In the latest instalment of My Life In Plates, in which Irish and international chefs share the significant meals in their lives, Élodie Nöel speaks to Kwanghi Chan about the dishes and flavours that marked his life.
Kwanghi Chan was born in Hong Kong and moved to Buncrana, Co Donegal at the age of eight. In 2011, he became Head Chef at the Michelin starred Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford and in 2015, he took on the role of director of Soder+Ko in Dublin. After launching his own range of sauce, ChanChan, he recently opened Bowls by Kwanghi, a rice and noodle eatery on Malborough Street in Dublin 1. On Sunday, 11th August, the chef will give a Chinese cooking demo at Neighbourhoods, a daylong celebration of Fade Street hosted by Hop House 13. We sat down with him a few days ago to chat about the dishes and flavours that marked his life.
What is your first memory of taste?
Flavours have always been so important in our family. I’m from a traditional Chinese family; my grandmother is from Northern China and my grandfather is from Singapore. My grandparents brought me up more than my parents so I always had lovely cooked dinners at home, steamed fresh vegetables with ginger and onion, black fermented beans with beef - really strong Asian Chinese flavours. Dumplings were also a huge thing, chicken-filled dim sums. That was my flavour profile when I was young. I can remember being around 5 or 6 years old, running into dim sum houses for tea with my granny.
What is the last dish you had?
I was just over in Duck on Fade Street, Dublin 2. I had roast belly pork, and roast duck with some rice and lovely sweet soya. They do some lovely roast meat there.
What is the plate that made you want to be a chef?
I moved to Ireland when I was 8 and I worked in my uncle’s Chinese restaurant from the age of 13. We used to make our own birds’ nest with grated potatoes. We rinsed them to remove the starch, shaped them and deep-fried them, then served them with some Sichuan spices and prawns. We didn’t have it on the menu but we used to get lobster every year; we prepared them, chopped with the shells on and my uncle had a way of deep-frying them with a light dry batter. It created a lovely crust around it. Then we shallow fried them with spring onions and cognac. You’d be sucking your fingers trying to eat the meat out of it, it was beautiful. Getting to taste these intense flavours was amazing.
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What is the dish that could make you cry?
My first time tasting a beautiful pig's trotter from Pierre Koffmann in London, I found it just unbelievable, with the stuffing, the morels, and the sauce. Pork’s trotters are a huge thing in Hong Kong, as is pork in general, and the taste of these off-cuts, with this gelatin on your tongue and the palate, when you are chewing it away, I found it amazing.
What is the dish you don’t understand?
I’m a big fan of seaweed and all that, but I find sometimes people can take it a bit too far. I like good flavours, with fats and acidity, and sometimes you just need to eat some decent food instead of just eating herbs! The older I get as a chef, the more I enjoy basic flavours and simple food. I worked with Martijn Kajuiter in the Cliff House for years and the dishes he makes are very Dutch and European with a lot of vegetables, different ways of cooking them, with different textures. I learned a lot from that.
What is the dish you wish you had created?
I had a dish in Soder+Ko, it was scallops brined in seawater, you’d get that sea flavour and the scallops felt like they were just fresh out of the water. We used to do that in the Cliff House as well and I kind of made my version of it but I wish I had come up with it first!
What is the dish you can’t admit you love?
I have a lot of guilty pleasures! I love instant noodles. In Asian culture, you’d walk in a supermarket and find thousands of different ones. I particularly like the Korean ones, they always have a pack of spicy seasoning with it. I always add fresh vegetables and a couple of slices of chicken so I make it less guilty!
What dish could you eat every day for the rest of your life?
I love a good piece of dry-aged Irish beef, done on the charcoal, straight on. There is also foie gras with apple sauce, I love that kind of combination.
What is the dish you are the most proud of?
In Soder+Ko, I used to get lovely sushi-grade tuna, get fresh kombu seaweed and wrap it around the tuna loin. We’d vacuum-pack it and leave it there for a couple of weeks. The whole umami flavour goes right in and it would cure it a bit as well because of the salt. I served it with wasabi mayonnaise. It was a beautiful dish, using simple ingredients and enhancing them.
What is the dish that reminds you of your family?
Pork and chive dumplings for sure, we serve it in Bowls at the moment, it’s probably the most popular dumpling. We age our own soya, with garlic, ginger, spring onion and coriander, we leave it for a month or two, the flavour goes right into the soya, and we serve it with a chilli peanut oil and loads of spring onions on top. The pork mince we use is 40% fat, 60% meat. The pastry has loads of bite to it, it’s not like a gyoza from Japan. My mother is from Northern China, and the more north you go in China, the more wheat they use because it’s colder up there, so they need more sturdy food to keep themselves warm. My dumplings have a heavier bite to them because of the wheat.
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What dish would you make for the person you love?
I love cooking a simple roast; a nice rack of pork with a good buttery mash, and a white parsley sauce. I love white cabbage braised with the sauce from the pork. Every bite melts in the mouth with all these flavours.
And what about for your seven-month-old son?
I took him out for dim sum already! He had some Chinese rice pastry; I took the pastry out of a ravioli and made him try, he loved it! Our 5-year-old's first food was dim sum as well, we keep the tradition going. We live in Ireland but we go back to Hong Kong every year, I want the children to have this Chinese culture as much as possible.
What is your death row dish?
I went to DiverXo in Madrid a few years ago, we had a 13-course tasting menu. It was Spanish and Asian style and was probably one of the best meals I had ever. I could understand the flavours, what he had in mind, and he wasn’t afraid of using spices. It was bold and beautiful.
What is the next dish you are working on?
I’m working on a dish for Neighbourhoods. I’m doing it in conjunction with Duck, it will be a spice bag using my own seasoning, with meat and possibly prawns as well. We are going to put a nice sauce with this, maybe crispy garlic, and top it with nori seaweed, it will be something unique and different.
Author: Élodie Nöel
Élodie is a French journalist who relocated to Dublin about three years ago. She immediately fell in love with the island and its amazing food and has been writing about it on her blog Lemon Lipstick. You can follow Élodie's food adventures on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.