Tam Kwok-Fung Shares How People And Attitude Trump Food In Running A Successful Restaurant
Having mastered success in the Cantonese kitchen of managing Jade Dragon and Pearl Dragon, celebrated Cantonese chef Tam Kwok-Fung has since moved to Wynn Palace to take the helm of the kitchen at Wing Lei Palace. The seasoned chef has since made a mark in Macau’s vibrant dining scene, excelling through his contemporary interpretation of Cantonese cuisine through masterful techniques. Tam modestly declined on taking all the credit but is hopeful to share his side of the story on how people trumps food when it comes to running a popular restaurant.
“I don’t believe in signature dishes, at least not at Wing Lei Palace.” Tam explained. A Cantonese chef by trade with a international experience including his tenure at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, Tam Kwok-Fung attacked the term ‘signature dish’ with reason. “My wish is that food lovers will come to my restaurant because they understand how we approach food, from principles to style and execution. It has taken a long time for people to understand Robuchon, or Gagnaire on how these culinary masters cook, I want that for my restaurant, where people come because they want to experience how we do Cantonese cuisine, that we distill the essence of preserving the freshness of ingredients through a demonstration of great culinary techniques.” Techniques such as stir-frying, steaming, braising, and deep-frying may have been a standard in Cantonese cooking prerequisites to mastering the art of Chinese cooking, what set one restaurant apart from the others, according to Tam, is applying adequate measures to preserve the essence of ingredients. It is not about showing off what a chef knows, but what are needed to prepare the best representation of a dish.
As the leader of the pack of chefs at Wing Lei Palace, Tam’s duties cover menu design and managing the restaurant from purchasing ingredient orders to running the game for his players. He refused to take after the old-school style of kitchen management, where the leader acts as a parent and hands judgment from top-down. “I was brought up in that style and we are seeing the flaws of this today, the scolding and anger generated from within the kitchen often end up breaking the chefs, a counterintuitive outcome that ruins the order of the kitchen. Instead, I always go by the motto of ‘happy chef, happy food’. It is only through satisfaction and appriaisal where appropriate that chefs develop satisfaction in doing their best with good turnout. When chefs are happy, you can taste it in their food.” Tam explained his secret of success, never losing his signature smile in the process.
Running restaurant kitchens have not been easy, and staffing has always been a challenge in all restaurants. Tam declared it was not hiring the right people that was the issue, it is retaining them in the kitchen that was difficult. “I used to freak out over losing a member of the team and suddenly nobody would know how to do the work and that handicapped daily operations. So we developed a system as a solution, by training chefs to take initiatives in facing new challenges, so that should one member decide to leave, chefs can quickly learn to fill his or her place in order to keep the operations running smoothly.”
Staffing is not the only issue chef Tam deals with. Seasonality and ingredients are two key factors in building a great cuisine, particularly Cantonese cuisine. Chefs should rely on their sensitivity in cooking by the season, with heightened awareness in the seasonal availability of ingredients and knowing how to make substitutions where needed. Some ingredients that were popular before may not always be available as frequently today. This poses a problem for chefs who seek to recreate flavours of the past in their cuisine. Tam agreed this is a challenge he faces every day. “Some ingredients are not as common as before, the demand is still there but the supply has diminished, our responsibility is to both seek the best alternative and adjust the seasoning and techniques to make the best use of what’s available to us. Availability is not something we can control, so we live with it, and exercise our minds to be creative about it. Something as basic as pork and goose have changed in quality due to raising methods in farms, but that should not stop us from making barbecue pork and roasted geese. We adapt by using a different cut, and different methods to recreate our popular charsiu and roasted goose.”
Mastering the techniques required time and determination, as Tam owed his success and expertise to decades of learning and practice in eating and cooking to master the arts and science of Cantonese cookery. “We love stories from our teachers, they are lessons that teach us how to think on our feet. Now I am teaching my chefs what I know, and I want them to learn the principles well before they get creative with it. It is like our Chinese saying, that one must master how to walk before learn how to run.” Tam lay down the standards for his chefs. “Chef training is all about developing knowledge, techniques, and the right attitude. The latter being the most important, as the right attitude of humility and high curiosity to explore will polish the technique and knowledge of a chef.”
The road to success and recognition is long with many winding turns. For Tam Kwok-Fung, it is a chef’s state of mind that exceeds the measure of recognition. “I think success in my industry means having influence on a restaurant level, and on a personal level, inspires your peers to do better in their own respective fields. Gaining recognition and earning accolades certainly help with the team’s morale, it is a good source of motivation to keep doing well, but should not be something that defines who we are,” Tam explained.
With awards and recognition under his belt, Tam finds solace in another form of appreciation, one that he gets on a daily basis. “Trust, is what I feel drawn to accomplish and it is a result of our efforts. Guests return to Wing Lei Palace every now and then because they trust how we approach and execute Chinese cuisine. At times they repeat their same orders, other times they trust us in designing bespoke on their food based on how well we keep track on their preferences. We believe open-mindedness and willingness to go an extra mile for our guests is key to success in hospitality. If a guest would like a unique dish, we try our best to create for them. We only have one rule, which is that seasonality always comes first, we will not prepare hairy crabs in the summer even if a guest can pay. It’s about principles and we must uphold them at the very least.”
As Tam spends much of his time managing his team at Wing Lei Palace, he candidly admits he does not miss being in front of the stove. “I am not retired from cooking, I still do some cooking myself to keep my skills at tip-top standards, and to keep going you must keep cooking, that is our life, and a mission to pass the torch to more chefs to come.” On that note, we will be seeing more of chef Tam while tasting the happiness he projects from his kitchen to his food and to us food lovers.