It used to be formulaic for Chinese chefs to please towkays who dine at their restaurant: always start with a steaming porcelain bowl of shark’s fin in a peppery broth.
But with diners becoming more conscious of what’s on their plate, chefs have had to adapt, even those with over 30 years of experience, such as Chinese executive chef Chung Yiu Ming of Li Bai restaurant at Sheraton Towers Singapore. Hong Kong-born Chung moved to Singapore in 1990. He worked at popular Chinese restaurant Lei Garden for four years, before joining Li Bai in 2000.
“Just because you have been working as a chef for many years doesn’t mean what you know is always right. Times are changing and it’s important to try to change too or risk being eliminated,” says the 59-year-old. Due to public censure over eating shark’s fi n, he stopped serving it at Li Bai in 2012. Instead, he uses bird’s nest as its price equivalent, turning the premium ingredient into savoury dishes, as well as desserts. His thick bird’s nest soup with fresh lobster or crab roe, for instance, is a favourite among diners.
“Not many know this, but when you add salt to bird’s nest, the fine strands will shrink even more and become very fragile, so there’s very little left to work with,” says Chung.
Another alternative he has to shark’s fin is a clear soup with baby yams and yellow fungus. To complete the dish, Chung shaves wafer-thin slices of fresh white truffle imported from Italy when it is in season.
“Using fresh truffles makes a simple soup more luxurious,” says Chung, who took a cue from Western chefs for this.
These days, instead of sticking to the usual plum and honey or black bean sauce commonly found in Cantonese cuisine, he experiments with miso paste and Thai sweet and spicy sauce as marinades, as well.
“Being a chef is not about being traditional now. You have to keep up with the diner’s ever-changing palate,” says Chung.