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In the kingdom of abalone

By Carrie Qiu | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2018-02-12 23:09

Master chef Yeung Koon-yat has earned devotion from both discerning diners and his kitchen disciples for an ever-evolving approach to Chinese gastronomy, Carrie Qiu finds.

At 86, Yeung Koon-yat is still on a mission, training his last protégé in the art of Chinese cooking.

The "king of abalone", the renowned "world master of culinary arts" and ambassador of Chinese cuisine, checks with his restaurant manager about special ingredients for today's menu, joins customers for a chat at a central table. He pops into the kitchen. Somebody has asked for the master's signature dish, "Brother Yat's stir-fried rice". It's all part of the daily mission at Forum, Yeung's restaurant in Causeway Bay.

Four years after being forced to relocate, business is booming for Yeung and things couldn't be better.

In 2013, the landlord at Yeung's old location on Lockhart Road doubled the rent. Yeung quit the street shop he had for over 20 years and moved two streets away to the first floor of Sino Plaza. He is pretty philosophical about the change: "We were going to move anyway. The old place was too small."

A bigger restaurant has meant bigger responsibility. But diners at those 16 tables make up only a fraction of those he has "taken care" of over the years, among them, some high profile people.

His signature, "Ah Yat abalone", braised for over a day, has pleased the palates of luminaries such as late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and former French president Jacques Chirac, and he is a gold medal member of the exclusive Club des Chefs des Chefs, a handful of chefs who serve the world’s heads of state.

Chirac even wrote a thank-you note: "I discovered with great pleasure aspects of the Chinese gastronomy that were still unknown to me," Yeung read aloud as he held up a copy. He keeps copies of the presidential letter at hand, in the restaurant.

So, what had Yeung prepared back in 1999 that so impressed the French leader? "Pan-seared (abalone) with butter," Yeung described. "We can always incorporate local ingredients and cooking methods."

Egalitarian outlook

It was a Chinese delicacy with a Western twist. He sliced the cooked abalone thickly, and browned the slices until a crispy coat formed. He served the morsels with a garnish, the way the French would present duck breast. The sauce, naturally, was the thickened stock in which the abalone had been braised for hours.

Yeung not only has earned acclaim for taking care of the "elect", he has also earned respect for taking care of the "little people".

I met the chef in his restaurant on the coldest day since the beginning of this winter. The temperature dropped below 10 degrees with non-stop rain.

"Your hand's cold," said the maître, shaking my hand. "You warm enough?"

It was soon apparent this was nothing unusual, as I learned from his right-hand man, Deputy Executive Chef Adam Wong Lung-to.

"You can't find a better boss," says Wong. "I mean, he treats you like family."

As Wong described, the way Yeung treats his employees goes beyond being a boss. "He sends greetings to my mother, wife and daughter all the time. He cares about my daughter's studies at school."

There was one time when Wong's wife was sick and needed urgent surgery. Yeung called the hospital director and asked that she be squeezed in. The 48-year-old chef choked up as he recalled the episode.

Wong remains Yeung's last protégé — so far, at least. He has worked for Yeung for over 25 years, starting as a kitchen boy at the age of 23. Over the past decade, he's accompanied the master on his chef's tours.

"Shifu always taught us, moral character is more important than skills," Wong tells China Daily.

Yeung believes he has had over a hundred protégés over the years — but says he's lost count.

Wong owns a small restaurant of his own, also specializing in braised dried abalone, in Hong Kong. "Shifu knows about the restaurant, but I said to him, I would never ever leave him."

Shifu chef

Unlike Wong, most of Yeung's protégés have moved on to their own endeavors. Lam Wing-chun, owner of Fu Tung Seafood Restaurant, was a meat merchant supplying pork to Yeung's restaurant in 1984. Lam asked Yeung to teach him how to cook abalone.

"He was so willing to teach, and answered every question I asked without hesitation," said Lam.

In 1993, Lam opened his first restaurant, Fu Tung, in Tin Hau, with Yeung's encouragement. Yeung recommended Fu Tung to his regular customers and often dined there himself, inviting the media to come along. In 1998, Yeung recommended that Lam advertise himself as Yeung Koon-yat's protégé. Lam now owns two restaurants in Hong Kong and one in Dongguan, Guangdong province.

Yeung never worried about his protégés turning into competitors. "Their achievement is also my success. Better than commercials," said Yeung in a teasing tone.

It's easy for the master to say that, while some protégés are more successful than the others, none has achieved global renown as Yeung has.

Wong explained why.

"It's not easy to keep the name of Ah Yat Abalone," said Wong. "Shifu is very picky. In the past two and a half decades, I have eaten more abalone than rice, because the quality of abalone keeps changing, and we have to keep testing new ones to ensure the authenticity of the dish."

Modern methods

Back in the 1980s, it took Yeung three years to perfect the cooking of the treasure from the sea. Top-quality dried abalones from Japan are simmered in clay pots with pork ribs, whole chickens and stock for two to three days. Stock needs to be added every now and then to keep the pot from drying.

Diners might not realize that the abalone Forum serves today has been through several changes. It used to be cooked with coal, but for environmental reasons Yeung switched to gas over 10 years ago. The original recipe required pork ribs to be deep-fried, but Yeung stopped deep-frying the ingredients to make the dish less greasy. For the same reason, he started removing the skin from the whole chicken.

"He has never stopped improving his cooking to meet the modern standard," said Wong.

Lunchtime was over. The customers were gone. The restaurant was closing. Yeung rose, put on his scarf and his double-breasted coat, and rode up the escalator, accompanied by Wong. It's part of the maestro's daily routine. He’ll head home for a siesta. At 6 pm sharp, he'll be back, ready to take care of the evening shift.

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