Who’s afraid of two Michelin stars?
Not Chef Tam Kwok Fung, from the looks of it. Fresh off receiving this exceptional accolade in the 2016 Guide for his Jade Dragon restaurant in Macau’s City of Dreams complex, one of only four dining establishments to attain that level in the gambling enclave that is fast becoming one of Asia’s haute cuisine hubs, this relaxed Hong Kong native seemed to take it all in stride.
“When I started out learning my trade in the local kitchens, I only got two days a month off. Two days a month!” he proclaimed with a grin. “That’s a lot more pressure than two stars!
Or perhaps he seemed so relaxed this week because he was making a triumphant return to the Bangkok Peninsula’s Mei Jiang, the hotel’s elegant Chinese outlet which he headed and made famous as its Executive Chef from 1999 to 2005.
Over two special dinners, and a “master class” in the kitchen for local food writers, the latest in Sanpellegrino’s imaginative Fine Dining Lovers Guest Chef Series that welcomes top chefs from around the globe to Bangkok, and sees some of Thailand’s top kitchen talents travelling the world as culinary ambassadors, Chef Tam showcased an exceptional knack for utilizing European ingredients in traditional Cantonese dishes with the kind of deft and subtle creativity Chinese chefs are rarely given credit for.
In fact, the chef joked, “Don’t tell our guests about the port wine we put into these Australian wagyu cheeks braised in a clay pot.” And please, he enjoins, don’t use the dreaded “F” word when it comes to his cooking—meaning “fusion.”
He does advertise such signature dishes as Barbecued Ibérico pork, Roasted Boston Lobster, Japanese Hairy Crabmeat Dumplings, and a Chinese version of French Crème Brûlée that’s lusciously tinged with almond, bird’s nest, and honey. Slicing up some prime Japanese abalone to toss with French mushrooms, Chef Tam observes, “It’s so easy now to order prime ingredients from anywhere in the world in the morning and have them by the afternoon.”
And, expressing a philosophy that’s quite rare for someone so steeped in Chinese traditions, he insists, “I can only be as good as my mind is open to all cultures and tastes. It’s the art of combining, after all, that is what distinguishes us.”
To that end, the Chef’s “master class”—as befitting the speed required to stir-fry just the right amount and no more—consists of so quick a combination of chopped items, plus ladles full of oil, broth, sesame, sugar, soy measured out with the casual accuracy it takes decades to acquire, and so sudden an application of heat to work, that it all seems to be over in a moment.
Sampling his abalone and beef cheeks, however, none of the attendees feel they’ve been cheated.
Besides, it’s quite a dazzling show to witness such a master of Chinese cuisine blasting the fire under the wok for just the right few seconds, then tamping it down. Such rituals nearly seem primal, harkening back to the first days mankind harnessed flames to the tasks of moving beyond mere survival to creating art.
Still, it’s only been recently that quotidian wizards like Chef Tam have begun to climb out of anonymous kitchen labours to achieve celebrity. According to Confucian tradition, even the greatest chefs are often looked-down upon as un-scholarly choppers and drones.
In Bangkok as well, Chinese masters like Chef Tam often aren’t properly appreciated, even though the city’s Chinatown is the last remaining treasure trove of authentic food ways and the Thai-Chinese community, while discreetly invisible, often has the most funds to spend on fine dining.
While the chef notes that Bangkok now seems to be exploding with cutting-edge European and Thai stand-alone restaurants, he doesn’t think Chinese cuisine will be stepping out anytime soon from the refined settings and support of hotels like The Peninsula.
“After all,” he says, “a good Chinese restaurant needs to put out a menu of over one hundred dishes.”
“That’s why I was so lucky to be hired by a place like this when I was only 33—a lot of my colleagues back in Hong Kong were jealous.”
And that luck seems to have continued at Jade Dragon—or perhaps he has forged his own through plenty of effort. When it comes to the Michelin rating, he says that’s “a source of pride and recognition for our entire team, not just me.” And the Chef “doesn’t want to get into the controversy about how they judge.”
But he also admits, “The Sanpellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is perhaps more challenging, because you have so many different people voting.”
Still, as his management team is quick to point out with pride, Jade Dragon is the sort of establishment that regularly employs its own anonymous inspectors to make sure standards of food quality and service are continuously being met. It’s also the sort of place where they keep records of customers’ dish preferences, allergies and health issues, and impress even the most VIP guests with such personal pampering whenever they return.
“We have the kind of customers who want to be offered something truly outstanding every time.” Plus, the chef confides, the wealthy owner of City of Dreams “expects nothing less than Michelin stars.”
That’s because Macau’s many casino complexes are now moving toward a greater emphasis on “non-gaming activities,” especially dining and entertainment, to lure an increasingly sophisticated clientele.
And Chef Tam feels he still has a lot of room to improve, to keep pushing “world combinations,” and keep searching the planet for the absolute top ingredients. After all, he says, the Jade Dragon was created with an investment of 120 million Hong Kong dollars.
“If we can’t create quality with that,” he says, “we better just go and open a stall on the street and sell fish balls.”
It doesn’t look like Chef Tam, appropriately named tamer of fire, will be doing that anytime soon.