Inscrutable chef Alvin Leung has turned the concept of Chinese cuisine on its head. Helming the kitchen at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Bo Innovation, the affectionately nicknamed “Demon Chef” was the first in Hong Kong to introduce molecular techniques to traditional Chinese cuisine, telling a story with each dish on his set menus.
Formerly an engineer, Leung transitioned into the culinary world after purchasing a private kitchen during the SARS respiratory disease outbreak, when the real estate market was in a slump. Since then, the London-born, Canada-raised Hongkonger has expanded his empire to Shanghai (and soon Toronto) as well as opened up more casual concepts in Hong Kong — such as Bib n Hops and MIC Kitchen.
A host on MasterChef Canada, the “Demon Chef” carved out time to talk to us about his unlikely transition from engineering to the kitchen, overcoming conventional expectations of Chinese cuisine, and how he developed his signature rock ‘n’ roll style.
How did you make the transition from engineering to cooking?
My father was very rigid, so that’s why I didn’t start life as a chef — that would have been a disgrace to my family. I’ve always enjoyed cooking but, being Chinese, pursuing a career in engineering was a practical thing to do. I taught myself to cook because my mother was a horrible cook, and I love to eat.
I think it all comes down to the right opportunity at the right time. In 2003, when I bought the first restaurant, I was running our family businesses. My friend had a restaurant that was doing poorly and asked me to take over. The project was very low cost. The rest is history.
How did you teach yourself to cook?
For being an engineer and someone who is scientific, I hate computers. Teaching yourself something that is creative is discovering something. It’s more of a self-discovery than self-teaching.
For me, cooking is practical. It doesn’t take a lifetime to learn how to apply heat to protein and so on. It’s important to keep learning as you go along. I’m still picking things up as I go and I haven’t stopped yet. With all successful people, they always want to learn. It’s indefinite.
Were you concerned diners would be resistant to your creative food?
Of course, you’re always concerned. You should always be concerned about rejection but rejection should not be a determinant. As long as you do things in an analytical way, then you will achieve your goals more easily. For me, it’s always important to learn from what you have done. Don’t give up, but don’t be stupid either.
What do you mean by that?
It’s important that if you are to deviate from something that’s familiar, you have to break down the DNA. If you know what the DNA is and you know what part of that DNA makes people recognize that this is Chinese food, then people have the comfort of recognition when they try your experimental food. I mean, if you recognize something as safe and familiar, then you will like it. That’s how I approach it. So far, it’s been successful.
Everything I create must have a purpose. I know my audience in Hong Kong. From there, I am working backwards to expand their perspective regarding flavors and foods without going too far, without making them think I’m crazy and I belong in an asylum.
What’s the inspiration behind your dishes at Bo Innovation?
Every single one of my dishes has an origin that is Chinese. You can’t advertise “X-treme Chinese” and not have any ties to Chinese food. You will find Chinese approaches, philosophies — Chinese everything. Every dish has to tell a story. At the end of the day, you say, ‘Wow, I just experienced and learned something!’
Being Chinese, we have a huge library to choose from. Chinese cuisine has so much diversity; the area it covers is so great. You can break down the textures to soft, hard, crunchy, crispy. That’s a huge advantage for me.
What exactly is “X-treme Chinese”?
Being extreme means you’ll go to the limit. Your limit is to the point where you can comprehend and recognize what is going on. I’m taking you to the boundary. I want to take you up to your border but anything beyond that is a waste of time.
How do your dishes get in people’s heads?
I add a visual and a psychological aspect to every dish. I play on people’s emotions. [With] certain dishes, when they are explained, you can feel the passion. I leave hints for people to figure out on their own and make the connection. That kind of achievement, that moment of “I get it” is worth any dinner in the world. That’s worth more than caviar.
Can you give me an example?
My interpretation of xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings) is a broth-enriched molecular sphere. This is our way of doing a traditional dish — the comfort is there because the flavors are so precise. Not only do you get the funky presentation, but it resembles the real thing.
To make this, I took the original xiao long bao and made a concentrate out of that and reduced it. Then I suspended it into the solution of alginate and calcium and the starch forms around it. You don’t even have to cook it. That is now kind of like my signature dish, but personally, I think it’s quite primitive.
You have a rock ‘n’ roll image. Is it the real deal?
I was always a black sheep, as you can tell by my appearance. I enjoy being different but in a practical way. I am not different for the sake of it. I am different because my thinking process works differently than other people.
Engineers are practical people but they are also highly creative. There are a lot of engineers out there who are visionaries — like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. We’re often overlooked due to our geeky outlook. But now we’re the superstars because engineering is part of every little detail in life, from your clothes to your phone to your camera.
Do you always wear black?
Yes, every day. When I wake up in the morning and try to decide what I should wear, it takes the worry out of it and I can use that moment of creativity on something else instead of trying to match my outfit. Wearing black keeps it simple and you also make yourself more sophisticated.
Is that where the name “Demon Chef” came from?
Demon comes from a Greek word meaning “playful.” Even though, when you watch the show, I am the mean judge and the asshole, I want to be playful.
What equipment are you using to make your dishes?
Creativity, my brain and my hands. I use fire as well — all types of heat, dry heat, wet heat, pressure cooker, wok, sous vide, dehydration, everything. We also use various degrees of anti-heat, like nitrogen, a freezer, a fridge, a cold centrifuge. But simply using these things is not going to make a great meal.
What’s your recipe for preparing a great meal?
My philosophy is that when you move forward you always must look backwards. You look for mistakes and learn from them. If you are going to do it again, make sure nobody finds out. Once you’ve reached your achievements, you’ve got to seek other inspirations. Every step I take as I get older, I take with more caution — I have more to lose.
What do you hope people take away from a meal at Bo Innovation?
I’m trying to tell the story for Hong Kong — what makes this place so interesting. We commissioned artwork throughout the restaurant to tell this story. We have a wall mural called “Reflection” that shares Hong Kong’s story.
Everyone dines under a graphic installation of Lion Rock, a symbolic mountain range in Hong Kong. And a very famous calligrapher, who passed away in January, wrote this [glass panel for me] for me that says “Demon Chef.” This is how [Bo Innovation] tells the Hong Kong story.