Bo London will be the next venture headed by “demon chef” Alvin Leung. He could just as easily be described as “the Man in Black” due to his habitual costume, although not his personality. He is an easy chap to like, with a dry sense of humour and engaging manner. He was in the UK to visit the site of his new restaurant, so I asked how much time he will be able to spend in Hong Kong at Bo Innovation when Bo London opens in September. How will he divide his time?
“I’m going to spend as much time as I need until I think the restaurant is ready. It’s like nurturing a child: you leave the restaurant when you feel that it’s working and sustainable by itself, operating smoothly alone. When that happens I’ll return to Hong Kong but I’ll come back regularly to monitor it.”
Why was Alvin Leung so keen to open a restaurant in London rather than, say, Singapore or Paris? “I was born in London and I have an affection for the city so I will come back, it’s not like I’ll just open a new restaurant and not return! If London proves successful I do have ambitions to open more – but London first: it’s special to me and I come here regularly.
“I left London when I was an infant. My father had been to university here and I came back twenty years later to go to university myself, and my daughter was born and went to school here. I’ve spent as much time as I could in London. This is not just a ‘second home’ to me, it is almost a ‘home’. My dream was always to open in London: even when I started in Hong Kong London was my goal, it was always in my mind. If you open a restaurant like Bo Innovation – very innovative, very new Chinese – you want to do it in a place where there’s an audience. Would you open it in Yorkshire, in Manchester? I don’t think so, because what I do is not going to be easily accepted there, it probably wouldn’t have an audience. You open a Broadway show in London and people will come, and I think I will have an audience here.”
Did family play a part in his interest in food? Does he come from a family of food lovers? “My mother cannot cook, and that’s well documented! In a Chinese family, if your mother can cook then why learn – we are lazy people!” he laughs. “So we had to learn how to do that for ourselves, we were getting sick of instant noodles every day – and believe me, instant noodles in the early 1970s were not even close to what’s being eaten now – think ‘wax’! I was brought up in Canada, so we had a relatively large kitchen where it was easy for a child to learn to cook. I started to cook around age 11 or 12, and I enjoyed it. I enjoy eating, too – you have to enjoy eating to be able to cook. I’m the oldest of four brothers, and my father and I prepared food for everyone in big batches – well, you can’t cook something like a turkey just for one. My father used to love turkey, and he cooked one not just for Thanksgiving but every month, and when the stocks in the freezer ran down and we didn’t have any left for sandwiches he would cook another one. There’s so much you can do with turkey – sandwiches, fried rice, the bones are good for congee – and it was cheap. My father never taught me how to cook: I’m a guy, in those days you asked your father how to build a dog-house, you didn’t ask him how to cook, or he’d put you through military school! And my mother’s instruction consisted of telling me to read the back of the box!”
But despite Alvin’s love of food he didn’t choose a career in food right away. “I was an acoustics engineer, and I only started to cook professionally about seven years ago. I think having an engineering and a business background – everything except one in cooking – helped my restaurant survive. When I went to university here I worked as a waiter at my friend’s restaurant, but that was only for about three months. I have never worked under anybody, and I don’t think I ever would. For me having my own restaurant was the logical way to get started: if you haven’t learned to do things classically, then just do things that are a little bit away from the norm, so people won’t realise your mistakes!” Still more of that infectious Leung chuckle. “When you cook something classic there are benchmarks, something to which you can be compared; when you do something ‘bang – just like that’ those comparisons don’t exist. People can’t say you’re good, you’re bad. I tell people, ‘I’m the best, I’m the worst at whatever I do, because I’m the only one!’
“Being the black sheep of the family, the rebellious sort, I wanted to do something that was unique. If you can do something that nobody else is doing, you don’t have competitors. But your craft has to be accepted if you are going to succeed. I’m not going to try to educate everybody – that’s the job of the journalists. I think it was a smart move, even if it happened to be a fluke, to do something where there are no rules. In these seven years I think I’ve learned a lot, and it’s easier to learn from the top. You learn a lot more when you’re at the top than when you’re at the bottom – where you’re washing dishes and you just learn how to get grease off a knife, how not to scratch an ivory handle. I’ve been learning, and I’m still learning, which is good. When you reach perfection you reach the end. Like the Olympics, it gets harder and harder to break the record, and if you don’t break the record you’re not going to be happy. When you start from the very bottom and still have a long way to go, there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of opportunities for you to develop. I like the development stage, and when I reach a certain goal there’s satisfaction. This is what makes me happy.”
How did Alvin get his start, his break? “I was cooking seriously at home, doing elaborate dinner parties with a real menu and everything, and friends were saying, ‘Your food’s better than a restaurant, you should open one!’ Never take that advice – it’s the same with singing, friends will say you have the best voice they have ever heard. Ask strangers: when strangers say you are good, you can believe them. During the SARS epidemic, a friend had a restaurant, a speakeasy, and it was not doing well. The chef left and I took over. I didn’t drop everything and go there, I took my food and tried to see if there was a market for it. I am more of a pessimist than an optimist: I thought, ‘This may not work, but if it works it’s a bonus.’ I think, being a businessman, that’s a safe approach – you don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
“So I did something completely new at that time in Hong Kong: using molecular gastronomy methods for Chinese food. There was a lot of noise from critics and writers from all over Asia, who came to Hong Kong to write about the trend for ‘speakeasy’ home restaurants, and there were a lot of great reviews. Then the celebrated Patricia Wells came and took me apart: she said I cooked like an eleven-year-old! I said, ‘Great! Now let’s move on, and start to take it to her level.’ But she didn’t tell me what her level was! I was, technically, still running the family business, but I was encouraged to push myself and go full-time with the restaurant. But how do you develop your cuisine? Do you shave truffles into everything, put foie gras in all your dishes, lines of powders, herbs, cress?
“In my new restaurant I want to showcase London with my cuisine – it’s quite extreme Chinese: exciting, exotic, an experience. It’s something that I want London to be involved in, that’s why it’s called Bo London, not Bo Innovation or Alvin Leung’s. This is about London, it’s a dream coming true, it’s trying to show people what I have gathered, and how British food has inspired me.”
Will Bo London have a different menu from that found in Hong Kong? “There are certain things on the menu that are delicious and that I have done all over the world; of course I’m Chinese so there’s a Chinese element in there, and there will be lots of dishes derived from vibes I’m getting from London, from England. I am coming here not to show you what I can do, but what I have learned, what I am able to absorb from my surroundings. Innovative molecular gastronomy, fusion, everything – 50% of it has to come from where you are geographically for people to accept it.”
From where does he find his culinary inspiration? “My ideas come from everything around me – from architecture, people, ingredients, restaurants. If you get inspired by a lot of things, then you are able to create from different perspectives: if you only get inspired by ingredients, you’ve only got one perspective; if you get inspired by techniques and ingredients you get two perspectives; if you get inspired by energies from the architecture and techniques and ingredients you have three, and so on.
“I have an affection for London. In London I’m in a happy environment so I can create better dishes and therefore have more fun here, I can put more effort into it. There’s also a psychological element: when I’m happy, comfortable I can create something better. It’s about the history, the surroundings, so I think I can do more here than if I try to figure it all out somewhere else.”
What kind of restaurants does Alvin enjoy visiting? “My favourite places are comfortable; it may not even be about the food. The biggest problem is that I am always trying to analyse things, in order to learn from them. To do that, you have to understand what’s good about it, what’s bad about it. If you go to a favourite place, psychologically you are not going to be able to see the bad, you can only see the good. You have to expose yourself in all directions in order to pick up ideas, inspiration, and energy. My brain is always on the lookout for any opportunity to pick up new ideas.”
What of Chef Leung’s new creations – how do they evolve? “When you are creating something new, you are either making a new model, or changing an old model and you have to think laterally. Take the fish and chips we have here in the UK: say I was presenting that in Hong Kong. We don’t have potatoes, so we have to do something else in place of the chips. The fish is the protein, the more expensive part. There is the comfort of the fried potato, so you have to think about a replacement for that starch that’s there to fill you up. Instead of potatoes you have rice, or noodles, or taro. The batter for the fish – would it be the same? Would you substitute the salt with soy sauce, because the Chinese don’t use salt? That’s too obvious. Then think about fish and chips in the future, 50 or 100 years from now. Think about all those things and you start to get ideas and create something. Of course there’s always a story around that particular dish, some sort of inspiration. You have to take yourself down many different avenues.”
Is it, therefore, a process of modernising? “Yes, you can say it’s modernising. You have to ‘deconstruct’ in order to put it back together again, but that term doesn’t hold up as well as it used to. It’s a method that an engineer uses when he wants to find out how a thing works and then try to improve it. But I’m not saying I ‘improve’ it; instead I say that I try to present it from another perspective. I take a lot of very strong Asian flavours, like morning glory, which many chefs never touch. I take on stronger flavours that may not be so readily accepted and try to make them more accessible to people who did not grow up with those flavours.”
What is Alvin trying to do with Bo London? Is he going to educate us with his, well, innovation? “I would not try to educate you on how to eat – everyone’s an expert on what they like. I might educate you on how to hold chopsticks, I can tell you how in Hong Kong we like to steam our food, but London has a very big Chinese presence, in the culinary sense. I’m not going to show you a lot of things that you haven’t seen before, but I’m going to present them in a slightly different way. If you go to a normal Chinese restaurant, hopefully you get what you expected. For what I do, extreme eating, I’m trying to pleasantly surprise you and give you the unexpected. That adds to the pleasure, the excitement. If it’s predictable you’re not going to be excited by it. This is what I do, and this is what I’m reasonably good at.”
How would Alvin describe his menus? “My menus evolve. Take molecular gastronomy: seven years ago you sprinkle some powder and everybody’s excited. Now that trick does not work so easily. You now have to go to a different phase – I don’t say ‘level’ because food can go sideways as well as up. Now people eat out so much, and it’s getting harder and harder to impress. There’s a generation gap. Things are changing rapidly.
“These days I don’t try to impress you with bubbles and jellies and powders in every single dish – you need to balance the menu. It can’t all be ‘smoke and mirrors’, you have to offer a dish that’s a bit more comforting as well. Each dish is judged by the test of time – it only stays as long as people continue to come back for that dish. But there are some dishes from seven years ago that I continue to refine, or that I bring out from time to time, dishes that ‘click’ or just work.
“My formula is always to find out what’s going on, and not just to go with the trend. You have to move in a different direction or you’re just part of the mass. It’s important to sit down and think about the model, and work on the psychology: you can break through culture barriers by using that. There are certain things that everybody needs, and taste is one. But if in England you like your food at a certain temperature, then I’ll address that subliminal need.”
It all started with a kitchen and a kid. Does Alvin still cook at home? “At home I cook simple stuff, soup, congee; we’re quite good at cooking, just not very good at cleaning up!” I would say that Alvin stands a very real chance of cleaning up, in two great cities.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018