By Young Tan
Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines in Britain, both among those who go to takeaways and eat out at restaurants.
However, the vast majority of regular Brits are not familiar with the more authentic and traditional foods found in restaurants frequented more by Chinese customers or food from China itself, or even with cuisines that are not Cantonese, Peking or Szechuan.
But unfortunately the UK is seeing a setback in the number and quality of chefs in its Chinese restaurants, which some say stems from a lack of training, a lack of interest and other problems such as visas and work permits. A fair few Chinese restaurants are being forced to close down, particularly in London Chinatown, due to issues such as rent that they are struggling to pay as inflation happens, competition increases and customers decrease.
There are however, a small but growing number of restaurants around that, thanks to a loyal customer base and increased media interest, are doing well and making a name for themselves as top-rated Chinese restaurants by food lovers and critics alike.
Chef Ken Wang
Ken Wang is a renowned dim sum and Chinese cuisine chef with more than 20 years’ experience in China and England and is the Executive Chef at the award-winning Chinese Cricket Club in located opposite Blackfriars station and near St Paul’s Cathedral. Currently ranked in the top 20 list of best places for dim sum in London on Trip Advisor, the Chinese Cricket Club has – as you can guess from its name – blended luxury Chinese cuisine with sports in honour of the original Chinese National Cricket team, who played their first international match in 2009. The restaurant is adorned with cricket memorabilia that sports fans would love and find interesting; certainly a unique and stark difference to the usual Buddha statues, dragon and phoenix ornaments and traditional Chinese artworks found in the more standard Chinese restaurants.
We recently spoke to Ken about his life and experiences as one of London’s top Chinese chefs and his thoughts on the future of Chinese cuisine in the UK.
NH: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Ken. Tell us, when did you first develop an interest in Chinese cooking?
KW: I chose to go to a cooking career school to gain knowledge about Chinese cuisine when I was 15. Food in my home town of Huai’an is one of the top eight exquisite cuisines in China. A lot of care and attention is needed for the taste of Huaiyang cuisine, and many people know about these tasty dishes.
NH: Who inspired you with your cooking whilst growing up?
KW: My dad inspired me because he would always cook delicious food at family meal times when I was young and I thought it was fascinating. Even nowadays, I still cannot resist the temptation of his home cooked food.
NH: How do you make sure you stick to authentic Chinese cooking and how have you found the reaction from diners – both Chinese and westerners?
KW: I make sure I always use traditional Chinese cooking styles with ingredients westerners like or combine Western style cooking to prepare traditional Chinese sauces. I also change the way the food is presented on a plate and served to the customers to make traditional Chinese cuisine more palatable for Westerners. By doing this, I can make sure the traditions are maintained and the customers are happy.
NH: There are plenty of restaurants in Chinatown that sell dim sum. How do you try and stand out from them in your cooking, style and presentation?
KW: I prefer to stick to traditional cooking techniques, using healthy cooking styles and fresh, organic ingredients. This allows the very complicated Chinese cuisine to be easily presented in front of the customers.
NH: What is your favourite dish to make and why?
KW: I like to make fish based dishes like the “Chef’s Special Sea Bass” on my restaurant’s menu. This might be because I come from a town full of fish and food from lakes.
NH: Do you do master classes and train your chefs to your level? If so, how does it make you feel knowing you’re passing on your renowned skills and knowledge to a younger generation of enthusiastic Chinese chefs?
KW: I hold master classes in my restaurant to spread the knowledge of Chinese culture and cuisine for those who are interested. However, most chefs I work with are trained in the kitchen of the restaurant I work in as majority do not come from China but through my successful training, their level of Chinese cooking has risen dramatically and continues to get better. But, there’s also a very serious problem as less and less young people are willing to learn to study Chinese cooking.
NH: What are your thoughts on the problem regarding the lack of Chinese chefs in the UK?
KW: Currently most restaurants in the UK are facing the risk of not having enough professional chefs. There are lots of reasons for this. Mostly because chefs have problem getting a visa to come here to work and the UK makes it less interesting for professional Chinese chefs to come here, especially younger people. To try and solve this we must give more training to Chefs here or organise a group who are interested and take them to China to learn Chinese cuisine and culture. Otherwise, we cannot repair the loss of Chinese cuisine development in Europe and this could lead to a missing generation of Chinese cuisine.
Aside from his position as Executive Chef at the Chinese Cricket Club – where he has helped the restaurant earn both a AA Rosette as well as a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor – Ken has also set up his own food and beverage consultancy company Gourmet Chinese Chef Ltd, which is used as a platform to actively promote Chinese culture and cuisine and engage in various activities across the UK.
Ken’s critically-acclaimed food can be tasted in all their glory at Crowne Plaza London – The City hotel on Monday to Friday 12-2.30pm (open for “Gaifan lunch” – express rice-based lunch dishes, and “Yum Cha” – dim sum and tea) and 6-10pm and again 6-10pm Sunday (closed Saturdays). Their next Dim Sum master class is on 6th November from 6-8pm and will be taught by Dim Sum Chef Mai-Lan, costing £35 per person, while their Christmas season menu will run from 20th November to 22nd December, starting from £37 per person. The restaurant is even available to order on Deliveroo.