Chef transforms skill into luck
Cookery teacher and veteran chef Zhang Hui attributes his career success to luck, but behind his modesty are hardtrained skills and dedication to details.
Among the hundreds of candidates for the national Antarctic exploration team in 2010, Zhang was the chosen from his home province ofHubei in CentralChina after many rounds of appraisals. When a local chef from Wuhan, the provincial capital, was required at the Chinese embassy in Thailand in mid-July, he again was the one to go after tense insider deliberations.
“I’ve been lucky,” Zhang said with a genteel smile.
Zhang has been teaching Chinese cooking at Wuhan Business University for 22 years, although he spent 17 months at the Zhongshan Station in Antarctica from 2010 to 2012. His classes mainly teach the fundamentals of traditional Chinese cuisine, especially Hubei style. His combination of practice and theoretical teachings has won the hearts of many at the school and his students are working all over the province.
“I love doing some research on traditional dishes and trying something new,” he said.
The veteran chef is known for his solid basic skills and attention to detail.
WangHuiya, a school leader at the university and a colleague of Zhang since 1987, said, “ZhangHui makes himself prominent by his professional expertise, solid skills and personal integrity.”
As a teacher of basic skills in cookery, Zhang told himself to master the kitchen utensils early on. “The knives, for example, can be used in dozens ofways for different kinds of dish and materials and each one requires delicacy and intensity in training,” he said.
The basic skills are the key to one’s future, he noted.
“Even the seemingly simplest dish has to be done from solid basics,” he said.
Another technique of a chef is dianshao, which refers to the way a pan is jerked back and forth to stir its contents. It turns out the moves demand much more than just hands and arms. “This technique can take a whole semester to master”, Zhang said.
Then careful selection and preparations of the respective ingredients pave way for the delicate local flavors.
During his brief service at theChineseembassyin Bangkok, he said he was cautious with each step of cooking.
“First, I boiled the noodles from local markets until they were 80 percent cooked. Then, I took them out to dry and coated them with oil before mixing them with the sauces and other ingredients,” he said.
The steamed lotus root roll was more complicated, he added, as it took two hours to prepare the 1-kilogram of fresh lotus roots and make the shrimp and mushroom sauce. Meanwhile, the fish ball soup was made of local bass and water chestnuts to ensure a smooth and refreshing taste.
Yet not all such flavors were available at Zhongshan Station in Antarctica during his stay, so he used his skills to turn each and every kind of food into some delicacy that was not only liked by Chinese researchers, but also often shared with the members of foreign Antarctica teams.
As fresh vegetables were scarce near the South Pole, Zhang brought with him some cooking machines from home and make fresh tofu and bean sprouts at the station.
“The bean sprouts were welcomed at several stations of various countries,” he said.
The difficult part of cookery rests upon the different identities and flavors of the guests. Zhang’s practical experiences in overcoming such difficulties are valuable, Wang said.
“You can only make improvements once you have learned the fundamentals,” said Zhang, who seldom stops cooking for his family at home.
Chef Zhang Hui (center) and two colleagues at Zhongshan Station in Antarctica reaching out to help and feed a stranded penguin in 2011. Zhang spent 17 months as chief chef at the station.
Two dishes of specialties prepared by Zhang Hui in Thailand.
A feast of specialities from his hometown that took Zhang Hui hours to prepare.