Beyond Molecular Gastronomy: Alvin Leung On His Next Chapter
Alvin Leung is an intriguing figure. Nicknamed ‘the demon chef’, most of us know him for his take on Hong Kong cuisine with references to molecular gastronomy. Aside from Bo Shanghai, the local culinary icon is ready to expand his repertoire beyond his beloved Bo Innovation and Bib and Hops, his contemporary Korean eatery.
While he was born in London and raised in Toronto, Leung spent his childhood years in Hong Kong, but moved to London to continue his education. It wasn’t until 1986 that he returned to the East after graduating to begin his career in food. He presented his take on molecular gastronomy when he opened Bo Innovation, a restaurant serving what Leung coined as ‘X-treme Chinese cuisine’ based on contemporary execution of Chinese—even local Hong Kong—dishes. The response was divided, sparking conversations on this local representation of molecular gastronomy that Leung had learned at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli.
The chef himself has more to say about defining his own cuisine. “There are more adverse than positive tags on molecular gastronomy then and now,” he says. “I think most people have a rather negative experience of it. I strongly believe that it was never just about the food presented, it involved a chef’s artistic interpretation that helped open up many minds.
“I never advertise my cuisine as molecular, because it isn’t,” he continues. “Instead, I left it quite vague, because I wanted the guests to experience a fluid expression of my take on Chinese, or local cuisine. Simple as that.”
Creating something new and surprising out of existing concepts is never easy, and Leung has a special process for developing new dishes. “I travel a lot for work, despite creating menus about Hong Kong. I’m inspired by events happening in the city, but I get more ideas when I’m away. My perspectives are clearer on the what’s and how’s, but the most crucial element is awareness. Being aware of everything happening around us is as important as having creativity in cooking,” Leung explained. “One should never confuse creativity with innovation. Creativity is just the energy and thought, but innovation is the product. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Being creative may be a personal triumph, but similar to the early days of molecular gastronomy, Leung’s innovation has not always pleased his guests. It has been a gradual process of coming to understand his vision and interpretation of local cuisine—one that combines personal sentiments with little interest in following food trends. “Being a local myself, Hong Kong is a place where trends thrive. You see lines everywhere for the latest items, and food trends become such an important part of many people’s lives now. Don’t mistake it for a higher interest in food though,” he warns. “I don’t think we are more adventurous in food today. We just have more varieties to choose from. It’s a matter of choice, the abundance of it to be exact,” Leung explained.
And he’s about to add yet more choices to the dining landscape this autumn, with two new restaurants: contemporary Spanish eatery Plato 86 in Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay’s The Forbidden Duck, a play on the traditional Peking duck. Leung is also set to debut his first cookbook, titled My Hong Kong, a collaborative effort with local journalist Andrew Sun. The cookbook is a project spanning years of research and revisions, and the copy is due out before the holiday season this year. “I always knew I am going to write a book about Hong Kong-inspired cuisine, which is what I’m most confident in doing. It is a cookbook, but there is always a twist to it. My Hong Kong is not going to be food and recipe cookbook, but rather an account of my sources of inspiration,” Leung reveals.
The chef’s debut volume documents his vision of Hong Kong, with fond memories of the old city, including the lost historic sites, diminished food traditions, and practices that shaped the city’s identity. “I felt that Hong Kong has lost some of its identity over the past few decades, it has become a metropolitan city but somehow lost some of its heritage that our values are based on. I would like to bring them back through writing this book, in a practical, physical form, much like how I recreated my Hong Kong on a plate,” Leung continued. “The recipes may not all be practical for the average home cook, but the mission I have in mind is to inspire my readers to create something based on my dish, in a similar manner the city inspired my ways into food.”
Through the cookbook, Leung is able to share his experience and expertise—and it has been a satisfying process of writing for the chef. “If I manage to get someone to discover something new, that will be a win for me,” he says. “I never liked the traditional practice of keeping secret recipes. You can only learn new tricks when you pass on your old ones to others. In the process of learning, mistakes are inevitable. You only learn from making mistakes, if things are too easy in life I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much, and for as long as I have done it, and still am doing it.” The cookbook may not be an easy read for those looking to recreate Leung’s cuisine at home, yet it offers a glimpse of a chef who, in his own way, has derived his cuisine from the city he proudly calls home.