Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. Each week in 27 Questions, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims, aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same duration it takes to sit through a two-minute speed date.
In the presence of clients, publicists and Hong Kong’s ravenous foodie hoards, Leonard Cheung prefers not to call himself a ‘Chef,’ yet the gravitas that this (oft misused) title conjures simply radiates from him. Our star of ’27 Questions’ this week is nothing short of a culinary firebrand, having quietly built a résumé in the past 10 years across some of the city’s hottest tables.
Born in California to Taiwanese émigrés, Cheung began cooking in professional kitchens at an extremely young age. During the tail-end of high school, the now-28-year-old chef ‘staged’ (a gruelling process whereby novice chefs do unpaid training for a short period in a live kitchen) at a laundry list of Hong Kong’s finest restaurants, where he immersed himself in culinary genres like fine Italian (Otto e Mezzo) and inventive Cantonese (Bo Innovation).
Those early gambles bore fruit when Cheung returned to the US to study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. As part of his undergraduate degree, he secured an internship at Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. Closer to home, Hong Kong food hipsters will doubtless be acquainted with his previous work at Blue Supreme — a Sheung Wan gastropub that owes much of its early success to Cheung’s ‘bistronomy’-inspired plates.
Predictably, F&B operators were among the first economic victims of the Coronavirus pandemic that began earlier this year. Despite hostile circumstances, these days Cheung remains hard at work on his latest concept — what he archly refers to as “elaborate private dinners.” From a small domestic kitchen inside his Repulse Bay home, dishes of great flavour and originality emerge: inhaled by a revolving assortment of aforementioned PRs, journalists and foodie clients. The thought on everyone’s mind? “When is this ‘cook’ going to open a restaurant?”
On a rare day off between dinner bookings, we decamp to Cheung’s living room for some rapid-fire banter to chat about what he’s been cooking lately; the all-star cast of his ultimate dinner party; why it’s important to lift heavy objects the correct way; and the all-important question — where his favourite meal is in Hong Kong.
Name: Leonard Cheung
Neighbourhood: Southern District
Occupation: Chef (currently holding elaborate private dinners at home)
1. What was your first job?
Working in the kitchen at Bo Innovation — I was 18. No matter how much I’ve improved since then or how great I might one day become, the team will always remember me as that dips**t who cut himself within 15 minutes of working there.
2. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
It must be back in 2010 at Pierre. Knowing what I do now, if I were to go back in time and have that exact same meal, I’d probably have fewer great things to say about it. But at the time, it was leagues ahead of many other ‘fine dining’ restaurants in terms of creativity. Never before had I seen prosciutto glazed in chocolate or a whole, trussed Bresse chicken. More importantly, I was blown away by just how intelligent the service was — it really set the bar for my own personal standards.
3. What is your drink of choice?
Depending on the time of day: bone-dry Riesling when it’s sunny; a finger or two of Bourbon at Happy Hour; a big, punchy Barolo during dinner; and a Vesper for my nightcap. That’s the ideal answer [laughs]. Realistically — given the long hours you work when cooking — maybe a 4am Carlsberg at 7-11?
4. What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
My kitchen. It’s nowhere near as spacious or lavish as what I find in many of my private clients’ homes, but it has almost all of the equipment that I’d personally need in a professional setting. Also, my collection of cookbooks!
5. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Oh, easy question. In-N-Out Burger! I was born and raised in LA, so I have a real familiarity with it. Nothing beats the large beefsteak tomatoes; the insanely crisped interior of the potato buns; the ‘tartare’ sauce; also, the chain is famously anti-expansionist when it comes to their beef.
6. What do you hate most about living in Hong Kong?
Taxi drivers. I get into a fight with them twice per week on average. Whenever they try to be choosy during peak hours, asking questions like “where are you going?”, I typically reply “your mom’s house.”
7. What is the top destination on your bucket list?
It’s a toss-up between New Zealand, Alaska, and The Maldives.
8. What is your greatest fear?
Turning into the kind of stubborn old chef who no longer wants to learn new things around the age of 40. Like many of those I’ve worked with.
9. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Guilt [laughs]? What is that?
10. What is one movie everyone should see?
For a dose of real-life perspective? ‘Idiocracy’ (2006). Revisiting that movie now (versus 10 years ago), it’s less hilarious and more horrifying given what the US is going through today.
11. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
Despite the fact that it’s presently on fire, I’d still like to return to California at some point later in my life. Even though I’ve lived in Hong Kong for much longer, LA will always be home. Then again, I suppose if I had to move somewhere right now then it’d probably be Taipei.
12. If you could invite any five people in the world to your dream dinner party, who would they be?
Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Tony Stark and…Arya Stark?
13. Where do you go when you want to be alone?
The Star Ferry or IFC rooftop.
14. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?
Lemon verbena. It happens to be one of the ingredients I’m most obsessed by as well.
15. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?
Meh [shrugs]. Depends on who you ask. If you can’t handle vegetables, acidity, char, spice, and herbaceous and floral flavours, then you’ll hate everything I make.
My ‘best dish’ changes month-to-month. Currently, for my private dining events I do an open raviolo (two thin, fresh pasta rounds which haven’t been enclosed) served with Taiyouran egg, langoustine, and at least three to four types of summer vegetables. The whole thing is finished with a heavily reduced bisque (also made from the langoustine). It sounds heavy, but I promise you’ll be blown away by how clean and light it actually tastes. I don’t rely on ingredients like butter, cheese, and cream to call it a day.
16. Who is your role model?
My dad. He came from nothing and fought hard for everything he achieved in the later part of his life.
17. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?
My mom. She taught me everything from proper etiquette to lessons steeped in our shared artistic interests: Colour combinations, all sorts of layered, textural visual arrangements — those all really translated to my career in hospitality. To this day, she’ll straight-up tell me if my dishes appear tacky or if certain flavour combos are off. She’s a very classy person, but also extremely good at harnessing a person’s potential — she taught me when to push people and when to back off.
18. Do you have a catch phrase?
“Whiskey never provides the answers to your burning questions, but after a long day, it sure helps eliminate them.”
19. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?
Travelling across Europe in mid-2017, while doing short stints in kitchens throughout. I visited a new city every week to ‘stage’ in a different kitchen — that went on for months. It was ridiculously inspiring.
20. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Everybody who knows me can guess I’ll probably name my next restaurant something owl-related because I’m absolutely a night owl. My creativity only sparks post-midnight: Most of the best dishes I’ve come up with were conceptualised during the very early AM. I think most people have learned to give me space during the morning and early afternoon [laughs].
21. What is your biggest regret in life?
Not taking care of my lower back when I was younger. Most cooks working in high pressure kitchens stand and run around 14-16 hours a day, all whilst lifting various heavy objects with improper form. I did just that and never took the time to properly stretch. Now, I’m really forking out dollars for physiotherapy. In hindsight, I absolutely regret not letting someone else do the heavy lifting [laughs].
22. If you could banish someone from Hong Kong forever, who would it be?
23. What’s your favourite childhood memory?
Watching shows like Southpark during the early AM in my LA home: obviously, my mom assumed it was just some harmless cartoon whenever she’d walk past. Those were really happy times. I watched so much TV (I still do) and ate so much junk food. The worst cereals you can think of (e.g. Oreos, Reese’s, Trix) and a tonne of candy. My sisters always like to remind me that my tongue was artificially blue at all times, when I was a child.
24. When did you last ride the Star Ferry? What were you doing/where did you go?
Riding the Star Ferry is like drinking: You do it when you’re in a good mood, and you do it on sad, gloomy days. I take it all the time — it’s a great way to get from Central to K11 Musea or Rosewood.
25. Have you ever experienced love at first sight? Tell us about it.
Absolutely — the first day that I saw Margot Robbie [laughs].
26. What is your life motto?
Not to let egotistical loudmouths walk all over you. I think we should stop making excuses for people like that and letting them slide — they know exactly what they’re doing!
27. How many countries have you been to?
30 — with Hong Kong being included as a country of course!
Cheung is currently taking reservations (through October) for dinner at his home. For parties of 6-7, a prie fixe menu is priced at HK$1,700 per head. For parties of 8 or more, that is reduced to HK$1,500 per head. To secure your reservation, a 50% deposit must be made at least two weeks in advance.
Special dietaries (i.e. vegetarian/vegan menus) to be taken by the whole table. To learn more, inquire about private catering rates or make a reservation, contact Cheung at +852 9889 6553 or firstname.lastname@example.org.