both fermented bean pastes and I seem to be playing with them quite a bit right now. Its just the depth and complexity of their flavours and what I can do with them and they go well with so many things.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would probably go back to Japan. Whenever I have been in Japan it has always been sushi heavy, ramen, beef – so I guess a combination of those. I would most likely go to Jiro Sushi in Tokyo for sushi. For ramen it would be in the subway system – Tokyo Ramen Street. They also have a lot of local Japanese barbecue beef places – I would probably go back to Kobe.
If you left Bombay to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I would probably head to Toronto at this point and it would be definitely be my own restaurant serving my kind of food. There is no real category to my kind of food – it’s a very ingredient driven menu, very season, very local but it’s also comfort food. There is nothing overly fru-fru or snotty, or overly garnished or dressed up or anything – it’s always very simple, honest food.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
The opening day of Ginger Asian Bistro in Chicago. It was my first Chef opening and also the first restaurant of the owners. So both of us were inexperienced. There was only five of us in the kitchen and the owners decided to seat the entire dining room at one time. So there were over 200 people ordering the entire menu between them. So with a new staff, new kitchen it was just downhill from there. Whenever you are unable to cook to your standard that is always very embarrassing.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Probably my mom – Denny. She passed away in 1998 so she actually never got to eat what I deem as my food. At that time I was just starting to cook in my father’s restaurants so it was still very much my father’s food. So she never really got to taste my food.
I would probably try to do a full tasting menu of what I think she would enjoy. A lot of fresh seafood. I can also see her wanting to indulge as well – so something with uni (sea urchin), something with foie gras or truffles and a couple of signature dishes that she would cook like Singapore style curry, congee, a braised vinegar pork, but my versions of those. For dessert it would be a Napoleon – a puff pastry that is cooked till its crisp and is served with some whipped cream and fresh fruit – so there would be a modern version of that, cheesecake – my mom seemed to have an affinity for berries and something with chocolate.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I tend to eat a lot of tostadas – the gluten free vegetarian tostada. It satisfies my craving when I am missing home. You don’t get much Mexican food here and it’s really fresh and tasty.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
As long as it’s honest and respecting the ingredient and respecting customer that is pretty much what I try to do. We try to provide an overall experience that’s not just for a bite of food, or to satiate hunger. I like to feed people and I like to give people a comfortable fun experience.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
We had a wild game dinner in Beijing, China where they would serve you a course which you would eat. After you had eaten it, the manager would come and describe what you had just eaten. Most of the dishes you could not tell what you were eating. Dog took me a while to put down and then there was kangaroo and racoon. This restaurant is one that is not on the radar as it’s not really legal – it’s like one of those pop-up restaurants in downtown Beijing. It’s one of those restaurants everyone talks about but it’s not written about anywhere!
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There are a couple. But one memorable one was a tasting menu at The French Laundry when I was first starting out. Or at the Trio in Chicago. Both of these experiences was when I was just starting out and did not know what ‘real’ food was until I saw these Chef’s cooking. I just loved the extreme detail for every plate and every dish – how perfect everything was.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Probably candy – something chewy – along the lines of gummies.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
The first thing that pops up in my mind is ginger – old, bitter and spicy. The reason I say ‘old’ is because I believe I am an old soul.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
By my father, Eddy – never be afraid to do the work. What he meant by this is that if two of us had been given the same task, I should not be afraid to do more than my share of the work because it will always pay off somewhere along the way. To go beyond.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would definitely have been a doctor.
Most underrated ingredient? Anything acidic; like vinegar or citrus. A lot of people don’t understand the balance of a dish. So generally a lot of dishes are just lacking in bounce – they are overly one sided and its usually lacking in acidity.
Best culinary tool? My knives. No one touches my knives. I have had some of my knives for over 15 years.
A chef that inspires you? This changes from time to time. But right now, I would say Sean Brock based in Charleston. He is reviving Southern cuisine. I love his whole philosophy of trying to preserve and revive and save essentially true foods in the world. He probably has one of the largest compilations of seeds. He goes out in search of different seeds – fruits, vegetable and grains – of how they were supposed to be before they have been cross pollinated, changed and modified. He is going back to the origins of how we ate and how we are supposed to eat.
Favourite cuisine? At the moment it’s Japanese. Sushi. My favourite is uni.
One dish you can’t live without? Eggs. I eat a lot of eggs. I generally like them runny, yolky.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? I think gastronomy has pretty much run its course. It was cool when I was a young Chef because it was new and unheard of but now everyone who puts a foam or smoke something on the menu think they are gastronomists. It’s very misused techniques.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Soup – any sort of soup. We had soup with every meal – generally Chinese soups.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Eggs – runny fried eggs – late last night.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, honest and comforting.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or curd?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!