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19 April 2014

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Starter for 10: interview with Alvin Leung

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alvin leung 2012 - Alvin_Leung_2012_MOST_RECENT.jpgSelf-proclaimed ‘demon’ chef Alvin Leung is a mould-breaker. He trained and worked as a sound engineer until the age of 43, but became a chef after cooking at a friend’s pop-up restaurant in Hong Kong in 2003. In 2005, he opened his first restaurant, Bo Innovation; in 2009, the restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars. It has since climbed to number 52 on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best list and has made Leung known for his boundary-pushing ‘X-treme Chinese’ cuisine, which combines traditional Chinese recipes with modern cooking techniques. The British-born chef talks to Square Meal about his forthcoming Mayfair restaurant, Bo London, plus condoms, tattoos, feng shui – and doing things his way.

The British tend to be unadventurous when it comes to Chinese food. Do you think we’re ready for Bo London?

On the contrary: I find British people very adventurous. So far I am feeling quite confident – you can’t do anything in life without confidence, but there’s no such thing as a sure thing. I feel optimistic that the British are prepared for my food. It will be a different experience.

I don’t want to make Bo London somewhere people only visit once and I don’t want it to be a bucket-list restaurant. There should be dishes on the menu that make people crave them and want to come back and enjoy them again and again.

In 2010 you created a dish called Sex on the Beach, which resembled a used condom discarded on sand. What was the reaction from diners?

Sex on the Beach was not a novelty dish. It was not just about making an edible condom to shock people. It was a message that food can be fun, that it can be innovative – and also that we have a problem with AIDS, it’s not been cured, and lots of people still suffer from and die from it. Chefs nowadays are slightly below rock-star status but people still listen to what we say.

The condom dish was a charity dish that raised close to £40,000 for AIDS awareness in Hong Kong. I’m going to bring it to England and hopefully 100% of the revenue from that dish will go to a charity promoting AIDS awareness.

I’m taking Sex on the Beach off the menu in Hong Kong when I bring it to London. I’m going to replace it with another dish called Bo Shit. It will be another charitable dish, and I have a children’s charity in mind. I hope it will eventually come to London too.

In Hong Kong you moved Bo Innovation partly because of bad feng shui. Did you have the Mayfair site checked out by a feng shui expert before deciding on it?

Feng shui in Chinese culture is not hocus pocus – there are a lot of practical applications behind it. But I haven’t had the Mayfair site checked yet. I’m very comfortable with the site, it’s in a fantastic location, and I’m among very competent chefs – Jason Atherton at Pollen Street Social, Claude Bosi at Hibiscus – who are all doing well. So I assume that it’s a good site.

I’m very at home in Mayfair. We looked for a couple of years before we found this location. I was very stubborn in insisting that I wanted Mayfair. After all, it’s the most desirable location on the Monopoly board.

You started out in a pop-up. Is the pop-up restaurant scene in Hong Kong similar to London?

Pop-ups are not a big thing in Hong Kong now like they are in London. A lot of pop-ups opened in Hong Kong in 2003 because of the SARS epidemic. At the time, a lot of established chefs were out of a job because the restaurants had closed. They opened the pop-ups out of necessity, for survival. Of course, the chefs had fewer overheads and were therefore able to charge people less money – and they became popular with the public. But after SARS, as their restaurants opened up again, most of them went back to their jobs.

I launched my pop-up after SARS, inspired by the other chefs. A pop-up gives up-and-coming chefs a lot of opportunity to test their product. We don’t know how good we are at cooking; we think we’re very good, but we don’t know until we really expose ourselves to paying customers.

You worked as a sound engineer until the age of 43. What skills from your previous career were applicable to your career as a chef?

Engineers are very creative people, but we’re also very practical – we create things for a purpose, and when we create them we want to make sure there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It makes us very realistic, and I think that helps. I also think the skills of observation, problem-solving, management and business really helped me. As a chef you can be creative, but you still have to know how things are done in business.

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What spurs you on to the next level – personal self-improvement or awards such as Michelin stars and a ranking in the World’s 50 Best list?

Awards help the ego, but they also help a restaurant find its audience, so they allow me to finance other projects. It also helps the team: if we get higher on the list, or if we reach the third star, it would bring a lot of pride to the whole team – and in some respect, to the whole of Hong Kong. When René Redzepi got to number one on the list with Noma, he gave pride to his whole country. It brings me a lot of joy to see people in Hong Kong proud.

Which award would you most like to achieve: three Michelin stars or a number-one ranking in the World’s 50 Best list?

Both the S. Pellegrino awards and Michelin stars are very different, and both were things I wanted to achieve. They represent different things, they have different judges and reach different audiences. I can’t choose one over the other. So I need to cater for and satisfy both worlds.

Do you have high hopes for where you’ll place in next year’s World’s 50 Best list?

The thing about high hopes is: you shouldn’t hope. And having high hope is even worse. You have to earn what you have. It’s not a matter of hoping – you can’t do the same thing as last year and hope that this time the judges will see you differently. I’m working out ways to add to the dining experience at my restaurant. Living on high hope is not the engineering way. You don’t just build a bridge and hope it doesn’t fall down.

You are known for your distinctive style – can you tell us about your tattoos?

I have two tattoos – one represents the demon chef and one has a heart on it and the name of a person inside. Tattoos to me are not only decorative: when you tattoo something on your body you’re making a commitment, like when you tattoo your girlfriend’s name on your arm. I got my demon chef tattoo at a time when I was not as well-known as I am now. I did it as a commitment, and if I ever have it removed it will mean I have given up. But as long as it’s here every day I have to keep working to maintain being the demon chef. If I gave up being a chef I would look pretty silly to have it on my arm.

People have described you as a rock-and-roll chef. What’s the most rock-and-roll thing you’ve done?

I never refer to myself as a rock-and-roll chef! I haven’t ever thrown a TV out of a hotel room... But everybody who is passionate about what they do gets frustrated when things aren’t going right. So I’m a chef who has a temper, but I wouldn’t say I’m a chef with a temper. I guess I’m like a dog – if you bark once in a while, people give you some space and a little bit of respect. But if you bark all the time, people just think you’re crazy. I bark – but I haven’t bitten anybody yet.

Bo London opens in Mayfair in early November.

This feature was published in September 2012.

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