I’m sat for an interview with chef-restaurateur Jereme Leung, and the first thing he says is something of a disclaimer: “I didn’t speak English before I was 18… and all my English was learned in kitchens, so a lot of it is kitchen language that is not exactly proper.”
He’s right in a way. Not in the sense that Leung’s English is lacking – it’s great, and there’s none of that ‘kitchen language’ – but because it sounds like the English of someone who’s had to work for it. His enunciation sounds learned, his cadence a little formal; but it’s also symptomatic of the kind of drive and confidence one needs to conquer one of the toughest markets in the world: China.
If the name Jereme Leung isn’t a familiar one, it’s because he has been based out of China the past 17 years, making a name for himself as one of the few boundary-pushing chefs modernising Chinese cuisine.
Born to a Hong Konger father and a Singaporean mother, Leung started in the F&B industry at age 13, and worked his way through all four main departments (wok, roasts, dim sum, and the knife prep station) in a Chinese kitchen – an extremely rare occurrence as each section has its own separate hierarchy. This meant that Leung had to start from the bottom each time he moved to a different section of the kitchen.
All that effort has paid off over the years though. At just 24, Leung took on the role of Chinese executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Surabaya before joining Four Seasons Hotel Singapore’s Jiang Nan Chun as executive Chinese chef at 29.
In 2003, the chef uprooted for the opportunity to move to Shanghai, where he became part-owner and chef of Whampoa Club at Three on The Bund. There, he made his reputation with innovative interpretations of traditional Chinese dishes – a phenomenon practically unheard of 17 years ago.
Changing the format
One of Leung’s earliest innovations was a take on drunken chicken, where he addresses the issues with Chinese-style butchery, where the meat is often cleaved with small pieces of bone still attached to it.
“When I first arrived in China 16 years ago, the drunken chicken was always made in big batches – boiled chicken soaked in a shaoxing wine brine – and then frozen. The chicken would come out like an ice block, with bits of bone that people would spit everywhere.
So we did it differently. We would debone the chicken and make a stock from the bones. The stock gets added to the Shaoxing wine brine, and we’d only marinate the chicken for 8 hours so the texture is still beautiful. Then we served the chicken with a granita made from the frozen brine,” he shares.
The prodigious son returns
Seventeen years on and an F&B empire (including 14 restaurants, his own line of sauces, wine, and kitchen equipment, and multiple cookbooks) later, Leung’s still in the business of modernising the way Chinese food is being served. His latest project, Yì by Jereme Leung, brings the chef back to Singapore – specifically to the newly-refurbished Raffles Hotel – to offer the kinds of Chinese cuisine that “Singapore lacks”.
“If you think about it, most of the heritage cuisine we have in Singapore – Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese, Hokkien comes from the Southern, coastal parts of China. So want to bring something new into the Singaporean market with Yi,” explains Leung.
For him, the idea of “modernising” Chinese cuisine isn’t about adopting the practices of Western haute cuisine. It certainly also isn’t about putting gels and foams on a plate and calling it a day.
“I think Chinese cuisine is strong enough to stand on its own… in fact, it’s too strong to take on all these ideas from elsewhere. It becomes muddled and too confusing.
There are so many ingredients and dishes that you can find in China, in different provinces that people don’t know about yet.”
At Yi you find you’ll find ingredients of uncommon provenance, like rose petals from Dali, Yunnan, used in everything from ice cream to a floral-tinged hoisin sauce for roast duck; and meaty termite fungus, served in a salad with glazed walnuts and vegetables.
Modernising Chinese cuisine
Leung’s philosophy for contemporary Chinese cuisine feels almost like a Zen koan – to move forward by looking inward and amplifying the various qualities that are key to various dishes.
“What should be served hot is served hot. We use cast-iron or clay pots, even our ceramic plates are heated in the oven. We don’t dress the hot dishes … only with the cold ones do the chefs get creative with the plating.
Most dishes are shared, you don’t get little bits of things … This restaurant is all about sharing food. It’s about dining in the way Chinese food should be eaten,” explains Leung.
There might not be some kind of grand gastronomic movement, but Leung’s many, smaller innovations each push Chinese cuisine forward in its own way. At Yi, this starts with the basics – steamed white rice. Instead of the standard giant, commercial rice cookers, the 100-seater restaurant boasts 12 sets of smaller machines (Xiaomi, if you’re curious) that gets wheeled to your table so that every order of rice can be served steaming-hot.
The tableside rice cooker is an idea that Leung is clearly proud of – he mentions it in multiple interviews including ours – for the fact that it circumvents the problem of rice cooling to lukewarm as it travels from the pass to the customers’ tables.
The detail sounds trivial at best, and to the more cynically inclined, gimmicky even. That’s until you dine there, and the steam from the bowl wafts up in your face to conjure that comforting memory of home-cooked meals.
Meanwhile, soups arrive with a candle warmer. The soup is lukewarm so that, at a certain point when you’re done admiring your food and pick up your spoon, it’s appropriately warm. By the time you’re halfway through, your palate is tempered to the steadily rising temperature of the soup. It’s no fluke either, with old cucumber and sea conch soup arriving piping hot, sans burner.
Talking about the temperature of food in such detail might sound like unnecessary fuss, but it’s key to the quality of many Chinese dishes, which have a transience that doesn’t well to the detailed plating that occidental fine dining demands. Wok hei, that energetic, smoky-but-not-exactly quality key to Cantonese stir-frying is fleeting; while steamed fish – velvety and tender while hot – firms up as it cools.
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The marketing problem
For the past few decades, Chinese cuisine was often viewed as not having the same sophistication or prestige as European – primarily French – food. The dearth of Chinese restaurants on international guides and awards like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Michelin; as well as on widely-viewed media like Chef’s Table meant that awareness and understanding about Chinese cuisine remained woefully shallow in most parts of the world.
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Leung explains that “Chinese food has a problem with marketing”, citing traditional examples of two of the most widely-discussed culinary movements in modern times:
“If you think about it, tofu is the first-ever form of molecular gastronomy… You want to talk about fermentation – like noma – we have fu ru (fermented tofu soaked in brine), we have preserved mustard greens. These are all things we have already been doing for thousands of years, and are still widespread today. People rarely talk about this.”
Then there’s the cultural part of it – in a society where humility and modesty are considered virtues, many of the best Chinese chefs prefer to remain in the background. Up until a couple of years back, you’d be hard-pressed to find a chef from a Chinese restaurant who was willing to speak at length about their process, much less appear in front of the camera.
Times are changing though. As with any cultural force – like art or music – food proliferates with economic power, and China is no exception. Food programs centered around Chinese cuisine, like A Bite of China and Flavourful Origins are being met with critical acclaim. Leung himself is no stranger to television appearances, with multiple appearances on China’s televised cooking competitions including Masterchef.
At Yi, there’s a “swan shaped durian pastry” in the desserts section of the menu. The molten durian filling is nothing to write home about; but its deep-fried, lard-based pastry comes with layers delicate and multiplicitous enough to rival the best croissant – and that’s all the marketing you need.
Yì by Jereme Leung is located at Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road. Tel: 6337-1886