“If you ask a chef about one of his recipes on the Chinese mainland, it’s likely that he’ll be entirely suspicious of you. He might even think you’re out to steal his job!”
Andrew Wong laughed at my stunned expression. We were sitting outside his restaurant down the southern stretch of Victoria in Central London after I managed to catch him for a chat just after the first morning delivery had been put away. He was breaking a cardboard box for the recycling as we started on the topic of life as a chef in China.
“If you’re very lucky, a chef will give you 95% of a recipe. Unfortunately, in Chinese cooking, that remaining 5% is usually absolutely integral to the dish.
“But while you’d think that they do this is out of pride and perhaps arrogance over their abilities, it is often out of a sense of self-preservation. Outside the restaurants in the major cities, being a chef in China is all about the vocation itself rather than an undying passion for cooking.
“It’s a job to them, regardless of how skilled a chef they often have to be considering the cuisine, and plenty of the chefs I came across when I travelled across China were just like that.
”Chefs in China are necessities and being one is not seen as glamorous.”
Andrew had embarked on a cooking tour of China in 2010 after having completed culinary school at the age of 22. He enrolled at the Sichuan Culinary Institute in Qingdao on a recommendation from a friend before focussing on banqueting and Chinese roasting in a Sichuan hotel (“standing in the middle of that hotel kitchen was like being in between two trains going past at speed!”).
Surviving this, Andrew then continued on to Beijing to learn everything he could about traditional Peking Duck, before heading to Hong Kong and the famous Cantonese dim sum.
“One of the main differences between European and Asian cooking is the time it takes to be a master in a skill,” Andrew continued.
“Knife skills are an obvious one, but to be an expert in noodle pulling, for example, it takes about five years. Chefs have their own particular end product when it comes to noodle pulling, that’s how specific a skill it is. Soup noodles are the hardest to pull, I’d say.
“Here at A Wong, we actually have a cash incentive to those who attempt to give noodle pulling a go. If you can produce a passable noodle in six weeks, you’re a superstar!”
Andrew has a whole variety of nationalities in his kitchen, but he understands the problem of introducing non-Asian chefs to the idea of Chinese cuisine.
“I get young guys coming in sometimes looking for work, guys who’d clearly been watching Masterchef on TV as they’ve had no idea as to chef life and the requirements of working in a kitchen such as mine,” said Andrew.
“I have to turn them away and it really annoys me. Chinese cuisine is a black hole and you need to have real passion and commitment to the cause. But it’s incredibly worth it.
“Chinese cooking is, I suppose, most like pastry if in terms of European cooking. Dim Sum in particular. Could that mean that pastry chefs have an edge when entering the world of Chinese cuisine? It’s something to think about, that’s for sure.
“But regardless, you need at least 12 months with me in the kitchen or you’re wasting your time. That then goes back to the problem we have in the industry as a whole that there’s the perception of monotony, long hours and poor pay.
“In fact, it’s not a perception, it’s the truth and there we are. It’s easy to see how a passion for cooking can be effected, and why chefs in China have little use for it in the first place.
Andrew has also found a lack of enthusiasm in his diners when attempting to replace classic dishes on his menu.
“The whole reason I spent time in China was so that I could broaden my horizons, and in my restaurant I want to broaden the horizons for my diners. Our ‘Taste of China’ set menu really aims to show off a 2000 year old cuisine, and every other menu in A Wong follows suit. But Europeans expect certain staples to be on the menu.
“It took me three years to get spring rolls off the menu. I can’t wait for the day when I can finally take off crispy duck!
“The idea behind our menu evolving is that we want our diners to grow with us. Luckily, the majority of those who visit us are curious souls looking to do more than just scratch the surface.”
Andrew finished off the last cardboard box just as a huge delivery of fresh fish arrived behind us.
“We take ingredients in Europe for granted sometimes, but in Mainland China, you actively have to be on the lookout for fake ingredients,” said Andrew, rallying his brigade to deal with the latest delivery wave.
“There are ‘suppliers’ that will try and con you into buying reconstructed eggs made almost entirely of water. Beef is another thing you have to watch out for as these guys dry out pork, which is cheaper to get your hands on, and colour it to make it look like beef!”
“These dodgy guys will even stick a funnel on a drainpipe outside a restaurant, filter used oil from the waste and then try and sell it back to you!”