Stars in his eyes

Chef Ken Yu hopes that his unique take on Cantonese cuisine will raise the bar on fine dining in Taipei

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

Sat, Nov 02, 2013 - Page 12

The W Hotel has claims to being one of the most stylish of hotels in Taipei, even among the crowd of chic establishments that have come to dominate Taipei’s trendy Xinyi District (信義). The cutting-edge style extends to its food, and its YEN Chinese restaurant is seeking the ultimate culinary accolade with the appointment of Ken Yu (余偉經) from Hong Kong as Chinese executive chef. Yu has created his own style of modern international Cantonese cuisine on traditional skills and a sense of vision, and has set his sights on gaining a Michelin star.

Starting from scratch

Yu was appointed to his position at W Hotel in September last year. He comes with quite a pedigree of jobs in some of the best restaurants in Asia, not least the Michelin-star Restaurant Cuisine Cuisine at The Mira Hotel, Hyatt Regency in Hong Kong. He is a master of nouvelle Cantonese cuisine and aims to pair his stylish creations with the modern chic of the W Hotel. Coming out of a busy lunch service, Chef Yu sat down with the Taipei Times to talk about his food and his ambitions.

Despite all the eye catching emphasis on contemporary design of the YEN restaurant with its semi-open kitchen, the abundant natural light from floor-to-ceiling glass walls on two sides of the dining area, and a dining area design that makes no concessions to Chinoiserie, Yu’s cuisine is rooted in the traditional Chinese culinary arts.

“All the techniques we use are based on the fundamentals of Cantonese cuisine,” he said. There might be Western ingredients such as truffles and foie gras, and the artistic presentation is miles away from the hearty abundance that is typical of more traditional Chinese restaurants, but Yu is not about making “fusion” food; it is about reinventing Cantonese food for a new era.

Yu worked his way up from the bottom, starting out in kitchens in his mid-teens. “When I started working in kitchens, the chefs tended to be quite selfish and secretive. They just used us as kitchen labor. So actually, I don’t really have a mentor at all. I went from one restaurant to another, learning a little here and a little there,” Yu said. In his 28 years in the industry, Yu has worked at over 50 establishments, learning as he went along.

While Yu is associated with the trend of novelle Cantonese cuisine, he insists that the cuisine he has brought to YEN is “his” cuisine. “I have developed most of these dishes myself,” he said.

Unique take

The menu for YEN is full of unique dishes that leave no double about the personal stamp that Yu has put on his food. Dishes like The Beauty, The Moon, a braised crab pincer and winter melon with black truffle lobster sauce, are intended to inspire the same kind of delight and wonderment that you might expect at an art gallery.

The huge crab claw, so visually arresting, is melt-in-the-mouth succulent; the winter melon, which can so easily be mushy, is firm and sweet; and the lobster sauce provides a whole ocean of flavor. A dab of gold leaf on the top worked brilliantly with the strong shades of orange and white from the crab, and set off against the dark background of a wafer of black truffle. It created a sense of opulence.

For a dish with so many obviously expensive ingredients, Yu had kept the design so simple that even the gold was elegant rather than vulgar. And the flavor, with the freshness of the crab highlighted by the rich sauce and the subtle sweetness of the melon proudly proclaimed the dish’s Cantonese provenance. This was one of many dishes that Yu has created that manage a complex dialogue between tradition and creativity.

Vegetarian delight

Yu’s approach to vegetarian food also highlights his command of presentation and flavor. Another signature dish, titled Zen, a stuffed beefsteak tomato with ginkgo, white fungus and mushrooms, manages to achieve a visual expressive force that goes well beyond what is usually associated with food. A simple tomato, meticulous peeled, beautiful in its size and perfect coloring, has a zen-like beauty that does not detract at all from the luscious flavors that it encompasses. Even with such a seemingly simple vegetable dish, it is clear that Yu was worked long and hard to create an impressive depth of flavor that most vegetarian restaurants can only dream about.

“The food served in traditional Cantonese restaurants is constrained by tradition,” he said. “It is no longer competitive. I wanted to take these traditional dishes and give diners a surprise, so that they ask: ‘How can Cantonese food be like this?’ But when they have eaten the dish, they will realize that everything in the dish, from the ingredients to the preparation techniques, are all part of the traditional Cantonese kitchen. This is how I approach developing my dishes.”

Yu pointed out that Cantonese food is now part of the international culinary scene. He wants to impress both Chinese and Western diners. “Good traditional Cantonese restaurants can definitely deliver on flavor,” he said, “but they lack in presentation. “What I am looking for is stylishness,” Yu said. He wants to lead a trend toward a creative style of cuisine that is instantly recognizable as Cantonese, but which is also part of larger trends in fashion and style.

Ultimately, Yu’s immediate aim is startlingly clear. “My aim in coming here is very simple. I want to win this place a Michelin star.”