Hong Kong’s Friendly Demon Chef

October 27th, 2009

A Conversation with “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation in Hong Kong

Demon Chef, Alvin Leung

Demon Chef, Alvin Leung

Getting into the spirit of Halloween that is fast approaching, we thought it would be appropriate to chat with Hong Kong’s “Demon Chef”, Alvin Leung about his Michelin two-star rated X-treme Chinese cuisine!

With his blue-tinted hair and rocker tattoos, Leung isn’t exactly whom you would expect to see at the helm of an internationally-celebrated restaurant, but this self-taught chef is a true representation of the molecular Chinese cuisine that he pioneered from nothing but his own talent, perseverance, and inspiration drawn from eye-opening dining experiences at visionary establishments like El Bulli and Joël Robuchon. Leung was born in London and brought up in Toronto, before moving to Hong Kong after university, where he has remained since.

DE: We know you are a self-taught chef, so when did you begin cooking? Who were your early influences? Your mother? Family or friends?

AL: No, no. Not my mother! My mother was not a very good cook so we had to fend for ourselves. My mother mostly fed us instant noodles. When I was in grade school I lived across the street from school so we ate at home everyday and basically we had instant noodles everyday. Up till now, I still can’t stand to see instant noodles! I am scarred for life!

So I probably started cooking when I was about 11. I was just cooking very simple stuff back then. I wasn’t into anything gourmet. And actually my father loved to cook. He would sometimes try more interesting or elaborate things.

Was it mainly Chinese food that you started cooking?

AL: No, being brought up in Canada, at that time, Chinese food was not as popular or exotic as it is now. Remember, it was the early seventies. Chinese food back then was ethnic food. It didn’t have the same status as it does now. As kids, we weren’t really that keen on Chinese food. We would probably prefer a Western meal. So I started cooking a lot of Western dishes that had Chinese touches because those were the ingredients I had to work with.

After university where he studied environmental science, Leung moved to Hong Kong to begin a career in engineering. He eventually started his own acoustic engineering company that grew to include 3 factories and over 300 employees before diverting to another life path and delving into more serious culinary adventures.

DE: You have gone through many stages in your life already! Please take us through the process of moving from your career as an acoustic manufacturing engineer to celebrated chef.

AL: Engineering is a logical profession. We are very logical people, very systematic, and I think that helps in what I do today in terms of running the restaurant. The creativity part I think is natural in me. The way I was brought up in liberal Canada back then in the 70’s — we went to a liberal school, the government then was the Liberal Party — all of that contributed to what I am today.

<i>Molecular magic at Bo Innovation</i>

Molecular magic at Bo Innovation

DE: And was there something that occurred in your work or your everyday life that led you to change from cooking as a hobby to a profession?

AL: I don’t think anybody sits down and just makes these decisions. If you sit down to think about these decision they most likely won’t happen. Being a logical mind, doing what I do, fine dining, creating, I call it X-treme Chinese, it is one of the most difficult of all businesses to get into. Fine dining is a very difficult business to make profitable. In Hong Kong, where people are relatively conservative, doing fusion adds about three times the degree of difficulty.

I think I started to really get into more gourmet cooking at home about 10 years ago. I was having a lot of big dinner parties and I had friends in the food business. They called other people that came and they were impressed with what I did as an amateur. I was creating different dishes with different ingredients. Finally there was an opportunity to take over a speakeasy, which is like an illegal restaurant — very small and cheap to put together, it cost me nothing to get into that. That’s when the opportunity arose and I  took it, and things just went on from there.

Bo Innoseki, where Leung first began as chef was a Hong Kong speakeasy inspired by the Japanese kaiseki — small eateries with limited seating, designed to feel like you are eating in someone’s home. It was here that Leung honed his craft and began experimenting with modern ingredients and cooking techniques. It was, as he later termed it, “X-treme Chinese” cooking in a way never experienced before.

In 2003, Leung took over Bo Innoseki as owner and chef. With its growing popularity, the kitchen was relocated to a larger space in 2005, becoming a full restaurant renamed Bo Innovation.

X-treme version of the classic Xiao Long Bao

X-treme version of the classic Xiao Long Bao

DE: You started with Bo Innoseki and later it became Bo Innovation. Where did the name evolve from?

AL: I am asked that question a lot and many people often come in and call me Bo, thinking it’s a nickname or something. Let me set the record straight. I am not called Bo! I am the Demon Chef. I once had a cat named Bo!

No, the speakeasy that I took over was called Bo. I inherited the name from the previous owner, a friend of mine named Boris. Other than that there is no correlation to me. We had thought about changing the name once but now it has become a bit too well-known I think.

In December 2008, Bo Innovation was awarded two stars in the first edition of the Hong Kong Macau Michelin Guide. With this honour, Leung became one of only two self-taught chefs in the world to be awarded Michelin stars — the other being Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK.

DE: Congratulations on your two Michelin stars! It is quite an honour to receive in such a short amount of time. Can you tell us how you conceive of new dishes and continue to innovate each year?

AL: The process to create new dishes begins with the desire to create new dishes. A lot of people get lazy and stop creating or stop doing something that is original. It happens in art, music, writing because people get lazy, burnt out, writer’s cramp, creativity cramp. It is important to keep your body and mind in tune, in shape, ready to create. Your mind has to be fresh, your body has to be alert. Your senses and your tastes have to be alert, free of all constraints in your mind. Your mind has to be liberal and accept a lot of things. Because once you are fixed in a certain way your creative level will go down. Don’t burn yourself out or give yourself too much pressure.


<i>Leung with his Bo Innovation staff</i>

Leung with his Bo Innovation staff

DE: And what do you do to keep inspired?

For me it means I need a lot of free time for myself. I’m not at the restaurant all the time because I will burn out. I would get sick of cooking and once you are sick of cooking you lose passion. Once you lose passion you can’t create. You have to have a passion and also a talent to cook. I do have a talent to cook. I’m not going to be modest about that. You don’t get from untrained nowhere within 5 years if a talent doesn’t exist somewhere. Though what that talent is, I’m still trying to figure out! And of course success is my inspiration. If customers keep telling me something is a fantastic dish or good reviews come from critics then that is enough incentive and inspiration to keep me going.

DE: So rather than more pressure, you feel more inspiration from having recently received your two Michelin stars?

I think I am a scientist and one of the first laws of physics is that there is a reaction for every action. And of course, if you become recognized by one of the highest bodies of the culinary institution there will be pressure on you to keep the two stars and to achieve the final one. Also people come to the restaurant with expectations because you have been rated and you are supposed to be a destination where people should come for a good experience. There will always be pressure about that.

DE: Finally, what about the “Demon Chef”? Where did that nickname come from?

AL: Some people started calling me the “Rock n’ Roll Chef” and I didn’t really like that so I changed it Demon Chef. Demon doesn’t have to imply evil. The devil was once an angel, a fallen angel. Demons are characters, they can be playful not sinister. I’m more like Casper, he’s a friendly devil. I’m a friendly cook and a friendly devil too!

Chef Leung is currently working on a second Bo Innovation to open in London in the near future. We will keep you updated with this information as we learn more.

DesignEats.com would like to thank Chef Leung for his time and for sharing his incredible story and insights with us!

 Click here for more information about Bo Innovation

View Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Bo Innovation:

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2 Responses to “Hong Kong’s Friendly Demon Chef”

  1. [...] Alvin Leung — Bo Innovation (Hong Kong, China) With his rocker image and “Demon Chef” nickname, Bo Innovation chef and owner Alvin Leung likes to push boundaries, in particular with his cooking. Offering a modern reinvention of classic Chinese dishes, Leung, inspired by time spent at El Bulli as well, employs both science and artistry to create his celebrated cuisine. (Read our interview with Alvin Leung here…) [...]

  2. Interesting. I’ve been on a big noodle craze lately, I have no idea why – I just got a crazy craving for noodles!! I’ve already tried nearly half of all the noodle recipe here and looking for more still! Crazy huh. I should probably stop soon, I dont think eating noodles every day is a little unhealthy perhaps…

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