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Wok On The Wild Side

While some of us are still learning to use chopsticks and pronounce "General Tso," Alvin Leung Jr. is giving Chinese cuisine a high-tech upgrade.

Author Jay Cheshes Photography Courtesy of bo innovation

latefood

Hong Kong’s most buzz-worthy chef doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen. You’re more likely to find Alvin Leung Jr. at his “unofficial office”—a private cigar club in the city center—perusing contracts, fielding phone calls and squeezing in the occasional meeting, in between taking his friends’ hard-earned cash. “Business is down,” he jokes when I catch up with him there one afternoon, huddled around a frenzied card game. “I’ve got to make the rent.”

The first Chinese chef to fully embrace the avant-garde cooking techniques pioneered in Europe in the 1990s at places like Fat Duck in Britain and elBulli in Spain, Leung is an unlikely evangelist for 21st century Chinese cuisine. A crass, cigar-chomping bad boy with a Dee Dee Ramone haircut, a dangling jade earring and the words “demon chef” emblazoned on his bicep in Chinese, the 48-year-old Leung—who has no actual culinary training—only found his true calling recently, after abandoning a career as a sound engineer. Four years ago he opened Bo Innovation, the first restaurant in China to deconstruct the world’s most popular cuisine.

Although Leung has adopted the techniques of molecular gastronomy, the marriage of cutting-edge science and old-fashioned cooking that has been shaking up haute cuisine in the U.S. and Europe for the past decade, don’t pigeonhole him as a “molecular” chef.

“I don’t like to be labeled,” he complains. “I do touch on molecular stuff, and it’s fun, but you also have to introduce comfort.”

Leung prefers to describe his food as “X-treme Chinese.” With their aperitif, his diners often receive miniature bites of Chinese-sausage ice cream frozen in liquid nitrogen and served with crisped rice, a play on local specialty lap mei fun, a homespun winter favorite. And the chef’s sci-fi version of a Shanghai soup dumpling uses spherification (a technique developed by culinary madman Ferran Adria) to form a chemically induced yolklike skin around bubbling pork broth—a dumpling without any dough.

Last year, in Michelin’s first ever guide to the region, such dishes earned him two coveted stars.

“Alvin really only found success in his 40s,” says his partner in the restaurant, young financier Vincent Kwok, who recently began scouting locations for a third Bo Innovation (a second is in the works in the south of France). “I want Alvin to focus on establishing himself globally,” he says. “Then the branded products will come, and the cookbook and maybe the restaurant in New York.”

When I manage to pry the chef away from his card game, he agrees to lead me on a tour of the local food market. A tangle of stalls a few blocks from his restaurant, Wanchai Market features Hong Kong’s most pristine produce along with seafood so fresh much of it 
is still wriggling.

Leung pauses periodically, cradling a bundle of mushrooms, running his fingers through a trough of dried Szechuan pepper, eyeing a hanging loin of glistening pork, but declines to wax poetic about the bounty. “All this nonsense about sourcing, it’s all hype,” he says. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he’s not a fetishist for locally grown ingredients. “Just because you know where something came from and you say it’s organic, is it really the best?” he asks. “I don’t think so.” His food comes from trusted suppliers—his foie gras is French, his caviar Chinese—and that’s all that matters.

Leung was born in London to Hong Kong natives who fled the colony during the pro-Communist riots of the 1960s. While many chefs cite their mother’s home cooking as an inspiration, for 
Leung it was a different story. “I always say if my mother could cook I wouldn’t have needed to learn how to,” he says. “Her food was really awful, like instant noodles every day.”

After attending college in Canada, he moved back to Hong Kong to become a sound engineer (he still owns factories on the mainland that produce noise-proofing equipment). In his spare time, he indulged his passion for cooking, hosting extravagant dinner parties in his tricked-out home kitchen. These get-togethers quickly became legendary among Hong Kong’s smart set, and Leung began visiting the world’s finest restaurants.

“I’ve been everywhere,” he says. “If you haven’t, how the heck can you create? I’m not like a Mozart.”

The leap from home hobbyist to culinary revolutionary began six years ago, on a whim. Leung had taken a stake in a friend’s underground restaurant, Bo InnoSeki, one of the unlicensed speakeasies that were all the rage in the city at the time. The restaurant, named for a co-owner, was in dire straits.

“It was just after SARS,” Leung says. “Nobody was eating out.” One day the chef, who served kaiseki-style Japanese food, walked off the job.

“People started saying, ‘Wait a minute, why doesn’t Alvin cook?’” recalls Kwok. “It was mostly in jest. But then he started showing up. When I went to dine there, I was impressed.” Leung took to the challenge, quickly scrapping the Japanese concept in favor of the sort of food he’d been serving to his houseguests. Within a year, Bo Innovation was born.

The restaurant (now in its second incarnation, having relocated last year to spiffier digs) is easy to spot. Just look for the giant mural of Leung’s sneering mug out front. Although the kitchen staff does a fine job running the place when the chef’s not around, he makes an appearance most evenings, assuming the role of disaffected showman (his charisma will come in handy if the TV show he’s negotiating comes through). Even as he assists his crew, putting final touches on dishes as they emerge from the kitchen, a gnawed-on cigar is rarely far from his lips. On a recent evening, he offers color commentary as his 14-course tasting menu is served to VIP diners seated at the “chef’s table” (actually stools at a bar peering into the kitchen).

“This is my Chinese breakfast,” he explains as a miniature white bowl arrives filled with a delicious savory custard. “You have caviar, chicken congee, abalone. You’ll want to suck up all the caviar first.” Pause for dramatic effect. “You won’t get seconds.”

JAY CHESHES has written for Saveur and Gourmet. A pleasant surprise is in store for him, according to his latest fortune cookie.

BUBBLICIOUS

How to make “spherified” xiao long bao (soup dumplings)

1 MIX – Mix xiao long bao broth with thickeners (Xantana and Gluco)

2 SPOON – Spoon mixture into a solution of algin and water

3 HEAT – Remove spheres and heat in oil

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