The new heart of Chi­na­town

TV chef Alvin Le­ung on his unique brand of X-treme Chi­nese food and his up­com­ing T.O. resto with the win­ner of MasterChef Canada

Thornhill Post - - Food Profile - by Caro­line Ak­sich

Last win­ter, Toronto was plas­tered with gi­ant posters ad­ver­tis­ing MasterChef’s Canadian spinoff. Two of the three faces were all too familiar to lo­cals: Michael Bonacini and Clau­dio Aprile. The two have both shaped Hog­town’s dining scene. The third MasterChef Canada judge was un­known to most: a blue-haired chef sport­ing a look of mild dis­dain named Alvin Le­ung.

It’s Le­ung’s con­temp­tu­ous stare that the first crop of Canadian MasterChef hope­fuls had to con­tend with when­ever their dishes failed to meet his ex­act­ing stan­dards. MasterChef chal­lenges am­a­teur chefs through cooking com­pe­ti­tions that test contestants’ cre­ativ­ity, abil­ity and their met­tle un­der pres­sure. With $100,000 on the line, the stakes are high, and Le­ung stokes the al­ready smoul­der­ing re­al­ity TV pow­der keg.

Un­less you treat the Miche­lin Guide as scrip­ture, you’ll be for­given for not know­ing who Le­ung is. He’s made a big­ger splash world­wide than at home: a three Miche­lin–starred chef with two very suc­cess­ful restau­rants in Hong Kong and Lon­don. But in the early aughts he was an acous­tics en­gi­neer with a fond­ness for throw­ing elab­o­rate din­ner par­ties.

“I have had a pas­sion for cooking since I was 11. But at that time, com­ing from a fam­ily full of en­gi­neers, it was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine pur­su­ing my pas­sion as a ca­reer,” says Le­ung.

In 2003 he left en­gi­neer­ing, at age 42, to pur­sue his long-subli­mated culi­nary pas­sions. Sans pro­fes­sional kitchen train­ing, Le­ung took over a friend’s un­li­censed speakeasy in Hong Kong, orig­i­nally called Bo, quickly earn­ing him the nick­name God Chef. As a pi­ous Chris­tian, it didn’t ap­peal to Le­ung, so he chris­tened him­self De­mon Chef, a ref­er­ence to clas­sic Greek “dæ­mons.” At Bo In­no­va­tion Le­ung’s style of cooking was like noth­ing Hong Kong had ever seen. The self-taught chef pre­pared what he called “X-treme Chi­nese,” which is, es­sen­tially, a style of cooking that blends molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy (à la elBulli) with fu­sion — although Le­ung ab­hors this re­duc­tion­ist ex­pla­na­tion.

Le­ung ex­plains: “The ‘X’ stands for mod­ern, ex­cit­ing and push­ing to the limit, as in X-sport, X-fac­tor. X also rep­re­sents ex­pe­ri­ence, which I wish to take my clients through in a new in­no­va­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Chi­nese cui­sine.”

Per­haps the most shock­ing of Le­ung’s X-treme Chi­nese cre­ations is Sex on the Beach — although the di­vi­sive plate has noth­ing to do with the cock­tail. “I was look­ing at some of my fel­low chefs’ cre­ations and saw a trend in cre­at­ing scenic plates with names like Road Kill and Ash Tray,” Le­ung says. Chef chal­lenged him­self to plate the most out­ra­geous scene imag­in­able. The la­tex-free dish fea­tures a faux-pro­phy­lac­tic made from kon­jac (a root veg) and kappa; — it’s even filled with a dol­lop of white mix­ture orig­i­nally made from honey and Yun­nan ham. The ed­i­ble rub­ber is plated on a pile of “sand” (pow­dered shi­itake mush­rooms), mim­ick­ing a dis­carded con­dom.

X-treme Chi­nese was so well re­ceived that two years af­ter he took over Bo In­no­va­tion Le­ung went on the straight and nar­row and moved his restau­rant to Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s orig­i­nal nightlife dis­trict.

Af­ter open­ing Bo Lon­don in 2012, the cyan-coiffed chef has teamed up with MasterChef Canada, Sea­son 1 win­ner, Eric Chong, to open his first Canadian restau­rant, R&D. Although both Bos serve up very sim­i­lar avant-garde fare, R&D will stray from the mould.

“I will be ex­pos­ing cus­tomers to some of my X-treme Chi­nese at R&D, but you won’t quite get the full monty of it just yet. I will just tickle your taste buds with a hint of it first,” says Le­ung.

It’s not that the De­mon Chef doesn’t think Cana­di­ans are ready for X-treme Chi­nese, but this is a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort.

“R&D will have about half of my DNA since Eric is in­volved in the cre­ation process, too,” ex­plains Le­ung, who aims to open the restau­rant in the heart of Chi­na­town this month.

Af­ter the first MasterChef sea­son wrapped up, Le­ung flew Chong to Sin­ga­pore for help with a pop-up be­fore ask­ing his soon-to-be pro­tege if he’d like to open a restau­rant to­gether.

“It took me by sur­prise, but how could I say no,” says Chong.

Over the past six months the duo has trav­elled to the likes of Shang­hai, Xi­a­men, Guangzhou and Hong Kong seek­ing in­spi­ra­tion. Menu picks will in­clude mod­ern dim sum, such as Lit­tle Dragon Buns with spicy Szechuan lamb along­side shar­ing plates like Gen­eral San­ders’ Chicken with kung pao sauce and HK egg waf­fles. As for more X-treme dishes, Le­ung prom­ises a “spe­cial cre­ation” for R&D.

“We do have so much in com­mon, both be­ing en­gi­neers, Chi­nese, grow­ing up in Canada and hav­ing par­ents that dis­ap­proved of be­com­ing a chef,” says Chong. “It feels like he is cre­at­ing a path for me to fol­low.”

If you thought R&D is a coy ref­er­ence to Le­ung and Chong’s en­gi­neer­ing ori­gins (re­search and devel­op­ment), you’d be wrong. It’s an acro­nym for Rebel and De­mon.

“I was once a rebel be­fore I be­came the de­mon,” says Le­ung, ev­i­dently see­ing a lot of his young re­bel­lious self in Chong. The duo’s en­gi­neer­ing back­ground will af­fect the food. “We are more me­thod­i­cal in our ap­proach and know how to ex­press our ideas in a log­i­cal and an­a­lyt­i­cal method. The science back­ground helps in in­vent­ing our menu,” says Le­ung.

Le­ung and Chong are kin­dred spir­its brought to­gether by a re­al­ity TV show. Hope­fully, their culi­nary mar­riage will out­last any nup­tials man­u­fac­tured on The Bach­e­lor.

MasterChef Canada, Sea­son 2 airs

Sun­days at 7 p.m. on CTV.

“I was once a rebel be­fore I be­came the de­mon.”

The blue-haired chef is set to open up his first Cana­dian resto on Spad­ina with Eric Chong

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