TORONTO: Chinese-Canadian chef Kelvin Cheung’s culinary journey started at the age of 12, working at his father’s restaurant in Chicago. He’s come a long way since then, with stints in Toronto, Vancouver, Delhi, Mumbai, and now, Dubai.
During his time in India, Cheung was a favorite of several Bollywood celebrities, and he’s becoming something of a celeb himself, thanks to social-media. His latest venture — Jun’s — is already making waves in Dubai’s culinary scene with its “elevated North American-Asian dining experience.”
If you’re not exactly sure what means, think tempura za’atar chaat — a surprising mélange of za’atar, tempura, tamarind, yogurt, and chaat masala or a lamb koobideh, which includes the traditional koobideh fixings, plus nikiri and egg yolk sauce, with kimchi jam.
Cheung says Jun’s is rooted in his Chinese heritage, North American upbringing, and French culinary training. And he stresses that he tries to source the freshest ingredients from local farms.
Here, Cheung talks discipline, noodles, and learning to lead, and reveals his “perfect Sunday brunch recipe.”
Q. What is your top tip for amateur cooks?
A. Cooking is a difficult skill that you never truly master, but discipline is the key. Expect to be a lifelong student.
Q. What is one ingredient that can instantly improve any dish?
A. Salt. You need to add salt to enhance and taste the rest of the ingredients, as well as balance the dish — particularly, desserts. A lot of inexperienced chefs find it difficult to (get the right amount of salt). It takes experience, muscle memory, and confidence.
Q. What is your favorite cuisine to eat?
A. Japanese. Especially sushi.
Q. When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?
A. Never critiquing, always observing… I love to hear the story of what inspired a dish or how it came about. Being let into the mind of a chef is always so interesting to me.
Q. What’s your favorite dish to cook?
A. I love making noodles. My wife and son are obsessed with noodles, and I make them a bowl from scratch. I take a whole chicken and some beef bones to make a super-rich, power-packed bone broth. It’s nutritionally-dense, hearty, and delicious. Cook the noodles, prepare garnishes and sauces, and serve my loved ones a steaming, hot bowl of delicious noodle soup. It fills my heart.
Q. If you have to cook something quickly, what’s your go-to dish?
A. Eggs. They’re a staple in our house. They’re healthy, convenient, accessible, affordable, and something that we all love.
Q. What’s the most difficult dish on your menu?
A. The Jun’s burger. It’s simple and no-frills, but it has to be precise every single time. We weigh out the exact patty-to-bun ratio. We use four cuts of wagyu beef, which are then hand-diced to make the patty. The execution must be perfect. We cook the patties until the edges are crispy, while making sure the burger remains juicy.
Q. Are you a strict boss?
A. My leadership style has changed dramatically over the years. I was trained in Chinese and French kitchens where there were great expectations and no room for errors. So it took me quite a while to train myself to be a less reactive leader. Becoming a father and reading about parenting styles was a big catalyst for deep change.
While I run a very tight ship in terms of organization and output, I believe in teaching and modeling, rather than barking orders. I’m very proud to say some of my team members have been with me for almost a decade now, moving cities and countries to continue on my team.
Chef Kelvin’s Pumpkin Congee
1 kg fresh pumpkin — seeded, peeled, and diced
8 cups of water or vegetable stock
1 knob ginger, peeled and sliced
¾ cup jasmine sweet rice, rinsed well
Salt, white pepper, and light soy sauce for seasoning
1 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted
½ cup chili oil (for garnish)
½ cup scallions, chopped
¼ cup fresh coriander, chopped
In a pot, bring the water or vegetable stock to boil. Add the pumpkin and ginger; simmer until the pumpkin is tender.
Remove half of the pumpkin. Mash or purée, and set aside.
In the same pot, add the rice and simmer until fully cooked. Now stir in the pumpkin purée.
Season with salt, white pepper, and light soya sauce. Mix well.
Garnish with roasted pumpkin seeds, chili oil, scallions, and green coriander. Serve.