Sat, Sep 07, 2013 - Page 12 News List

The soul of Cantonese cuisine

Ip Chi-kwong is recognized as one of the top Cantonese chefs in the world, but he worries that the transmission of an ancient culinary tradition is in danger of being lost in the rush to make money

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Staff reporter

But Ip is unrepentant. “If the young cooks can learn just 40 percent of what I have to teach, they can go out and open a restaurant,” he said. “Most aspiring chefs are just too lazy. They are happy if a dish simply tastes okay.” For Ip, okay is not enough.

CANTONESE CONTEMPORARY

Ip says that making things from scratch also allows him to ensure that his dishes are healthier and in keeping with contemporary thinking about the use of oil and salt. “Many Cantonese chefs in Taipei are still cooking in the style of the 1970s, using lots of oil and salt, but Cantonese cuisine has moved on,” he said.

Ip joined a professional kitchen at age 14 and had the good fortune to study under Li Chiang (李強), the man credited with inventing the concept of “modern Cantonese cuisine.”

“I never had more than two or three years of school,” he said, but worked his way up from the basics, learning as he went. “In those days you even had to pay a master to learn from him,” Ip said. “Nowadays, they don’t even want to learn what you are willing to teach.”

For Ip, the only path to success is following the way of the old masters and putting in the hours to extract the best flavor from available ingredients. One of his most important tasks every day is to taste the basic stock, which is the foundation of everything else.

The same goes for sauces. “If you don’t make your own, then you can never make a dish your own,” he said, and in a dish such as his wok-fried pork neck with XO sauce, this is made evident. It is a profoundly simple dish, but his version is made unique by the handmade XO sauce.

With his emphasis on fundamentals, Ip believes that he can make unique and exciting dishes of great simplicity. Speaking about the craze for Michelin stars and the emphasis on presentation, Ip said that no amount of attractive or innovative presentation could make up for a lack of soul.

“It might look great, but if it doesn’t taste and smell good, what’s the point,” he said. His own dishes have a minimum of adornment, relying on fragrance and flavor to win over the diner. Drinking his double-boiled pigeon soup you can taste the laborious layering of flavor that takes hours of preparation to produce something as seemingly uncomplicated as a clear soup.

Ip sees himself very much as part of a diminishing old guard of Cantonese chefs whose knowledge and skill is based on the transmission of a heritage from master to pupil.

“With each old chef who passes on, we lose something of the heritage,” he lamented, even as he works to train a new generation.

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