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Chemist and Chef Howard Cai on Chinese Gastronomy

Trained chemist and cult chef Howard Cai dissects the present and future of Chinese gastronomy.

“I was born and raised in Shantou, China. Since young, I have been exposed to good ingredients, good cooking and, of course, good food. I’m also a trained chemist. Now, I like to think of myself as a food innovator with a particular vision.”

This is how 49-year-old Howard Cai of Howards Gourmet Workshop describes himself. He forgets to mention that he is the darling of gastronomes around the world. Just this March, he was invited by David Beckham to cook at the opening of Haig Club London, creating much buzz on the international food scene. For the rest of us, getting a seat at his famed restaurant in Guangzhou is no walk in the park, either. You need a referral from someone he knows and trusts. In return, you get to breathe the same air as Wong Kar Wai, Lin Ching Hsia or perhaps some heavyweight from China’s politburo – not that you would notice, for your attention would be on his food.

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Howard Cai, a chemist turned “cuisine designer”

When did you start cooking professionally?
I cooked for my flat buddies when I was studying in Melbourne. When I moved to Los Angeles for work, I cooked for friends and also commercially. I was employed at a fertiliser manufacturing plant and, whenever I had free time, I would apply my knowledge as a chemist to experimental cooking. When a group of Chinese government officials visited the US, I was called to cook for them. They liked what I served, and one of them invited me back to China to open a restaurant. I came back in 2005, opened my first restaurant in Panyu, then a second in Shanghai, and then in Guangzhou.

Describe your cuisine.
On first impression, the food looks simple. As a chemist, I pay a lot of attention to how an ingredient reacts when exposed to different temperatures, and the makeup of various amino acids. My approach to cooking is empirical and I would formulate a specific cooking process, in order to extract the best flavours while retaining, or enhancing, their intensity. That’s why my food may look deceptively simple, yet each bite gives a full sensation, even to taste buds that are not very sharp.

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What lies ahead for Chinese food?
Having lived in Australia and the US for many years, I’ve observed that most Chinese chefs learn cooking from observation and inherited techniques. Therefore, they have little motivation and curiosity to learn more. I train my kitchen differently. While the basic skills are important, I feel they account for only a third of the finished dish. The rest comes from an understanding of each ingredient, and how to apply the appropriate food science and methodology to prepare it and bring out its best. I explain and guide my staff through each step of the cooking process, until they are thoroughly familiar. Although they have full access to my recipes, I always remind them not to memorise the steps, but instead to understand the logic behind them.

What’s next?
Food has to keep evolving. For example, the signature dish of braised sea cucumber which was served today, is the 4.0 version. I’ll also be opening another restaurant in Hong Kong soon. Most importantly, expect to see the launch of my whisky by the end of 2015, with my name proudly on the label.

(Ed: Cai is a whisky aficionado and has been working with distilleries to create his own label.)

Visit Howard’s newly-opened outlet:
Howard’s Gourmet, 5/F, CCB Tower, 3 Connaught Road Central,
Central, Hong Kong. Tel: (852) 2115 3388

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