Q&A: HENRY CHOW
The executive dim sum chef at Royal China Club on long apprenticeships, delicate dumplings and the art of making rice
Interview: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
As the head dim sum chef of Royal China Club, you are an undisputed master of dim sum. How long does it take to learn this ancient practice?
I started my apprenticeship 28 years ago, which sounds like a long time, but it is nothing in the dim sum world. I am very young compared to most masters—yet while other chefs might have more experience, I think my imagination and ideas have come quite far in a relatively short time. Still, this world has changed a lot since I started learning. Nowadays there are catering schools which will teach you to make dim sum, but in my time, you trained with a master in a restaurant. You started young, aged 16 or 17, and you had to learn basic steps like how to chop and cut, so that by the time you became a master, you knew practically everything there is to know about dim sum.
How do these catering schools compare to apprenticeships?
I never went to a catering school myself, of course, but I’ve interviewed quite a few of their graduates, and I’ve noticed they don’t have much all-round ability. I don’t know if that is because of a lack of practical restaurant experience, but their skills are generally narrower than those who have trained with dim sum masters in restaurants. There are things you cannot learn in a school.
Does the dim sum at Royal China Club reflect a particular region?
Here at Royal China Club we do mainly traditional southern Chinese dim sum. I don’t know how well you know the geography of China, but the climate of the north is more suitable to growing wheat than rice. The northern Chinese depend on wheat for their starch staples, particularly in the form of noodles and dumplings. Their dumplings have a thicker wrapper, less filling, and are often eaten as a meal in themselves, whereas in the south dim sum is more of a snack or a light meal. Here at Royal China Club, we do have some dim sum inspired by northern China, but we have adapted them to our own traditional style. For example, there is a dim sum dish in the north which combines prawns and chive in a pouch-style dumpling, made with wheat starch. Here, we use rice starch, which is thinner and almost transparent, and form it into the shape of a half moon.
Where does cheung fun come in?
This is a kind of dim sum which you find only in southern China. It’s like cannelloni, made from rice paste, which they steam and put different fillings into. it originated from a very simple rustic street food dish, made in the olden days on a little portable stove, and the way they made it was rather like a pancake, but with steam rather than a hot plate. They’d close the lid, and the rice paste would become almost like a congee which they would add ingredients to. These days it is quite an elaborate, pretty dish, and comes with all sorts of things—scallops, prawns, honey roast pork—but back then it was just scooped onto the plate.
Are there certain rules you have to abide by with dim sum, or is it pretty much anything goes?
These days, to keep new generations interested, dim sum masters will bring in different ingredients—but you still have to stick to certain principles. There are strict rules about how many ingredients per piece, and in Hong Kong there are four main traditional dishes of dim sum which you have to master before you can go any further and devise something new. These are a closed prawn dumpling, called har gow; an open prawn and pork dimpling called siu mai; pai kuat, a dish of steamed spare ribs; and chicken feet, or fèng zhua. Each of these dishes requires a different set of skills, which is why you have to be able to make them before you can do anything more modern.
Spare ribs don’t sound much like dim sum.
I know! But it doesn’t look like spare ribs, really. The ribs are very miniature, and they are steamed and served in a black bean sauce—very different to the American style!
How experimental can you be?
Very. Even though I am a master and have been in the trade a long time, I am always learning: every time I travel to China, I see dim sum I have never seen before. Traditionally there weren’t that many varieties in southern China, but with changes in eating habits and the cross-fertilisation of different cuisines the possibilities are incredible. A similar trend is happening in sushi—there are many similarities between sushi and dim sum—which depends on fish, seafood and rice, but is incorporating more and more decorations and ingredients. You have to go with the times: for example, you’d very seldom serve hot chilli oil in or alongside dim sum in the old days, but today the sea bass roll cooked in a chili sauce is one of our most popular dishes. If you had asked my old dim sum master about that, he’d never have heard of it. We will always have the classic dishes, which you’ll find at any dim sum restaurant, but here we now also have the chef’s special menu, where I will feature new ideas constantly and get feedback from customers.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
Wherever in the world we think they are best. Our beef and lamb come from Britain, but our pork is iberico pork, from Spain, because it is such good quality—and of course, a lot of ingredients come from China.
How has London’s Chinese dining scene changed in the 20 years that Royal China Club has been open?
In the past 10 years we have seen far more regional Chinese restaurants in London, partly because there have been far more Chinese people coming to the country. In the past, the majority of Chinese immigrants hailed from Hong Kong, so restaurants in Chinatown were mostly Cantonese. Another reason for the shift, I think, is that young people these days like lots of variety—and they don’t care so much about formality either, another important reason. There are simple places selling bubble tea and cake, or places with hot pots, which are like a fondue from northern China. We ourselves have the Hong Kong Café and Royal China Baker Street, serving dim sum and cake and so on in a more informal environment, as well as the Roya China Club which is geared toward the top end of the market and focuses on presenting the finest dishes in the traditional, formal manner.
Why is dim sum such an esteemed culinary art?
Because there is so much work involved. Everything is done by hand, from preparation and stuffing to folding then steaming or frying. The paste has to be thin, otherwise you taste the paste when you eat it, but equally if it is too thin it can break when it is being fried or steamed. Even cooking the rice is important—there is a lot of technique and skill in cooking plain rice, and we have a rice cooker we source from Hong Kong; you cannot get it in this country. One of the most popular dim sum dishes served here is the spicy ribs and chicken feet rice pot. Balancing the flavour of these two different things and getting the texture and taste of the rice right is very difficult. Even the washing process is important. Wash the rice too much and you lose all the nutrients; wash it too little and consistency will be affected. Just as the Japanese pay so much attention to the rice in order to get good sushi, so the process of rice cooking when it comes to dim sum is very strict.
But if it’s so technical and time-consuming, how come the number of dim sum restaurants in London is growing? Are there enough dim sum masters to go around?
There is a chef shortage generally, and particularly a shortage of dim sum chefs here in London, as well as in China—plus the cost of labour is rising. Often the restaurants you see serving dim sum are relying on mass produced products, made in factories. They aren’t making them fresh. They are cooking them from frozen. Here at Royal China Group, however, we have at least one dim sum chef in every restaurant. We continue to make our dim sum by hand every day, and we only steam or fry them after the customer places an order. Unfortunately, though, I find this is increasingly rare.
What prompted the decision to refurbish the Baker Street restaurant?
It was very simple: we needed more space. With an influx of Chinese business people in the area, as well as the rising appetite for Chinese food in London in general, we had more demand for our restaurant than ever before. By expanding into the next-door building, we brought our capacity up from 100 seats to 145, and we were able to have more private dining rooms, which is significant. In big Chinese cities like Shanghai, you always have a private room if you are invited to a formal dinner—it’s an important part of the dining culture.
Despite the growth and development of the Chinese food scene in London, the Royal China Group remains an institution. How have you maintained your reputation for so long?
I think the main reason is that most of our management team have been with the company for many years: very few have left since we opened. The most difficult part of a restaurant business is building a reputation and being successful—and it’s much easier to maintain those standards if you have a team of people who know the company and are making sure it is consistently good. The staff at our different restaurants can often change—the second chef, the porter and so on—but the management team has remained consistent, and that in my personal opinion is why we have become an institution. My own principle as executive dim sum chef, which I’ve had since joining here and which I preach to my staff, is to do my best always: whether it’s a complicated delicacy or a small bowl of rice.