These Chef-Engineers Are Sticking Air Pumps in Your Dinner
When it comes to perfecting fried chicken, these engineers-turned-cooks have it down to a science. Hint: it involves vodka.
Lobster chow mein. Photo courtesy of Alison Woo.
You know that old joke: two engineers walk into a bar, one of them starts putting vodka in the fried chicken batter and the other fills a duck with compressed air. OK, maybe it's not so funny but it is amusing to hear engineers-turned-chefs Alvin Leung and his protégé Eric Chong geek out over evaporation points and the science behind making extra crispy fried chicken.
Leung, the chef at the three Michelin-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong and judge on MasterChef Canada, took Chong under his wing after he won the first season of the show, giving the unexperienced home cook a year-long stage at Bo. Next week, the two are opening a restaurant together in Toronto's Chinatown called R&D, which stands for rebel (representing Chong who left his engineering job to go on the reality show) and demon (the nickname Leung gave himself). The food is a mix of lesser known Chinese flavours colliding with North American dishes like a mapo tofu poutine, fried chicken with Hong Kong-style egg waffles, and Brussels sprouts with black bean butter.
But to hear them talk about it, R&D might as well also stand for research and development as they talk about their approach to cooking.
"Engineers are very logical and everything has to be tested so when we fail, we'll know why and how to improve things," says Leung, whose typically tinted hair is back to black today. "Engineers don't have that sixth sense where we can just toss in things here and there like many chefs. People are paying for our food and it has to be the same every day. We can't have bad days."
"We break down food logistically, and see how to make things more efficient," says Chong. "We know that fried chicken has to be absolutely crispy and fresh, but frying it to order takes 20 minutes, and at a busy restaurant you don't have that kind of time."
The solution, he found, is to fry it twice: First at a lower temperature to cook the meat ahead of time, and then again at a higher temperature to crisp up the skin. Vodka is also added to the batter because alcohol evaporates quicker than water, allowing the batter to dry faster and crisp up fast. The flour is also a 50-50 split between cake and all-purpose flour; cake flour has a finer texture and a lower gluten content so the batter won't be as tough. "All recipes are broken down to the gram and percentages rather than volume," says Chong. "This makes things precise so that it can be replicated precisely by other cooks."
The food here is precise, but is much more toned down than the more abstract and in-your-face dishes at Bo Innovation (see: the xaio long bao that looks like an egg yolk). At R&D, the food is a throwback to what Leung and Chong grew up eating at home and in the Greater Toronto Area. "When I came here in 1966 there were a lot fewer Chinese people, but Chinese restaurants were still scattered everywhere. It's tasty, cheap, and cheerful, but here we want to show them Chinese flavours that they may have never tasted like lap cheong."
"Ma po tofu is a favourite of mine," says Chong. "My grandpa's fun guo is also on here, so the menu is what we're all comfortable with."
The soft-spoken 22-year-old, who graduated from McMaster University with a chemical engineering degree only two years ago, comes from a similar background as Leung. Both grew up in the Toronto area in traditional Chinese households; both have an engineering background that they abandoned to go into cooking.
About a decade ago, at the age of 42, Leung took over a friend's unlicensed speakeasy in Hong Kong. He renamed it Bo Innovation and taught himself to cook far-out dishes like a condom made of jelly resting on a bed of mushrooms that resembled sand. The dish was appropriately called Sex on a Beach.
"He was living my dream," says Chong. "Like me, he never went into culinary school, but just jumped right in and killed it. I always wanted to be a chef but my parents said it wasn't a financially successful career. In Asian culture, it's all about face and respect, and they were way more proud to say I was a chemical engineer than a chef. They didn't really approve of it because I had to quit my job in engineering to go on the show, but and now with the restaurant, I'd say they're pretty proud."
The two use their engineering and gadgetry know-how to update the centuries-old Chinese dishes they grew up eating, like the essential Peking duck, trying to solve common problems like overcooked meat and keep the parts they like such as the crispy skin.
"We spray the duck with a special water that's a mixture of maltose and vinegar to create a layer of sugar to get that nice, crispy skin," says Chong. "It's still a 76-hour process where we brine it for 24 hours, and cook it for four hours, but don't cook the meat all the way so it's still a bit pink. Normally Peking duck is fully grey but we like how in French restaurants, for example, the duck is still pink."
For them, it's not always essential to hold on all of the old-world cooking techniques, while quaint and romantic, don't translate to a restaurant they're banking on being full all the time.
"Change is always good," says Leung. "You can't keep tradition all the time. Yes, Grandma cooked on a wood stove but she would have used electricity if she could. Cooks used bike pumps to separate the skin from the meat in Peking duck, but now we use compressed air to get the same results but we're also now making 50 ducks instead of five in the same time. Change is only bad if you take away the heart of the dish, the part that made the dish still good after all these years."