“Intense” would be one of the most apt words to describe Hong Kong chef and restaurateur Alvin Leung. The 57-year-old has a way of holding eye contact and looking intently at you with such razor-sharp focus that it almost feels intimidating. Add in the “Demon Chef” nickname he picked for himself years ago (it’s also tattooed on his right forearm) and his rockstar-like appearance — complete with blue hair, blue-tinted sunglasses, and an all-black ensemble — and you have one magnetic personality who’s easily the centre of attention wherever he goes.
Which is exactly what Leung relishes. “I like to be in the spotlight. When I step inside a room, I like attention to be drawn to me right away,” he said, when we met him ahead of the launch of Forbidden Duck, his first Singapore restaurant. The eatery is slated to open later this month at Marina Bay Financial Centre. Forbidden Duck currently has a flagship establishment in Hong Kong, and specialises in Peking duck and slow-cooked roasted duck. “It’s about familiarity and comfort with a twist,” explained Leung.
Born in London, bred in Toronto, and based in Hong Kong, Leung’s famed for his three-Michelin-starred restaurant Bo Innovation, which made headlines when it first opened for its inventive and unconventional creations such as Lap Mei Fun (claypot rice with waxed meat) ice cream and the cheekily-named Sex on the Beach — a ham, honey and mushroom concoction crafted to resemble a used condom strewn on sand. Still on its menu is the less controversial but no less intriguing molecular xiao long bao, where the dumplings come presented as spheres infused with pork broth.
Leung, who is also a judge on MasterChef Canada, tells us more about what to expect from his new Singapore venture, why he sees cooking as a form of art, and the one thing he’s addicted to.
(Main and featured photos: Forbidden Duck)
I love Peking duck. It has always been one of my childhood favourites, and I’ve eaten it all over the world. I like to eat it purely as a duck, which is a combination of skin and meat together. A lot of effort is put in raising the duck to give a nice balance of fat, skin and meat. [So to sacrifice] everything for the skin — I think that’s too much of an indulgence.
My duck will have a nice crunch on the skin, and the meat will be tasty and tender. There’ll be a nice balance of skin and meat together. It’ll be served with pancakes, buns and sauce, uniquely created to complement the enjoyment of the duck. I think people here have a preference for handmade pancakes, which I sometimes find too thick and covers up the taste of the duck. I’m using a much thinner pancake.
For the slow-cooked duck, the meat will be pink and tender. We’ll be serving it with butterfly buns flavoured with citrus like kumquat or calamansi.
Yes, there’ll be quite a few Singapore-inspired dishes utilising local flavours and ingredients. There’ll be my version of chilli crab. To me, it could be a very difficult dish to do because it’s already done so well here. There will also be dishes inspired by the flavour profile of laksa. For instance, dan dan noodles is very close to laksa and it’s something we can play on.
I’ll come as much as I can, but not just to check on things, because I enjoy coming here. Singapore being one of my favourite destinations in Asia is one of the reasons I opened Forbidden Duck here. The dining scene here is international and diversified, and there’s always something for me to do.
I never say no to anything. But Bo Innovation involves a lot of preparation. It’s a restaurant with a very high standard in terms of both the execution and innovation, which requires a lot of my time and energy. I’d love to open one here, given the right conditions.
Everything to me is innovative. I don’t like to use the word “experimental” because it could mean doing something that has a high chance of success or failure. To me, I like to control. It’s a controlled application to food; it’s not trial and error.
Cooking is a form of art. It’s a sign of care and love for the people we cook for. Also, eating is a necessity. So it’s a combination of something that’s absolutely necessary, and something you can make more interesting artistically. I like that combination. You’re taking something close to people and changing it into an art form.
For me, it’s more of being able to cook for an audience that’s extremely foreign to me. I’d love to cook for some natives in Alaska, or an indigenous tribe that’s never had meat before. Trying to convert vegetarians would be a good score for me.
I respect people for their religious beliefs and allergies. But I don’t respect anybody who dislikes certain foods. Because I think you should always try something.
I just don’t like bad food. Any food that’s badly executed, ingredients that have been spoilt, combinations that don’t make sense. It’s a waste of ingredients and effort.
There’s nothing I wouldn’t try. I’m keen for anything. I’ve had the famous dead shark (Hákarl, or fermented shark meat known for its distinctive ammonia and urine-like smell) from Iceland and fermented skate from Korea. I wouldn’t have it every day. But I think if you eat it enough, you’ll acquire a taste for it. It’s like alcohol — the first time you have it, you won’t like it because it’s bitter.
Coffee. I like it black, strong and in many cups. I am addicted to the taste, temperature, aroma, and maybe the routine. Honestly, I’m not addicted to the caffeine because it doesn’t affect me.
I don’t have any addictions, except to life. I sleep very little, just a couple of hours each day. [It must be] the adrenaline inside me; the fact that I’m excited all the time. I enjoy life, so I don’t want to waste any time sleeping.
I enjoy playing squash, I collect Batman toys off eBay, and I smoke a lot of cigars.