Leonard Cheung – a rising star in the Hong Kong culinary scene
Ex-Eleven Madison Park and NoMad Hotel chef Leonard Cheung is a rising star in the Hong Kong culinary scene. He helms the kitchen at trend-setting gastropub, Blue Supreme, which pairs live beer with creative casual food.
Leonard Cheung of Blue Supreme, Hong Kong
By Victoria Burrows
With Blue Supreme, you’ve brought a fresh new concept to the Hong Kong dining scene. When did first explore your creativity in the kitchen?
I wanted to be a pastry chef from when I was eight. I was the fat kid who could eat a whole cake, or an entire trick-or-treat pumpkin of Reese’s cups, by myself. I enjoyed adding twists to classic pastries and desserts, thinking I was very creative and clever at the time. Most of the twists were horrific, but I enjoyed the flattery and attention I got from everyone.
You soon left your childhood dreams of being a pastry chef behind – please tell us about that.
I was born and raised in southern California, but went to high school in Hong Kong. I was exposed to professional kitchens throughout my four years of high school. I was always the youngest stagiaire/ intern at places such as Bo Innovation, Cepage (now closed), and Otto e Mezzo.
My transition from pastry to culinary occurred when I enrolled into The Culinary Institute of America in New York and I chose the culinary arts programme. I knew I wanted to lead a kitchen one day, and have a restaurant business, and I wouldn’t be able to do that by becoming a pastry chef.
You’ve worked at some of the world’s most famous restaurants – what was that like?
I’ve worked in a few kitchens with 2 or 3 Michelin stars that kept me up all night. I was trained in very vigorous, tedious, and militarised kitchens throughout my time across North America, and in other cities around the world.
Every minute counts; if you’re a few minutes behind on a certain task, your work routine for that day is ruined. Every minute is filled with chaos, and you must push-push-push yourself in terms of speed, alertness, and physical work in order to stay afloat. Is it all worth it? Absolutely.
Is there any anecdote that stands out for you as a trainee chef?
When I was 19, a sous chef told me that I needed to set up my station before 5pm. I replied back, “Yes chef, I will try.” That was not the right response; to “try” was not good enough. I got into a lot of trouble. I learned quickly that the only reply that’s acceptable in a high-standard kitchen is, “Oui, chef”, or, “My fault, chef”.
The conditions certainly sound tough. Did these kitchens influence your cooking style at all?
Most of the kitchens I’ve worked in taught me that vegetables are always the star of the plate. Most cooks can sear a piece of steak, but not many cooks can find clever ways to manipulate the many different textures, colours, and essences of seasonal vegetables.
If you have very high quality produce, you shouldn’t need too many techniques; it’s perfectly fine on its own. The only time you should apply complex – not complicated – techniques to an ingredient is when it actually enhances the textures and aromas of the main ingredient.
How would you describe your cooking style?
Vegetables are top priority in my dishes but I include meat, too. I cook very seasonally, and make sure every ingredient contributes to enhancing the dish. I believe only people who do not know how to cook resort to smothering things in cream, butter, cheese or sauce.
The menu at Blue Supreme is surprising considering your culinary background. Please tell us about it.
Blue Supreme is the first project in which I attempt to create casual dishes, as opposed to my fine dining background. Notice how I used the word “attempt” – this is because I’m doing a very bad job at staying on the “casual” side of the fence!
I create dishes that are approachable, reasonably priced, a bit avant-garde, and labour intensive for me and my kitchen. A lot of my prep is done fresh every day.
It’s a refreshingly short menu; is this something you consciously decided on?
Seeing as the size of my kitchen is the size of a food truck kitchen (I’ve seen some trucks that are even bigger than my kitchen!), I have to keep the menu small. I have 10 dishes or less on my menu every day.
I’m always skeptical of restaurants with an enormous menu. I know how hard it is to control the quality of every dish, and the last thing I want to do is to spread myself thin by having a large quantity of half-assed dishes. I make sure every dish on the menu is unique and memorable, and has a crave-worthy texture.
What’s the dish you have created for Blue Supreme that you’re most proud of, and why?
We recently had the ultimate spring-time dish: seared Hokkaido scallops, three types of spring vegetables all cooked differently, a green sauce made with other seasonal vegetables, and a lemon verbena dashi.
I came up with the dish while walking through Hong Kong’s Central market – as clichéd as that sounds from a chef – when I realised I should finally start using local Chinese vegetables, despite how little Chinese cooking I do. I labelled it “spring vegetables” as the three vegetables change weekly.
Lemon verbena dashi sounds delicious – how do you make this?
This dashi would probably get me beheaded in Japan due to how unconventional it is! Instead of the classic kombu-bonito combo, I simmer kombu with parmesan rinds and lemon verbena. The dashi is then emulsified with lemon verbena oil in the last minute, to have little beads of lemon verbena oil floating around the rim of the plate.
How did the decision come about to open Blue Supreme, with its focus on live beer?
Ted Lai, the owner of Blue Supreme, is an absolute beer fanatic. He opened Blue Supreme so he could serve the highest grades of craft, lambic, sour, live-yeast beers. We’ve become the only beer-focused restaurant in Hong Kong that serves contemporary American cuisine – as opposed to typical beer grub such as hot wings, fries, and jalapeno poppers – cooked and plated to the highest standards I can attain with a small kitchen, matched with the beers that have been produced to the highest standards in Belgium. We suggest a beer pairing for every one of the ten dishes we serve every night.
Hong Kong isn’t traditionally thought of as a beer-drinking city – is this changing?
The beer-drinking scene is not obvious here yet, but there are great breweries in Hong Kong, producing phenomenal beers. More importantly, people here are starting to understand the amount of labour and craftsmanship that goes into brewing.
Thank you, Leonard, and we wish you great success with Blue Supreme.