Why I Travel: Chef Kelvin Cheung on Food and Memory

And eating raccoon, beetles, scorpions and larvae in China.  
Kelvin Cheung India Rajasthan
The chef in Rajasthan. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

As a chef, it is fairly natural that my travels have always been planned around food. Over the years, this has heavily influenced my culinary style. I’ve spent most of my life in kitchens. When I was 12, I washed dishes and made cookies in my dad’s restaurant. Later, I tried different things – went to school, studied pre-med (and dropped out), worked part-time jobs – but somehow I always came back to cooking. It’s been part of my family’s legacy. My grandmother was the chef at my dad’s first restaurant in downtown Toronto, and that was almost 50 years ago. I’ve been in the kitchen for 23 years now.

When you travel, not only do you learn, but the experiences that you have turn into vital memories. When you’re creating dishes and flavour profiles, you’re playing with various combinations. That thought process involves stealing ideas and piecing together memories of things you’ve tasted before, created yourself, or seen other people do. When I’m making something new, it’s really this hybrid version of what I may have picked up as a kid from my dad’s restaurant or what I’ve been trained in, or a classic French meal I once had. I think it’s pretty cool how things evolve, and how travel facilitates the new experiences that in turn, shape your cooking philosophy.

While cooking around the world comes with the job description, my most vivid food memories are of eating. I still remember the game dinner I had in China in 1998 or 1999. They served us each course without telling us what we were eating until the course was done. It ran the gamut of every sort of wild game from raccoon to water crane to beetles to scorpions to larvae to cat organs. But for the life of us, we couldn’t figure it out while we ate it. All that we knew for sure was that it was foreign, and to our palette, weird. It was a fun meal.

Uni sushi, one of my favourite foods, in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

Uni sushi, one of my favourite foods, in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

But then there are memories that aren’t as good.  To me, the food across huge parts of Europe seems similar. Some places, like Croatia, are absolutely gorgeous, but are known for things other than their food. On the other hand, in Southeast Asia, every meal is amazing.  You’re not eating in fancy restaurants all the time; you’re eating at street stalls. In Thailand, the food from small mom-and-pop shops is always delicious. Similarly, in Singapore and Hong Kong; you can’t go wrong with most of the dishes. Trips like that make me most happy.

Discovering food can sometimes be daunting in a new city – you don’t know what you’re going to be missing, whether you’re falling into a tourist trap, or maybe even stumbling upon the worst meal of your life. But I’ve become pretty good at researching and feeling my way around a new city. Generally, I talk to locals and ask them, “Where do you go to eat with your family?” Not “where do you recommend?” I don’t want to know who’s been rated best on Zomato or Yelp, I want to know where they go to eat. Other than that, I make sure I have reservations for at least two or three of the top, highly recommended restaurants in the area months in advance. Along with making these food memories though, one of the best parts about travelling is the collection of new treasures that you get to bring back with you.

I always venture into markets for random cooking ingredients that are true to the local cuisine. The last time I was in Thailand, I brought back dried shrimp. When we were in Croatia, I bought a bunch of lavender; from Italy, I brought back two kilos of truffles – it’s always whatever the local area is known for. Some of my prized souvenirs include dried seaweed like Kombu, bonito flakes (dried, fermented and smoked flakes of skipjack tuna), miso and cheese – but right now, the cheese is for me to eat rather than share. I also always have an eye out for candy. It’s an odd childish craving for junk food. That being said though, the best buy I’ve ever made are the knives I bought in Japan about 11 years ago. They’re custom-made by sword-makers in a knife market in Tokyo, and they last a lifetime.

In Southeast Asia, every meal is amazing. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

In Southeast Asia, every meal is amazing. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

In all the places that I’ve worked in – Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver, Dinant and Mumbai – the one constant that I’ve encountered is that I’ve always managed to avail of the freshest ingredients. In Belgium, we were placed in an extremely isolated area. Fortunately, we had our own vegetable garden so we grew most of the produce we needed ourselves. We also had a fish pond, and every time we got an order, I’d run outside, catch a fish myself, clean it, cook it, serve it, take another order, run back outside, and so on. For protein, the hunters would come by at 10a.m. with whatever – duck, pheasants, wild boar – they had caught that morning. If they’d brought pheasants or ducks, that meant I would be sitting in the garage for the next two hours picking feathers off and pulling bullets right out of the carcass, making sure it was all clean.

In Vancouver, we had access to the most beautiful seafood. Our go-to guy was nicknamed Steve the Pirate. He’d call us when he was out at sea and say, “I just caught a fresh halibut. Do you want it?” And if I said yes, it would make it from the ocean to his boat to my cutting board in under two hours. He was the guy everyone wanted to use. We had the same kind of luck with vegetables. There was a local hippie who supplied us with the vegetables as well as raised river trout in a little pond. There was a small waterfall that leaked from the pond into a crevice, straight into a plot of land adjacent to it. He turned this plot of land into a farm and the trout’s waste that got washed down the river into the plot became natural fertiliser. His vegetables were the best I’ve ever tasted – all-natural, organic and controlled because the soil was so well-fertilised and hydrated from this sea-trout-water.

Here in Mumbai, it’s more strenuous. We’ve begun weekly trips to Vashi and Crawford Market because I didn’t like any of the suppliers that we had. Sure, it sucks because you’re going from Colaba to Vashi at 6 in the morning, travelling an hour – even if it’s just for potatoes – and coming back to work for 18 hours. But it was the only way that I saw feasible to get the kind of stuff I want to use. Suppliers tend to go to the market very late, which means, in the case of fish markets, most of the seafood is sitting outside on the floor, in the sun, for hours. Suppliers roll in, buy it from the hawkers and then drive the fish around in unrefrigerated, un-iced trucks. By the time you get it, the seafood is pretty beat up. And they’re charging you double what you would pay at the market. That’s what we cut out completely. That’s how we’ve adapted.

Tacos on a visit to Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

Tacos on a visit to Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Kelvin Cheung

When you work around the world, while adapting is imperative, it’s also a bit of a challenge. Language is always a barrier when you cook in new places, but you just have to make it work. In Belgium, I had to learn to gauge the chef’s physical movements to know how far along he was because we didn’t speak the same language. In Chicago, I could tell by the way one of the other chefs in the kitchen put his steak in the oven that he’d need four minutes to plate his table. And while styles of doing the same thing –say, searing a fish – may vary around the world (some may flip it, the amount of oil used may differ), the basics remain the same. You learn to recognise that. I was lucky this was hammered into me from the beginning. It all comes down to the ability to think on your feet and adapt. That’s what’s cool about cooking – it’s pretty much a language of its own.

Travel leaves you with lessons that last a lifetime. I spent a large part of my younger days in transit, cooking and eating. Along the way, you pick up the little things that eventually come together, in the same way that you gather ingredients that turn into a beautiful dish.

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