It would be an honor for any chef to be nominated chef de cuisine for a national banquet, but rarely has a chef been as distinguished as Peter Wu (伍洪成).
Born in a coastal town in Hong Kong, the young Wu helped his family dry fish and shrimp, which at a very early age put him in contact with assorted cooking materials.
Wu was introduced to Hong Kong’s renowned Mandarin Oriental Hotel by his uncle at the age of 15 after he was trained by da pai tang cooks — the open-air stalls in Hong Kong’s small alleys and streets that sold food shortly after World War II.
Hired by the Gloria Hotel in Hong Kong in 1988, Wu, who specialized in high-quality dishes such as abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin and fish maw, does not take teaching future generations of chefs lightly.
The Cordon Bleu student served two terms as chef de cuisine on Taiwan’s presidential aircraft.
He was recently in charge of the banquet held to celebrate former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) 90th birthday.
Wu is especially known for turning dishes that he initially prepared for presidential banquets into gastronomic delicacies that are affordable for just about anyone.
Wu says dishes taste different depending on the ingredients used, adding that the most profound lesson he ever learned was that ingredients are the key to cooking, while whether a dish is tasty should be the primary concern.
However, compared with cooking at the hotel, Wu said preparing meals on the presidential aircraft, where space and ingredients are limited and there is little room for error, was a grueling test of his skills.
Recalling his experience as Lee’s chef during a 16-day visit to Central and South America, he said EVA Airways had asked him what equipment he needed for the task.
“Give me 10 rice cookers and I can cook you a set meal for 130 people,” Wu told them.
True to his word, Wu used the rice cookers to steam, stir-fry and cook abalone porridge, water-boiled beef strips and grilled steak — all on the plane.
Wu’s second appointment as chef de cuisine on the presidential plane was when former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) visited the nation’s diplomatic allies in Africa.
Warned of bad sanitary conditions in Africa, Wu took along dried goods, canned food and mineral water along with his rice cookers, turning out dishes such as braised pig’s foot rice and fo tiao qiang, a variety of shark fin soup in Cantonese and Fujianese cuisine.
Wu said the challenge of being a chef at presidential banquets was on an even greater scale, as one needs to know where the guests are from to avoid taboos, adding that the taste must remain neutral — not too sour and not too spicy.
Not only do the dishes have to look, taste and smell good, the timing of when they are served is also important, he said.
Having worked his way to the top from the bottom of the ladder, Wu says paying attention to what the customer wants is most important.
Taking groups of sous-chefs abroad to sample other types of food is also often a source of inspiration, he said.
“Passion and interest are the most important things in gastronomy,” Wu said.
However, when at home, the kitchen is his wife’s domain.
Asked if his wife’s cooking was good, Wu said: “It has to be good if it’s cooked by my wife.”