Woking his way to the top

Chef Lee Che Liang, 42, has worked in some of the best restaurants in the world including Hakkasan, which he helped launched all over the world.

He is currently based in London, where he oversees Park Chinois, a fine-dining Chinese restaurant with live entertainment in Mayfair, London.

With the help of his kitchen crew of 65, Lee serves up some of the finest dim sum and Chinese cuisine in London.

In an email interview, the chef talks about his passion and the idea behind Park Chinois.

When did you learn how to cook and who taught you?

"I've been around food since I was 10 years old, as my family ran a small restaurant in Johor. It served classic Chinese cuisine, and from a young age, I was in there washing the dishes, prepping the ingredients and serving guests.

"I was in my mid teens when I left home and moved to Singapore to work in restaurants there. I was young but we needed the money, and I didn't have any formal education: my school, my whole education has been in kitchens.

"The first thing that I cooked for myself was rice noodles and fried rice. I got this huge wok out, it felt as big as I was, and I started with these basic dishes.

"I learned everything I know from doing it on the job. I read cookery books and take inspiration from all over the world. But for me, the best way is to try and try again until you perfect a dish."

When did you realise that cooking was what you wanted to do professionally?

"It wasn't until I was 16 that I actually fell in love with cooking. Before that, it was just a way to earn money. [I] started getting into cooking competitions and that really ignited my passion.

"I was 17 when I represented my country, and at 18, I was head chef at the fine-dining The Dragon Inn restaurant in Malaysia."

Where did you master your skills as a chef?

"I'd say that it wasn't until I was 21 that I really mastered my profession. I was at the Ritz Carlton in Singapore.

"At that time, it was the best hotel in the region and I learned incredible amounts about quality, service and hospitality.

"I met Allan Yau (founder of Wagamama and co-founder of Hakkasan), and he moved me to London to open the first Hakkasan restaurant in 2001.

"Since then, I've gone on to open Hakkasans all over the world from New York to Moscow, Abu Dhabi and Miami.
"I learned a lot during that time about different cultures and techniques."

How did you conceptualise the menu at Park Chinois?

"The cuisine represents the 52 provinces of China, but the techniques that we use are from all over the world.

"For instance, we have a carbonara dish, The Park Carbonara, on the menu. The dish is Italian in its inspiration but it's created using the finest Chinese ingredients, Inaniwa udon, sea urchin and an organic egg cooked perfectly at 65°C.

"We take a similar approach with our dim sum; they have this really long history within Chinese cooking and mean 'from the heart'.

"Dim sum are delicate so we treat them with respect. We use the best of seasonal ingredients to create something that is from our heart, so that we're respecting their place in culinary history."

What is comfort food to you?

"When I'm at home with my family (he has two sons, aged 10 and 12), I eat really simply. I spend all day testing and tasting so when I'm at the house, I love to have a simple congee that my wife prepares for me."

What is your advice to young cooks in Malaysia who wish to follow in your footsteps?

"Just get out there and try something. There are only so many things that you can learn from a book. It is important to experiment, to practise and master your craft by doing the hard graft.

"You also have to try and move forward every day and to ask yourself, how can I keep on getting better?

"I've got a big team in the kitchen, there are over 60 chefs in there and I could just stand back and oversee everything, but it is important for me to be in there working alongside them, to gain their respect by working hard with them."