Chef Kelvin Cheung Travels to Get Lost

Though travel brings alive all of Cheung’s five senses, taste and smell often trump the others.  
Toronto-born Kelvin Cheung grew up in Chicago and currently lives in Mumbai, but his thoughts, he says, are always in Chinese. Photo Courtesy: Blank Art
Toronto-born Kelvin Cheung grew up in Chicago and currently lives in Mumbai, but his thoughts, he says, are always in Chinese. Photo Courtesy: Blank Art

Washing dishes at his father’s Toronto restaurant is how Kelvin Cheung kick-started his culinary journey two decades ago. Today, the 37-year-old chef runs two of Mumbai’s successful boutique restaurants: Bastian, known for its seafood, and the chic gastro-pub, One Street Over. The two kitchens keep this Kendall School of Culinary Arts graduate on his toes. But even whilst he’s on a break, “it’s difficult to turn off the chef” in him, and his travel companion and wife, Andrea, completely understands why. Chasing aromas, wafting out of both swanky restaurants and humble food stalls, is what now dominates the couple’s travel itineraries.

 

Is travel essential to being a chef?

Not really. You don’t need to travel halfway across the world to see what other chefs are plating up. For instance in Japan, which is my favourite destination in the world, what amazes me is how some chefs dedicate their entire lives to mastering one dish. There’s a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, and all it serves is every single part of the chicken, including skin, tendons and even cartilage. In Tokyo’s famous Tsujiki Fish Market, a fourth generation boxer family serves only one dish—grilled eel glazed with sweetened soy sauce on a bed of steam rice. Japanese chefs stay in Japan perfecting one dish. This does not make them less or more of a chef; it’s how they gain expertise over a dish. Having said that, while travelling isn’t essential, it surely helps. For me, travelling makes me more aware of how I observe different dishes, and sample the aromas and flavours that greet me along the way.

Tell us about some dishes inspired by your recent travels.

There are quite a few actually. On Bastian’s menu, for instance, we have a dish called Mom’s Singapore Curry, which is essentially a Southeast Asian coconut curry served with crab. It’s my mother’s recipe, and has been on the menu since Bastian’s launch. However, when Andrea and I went to Bangkok this June, I had a similar style of curry at a local seafood market. When I came back, I tweaked the recipe. Now the flavour profile of the curry on our menu is a combination of Thai flavours and what I grew up eating.

Since my family lives in Chicago, I visit U.S.A. often, and one of the things I absolutely love there is In-N-Out’s Animal Burger, a freshly ground beef burger smothered with their in-house Animal Sauce, which is basically a tangier and spicier version of Thousand Island. It was even served at our wedding in Los Angeles last year. It had to be on my menus because I love it so much. So we do serve my version of the Animal Burger at One Street Over. At Bastian, we serve Animal Prawns, which is a really cool combination. I used to make prawns in my dad’s restaurant as a teenager and since I really wanted some part of the Animal Burger on Bastian’s menu as well, I added Animal Sauce to prawns.

Cheung’s favourite souvenir is a set of chef knives he bought at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, a busy indoor market that’s best known for its 5 a.m. tuna auctions. Photo by Aluxum/iStock.

Cheung’s favourite souvenir is a set of chef knives he bought at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, a busy indoor market that’s best known for its 5 a.m. tuna auctions. Photo by Aluxum/iStock.

Why aren’t menus of both your restaurants limited to one cuisine?

That’s my style. I don’t like to focus on just one cuisine. For me cooking is about retaining the flavours of an ingredient. When tomatoes are in season, I happily put some Italian, Thai and Chinese flavours together on one plate. I enjoy the process of combining interesting global flavours in a way that exemplifies and shows off the ingredient and the cooking technique.

How closely are your menus linked to the places you love?

Let’s say my entire menu is a combination of my childhood memories, every single place I’ve worked at, the cookbooks and food blogs I read and, of course, my travels. Right now, for instance, I’m creating a trout dish for which the fish is flown in from Himachal Pradesh. The way I cook it is what I learnt in my first job in Moulin de Lisogne, a restaurant and Bed and Breakfast in Belgium. It had a pond full of French blue trout. Every order there needed me to run out, catch a fresh trout, butcher and clean it, and then cook it to order. Using the same technique and flavour profile, I have recreated the dish on Bastian’s menu as pan-seared Himachal trout, it’s served with a white wine butter emulsion.

Since the food you serve is global, many ingredients might not be easily available in India. How do you source them?

Whichever part of the world I’m in, I believe in being an ethical chef and showing support to local farmers. Also, it doesn’t make sense to pay Rs1,000 on importing avocados from Mexico when you can source them from Kodaikanal. They may not be as good but, when used correctly, taste just the same. Ditto for seafood. It’s taken me six years to find the right seafood suppliers. If I want snapper, I call fishermen down south at 3 a.m. They catch fresh fish and send it by air. It’s a beautiful system. I change my menus to focus on what’s available locally without compromising on quality.

Cheung and his wife, Andrea, gravitate to local haunts like Kyoto’s Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade, lined with shops selling kimonos and pickles, and stalls dishing out sushi. Photo Courtesy: Kelvin Cheung

Cheung and his wife, Andrea, gravitate to local haunts like Kyoto’s Shinkyogoku Shopping Arcade, lined with shops selling kimonos and pickles, and stalls dishing out sushi. Photo Courtesy: Kelvin Cheung

How rooted are you in China—its food, culture, flavours and sights?

Deeply rooted. Even though I grew up between Canada and Chicago, I’m still very much Chinese. In fact, I think in Chinese first. I last visited China in 2016, when I had a 12-hour layover en route to Toronto. In the little time I had, I sampled the roast suckling pig and it found its way to Bastian’s menu. One of my earlier childhood memories is of eating fried stinky tofu on Hong Kong’s streets. It’s a fermented tofu dish that, well, stinks. Traditionally it’s eaten out of a plastic bag with chopsticks but in my version at Bastian, which I call ‘Crispy Tofu’, it’s plated with sesame peanut sauce and chilli oil.

Apart from food, what else do you look forward to when you travel?

Honestly, Andrea and I look to get lost. From our first trip to Goa, we’ve established a pattern: we wake up early and set out. We go hiking, or visit museums, temples and churches. We just pick a direction and walk as far as we can. Our trip to Japan last year wasn’t planned at all. We visited Osaka, Tokyo and Kyoto, and all our meals were in places where we saw locals eat. That’s been our holidays everywhere, whether it’s Croatia, U.S.A. or Thailand.

TRAVEL BYTES

Photo by Iris Stock/Shutterstock.

Photo by Iris Stock/Shutterstock.

Last place you travelled to

Oman

Next trip is to

Bhutan

Comfort food is

Paper dosa

My suitcase always has

a pair of running shoes

Best dish had while travelling

Sea urchin-unisushi roll at Shoushin, Toronto

Strangest foods tried on a trip

Unmentionable things at China’s Wild Game Dinner

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    Lubna Amir is Jr. Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.

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