This is part two of my interview with Dean Hunag, exec chef of Super Star Asian. Part one of our conversation ran in this space yesterday.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more chefs exchange their cooking styles with one another. I'd like to see a chef who makes French cuisine, for example, share their tips and secrets with, say, a Chinese chef. I hear that Matt Selby at Vesta Dipping Grill makes great sauces, so I'd like him to give me some pointers because I cook with a lot of different kinds of sauces, and perhaps I could share some of my Chinese cooking secrets with him, too. By sharing and exchanging tips, I believe we could all learn a few new things that could make the Denver culinary scene even better.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: A lot less of the so-called Chinese food that really isn't authentic Chinese cooking -- like beef and broccoli, which misleads the public into thinking that it's real Chinese food, which it's not. I'll bet my chopsticks that you won't see a beef and broccoli dish anywhere in China, or even Asia. Compared to bigger cities like L.A., Denver Chinese restaurants are pretty average.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be neat and clean. I always tell my staff that cleaning and putting things in their proper place are very important, because when it's our rush hour and chaotic, it makes things run much more smoothly when every person knows where all of the ingredients are. Keeping the kitchen clean should be the number-one priority for every kitchen, because only a clean kitchen can cook great food.
What's never in your kitchen? Cigarettes. Most Chinese chefs love to smoke, but I don't. Smoking can alter your tastebuds, and heavy smokers tend to lose the ability to taste after a while, and, as a chef, I never want that to happen, which is why I tell my staff that they can't smoke anywhere near the kitchen. You can smoke after you leave the restaurant or when you're not at work. Believe me, there's plenty of conflict with the smoking issue, and there have been many sous chefs that I would have liked to work with in the past, but they don't want to leave their cigarettes at home, so we end up not working together.
What's always in your kitchen? Oyster sauce, dry garlic and my carving knife, which I use to carve sculptures out of carrots and daikon. I marinate a lot of dishes with a touch of oyster sauce to give them a richer taste, and I use dry garlic in pretty much all of my dishes. I love cooking with garlic, because it's so wonderfully fragrant.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The white chef coat that I received when I won the International Master Chef competition for Chinese cuisine. I wear it every time I enter a cooking competition or challenge.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I don't drink wine, but I love my Tsing Tao.
Weirdest customer request: There are a few, but the weirdest one would be the customer who asked me to cook a pork-belly dish without any fat. Seriously? Everyone knows that pork belly is mostly fat, but I complied with his request because my boss said I had to.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: An owl. I had it in China, and that was the first -- and last -- time I've ever eaten it. They cooked it in a soup, and to be honest, it tasted just like chicken.
Best tip for a home cook: When you cook, use Shaoxing cooking wine. It has a great smoothness to it, and it's a little salty. Just a splash of this in a dish brings out a very fragrant aroma and adds a delicious but subtle taste to whatever you're cooking.
One book that every chef should read: The Chinese Cooking Dictionary, a book that has more than 10,000 Chinese recipes and ingredients; I've gotten a lot of really good pointers from it.
What are your biggest pet peeves? A staff that doesn't listen, too many needless explanations, not cleaning up your mess -- or yourself -- and people who come to work late.
Culinary heroes: My mentor, Mr. Lam and Mr. Yeung Koon Yat, who's opened quite a few big-name restaurants in Hong Kong. I learned a lot about cooking from them both, and I thank them for giving me the groundwork to succeed.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Ah-Yat Harbour View restaurant in Hong Kong. The chef, Mr. Yeung Koon Yat, is a celebrity chef in Hong Kong, who's very well known for cooking abalone, which he's prepared for some of the most famous people in the world. I swear, he cooks the best abalone I've ever had, and eating his food is just a phenomenal experience. It would be a real honor to cook for him at his restaurant, and I believe I would learn a lot from him.
Favorite celebrity chef: My culinary mentor, Mr. Lam Jiang Qo, who's also a well-known chef in Hong Kong. My first job was in his kitchen as a prep boy, and he taught me so much about cooking that I honor him every time I receive any kind of culinary award.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Gordon Ramsay. He talks like he's the shit, but he's nothing more than a showoff; just shut up and cook.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Bringing my style of cooking to the Denver area after having worked in Los Angeles, Portland and Phoenix. I haven't seen many Chinese chefs in Denver doing sculpture plating like I do, and there aren't very many Chinese restaurants in Denver that offer different cooking styles. Most of the dishes in Chinese restaurants all taste the same.
Most humbling moment as a chef: In 2008, when I received my World Chinese Cuisine gold prize for a big cooking competition in Beijing. There were 500 chefs that entered the competition, but only twelve received the gold-prize award, and I was one of those chefs. Being recognized like that after 35 years of hard work was definitely a huge moment in my life -- and definitely the moment where I felt proudest of myself.
Biggest compliment you're ever received: Every single compliment that a customer has ever given to me is important -- and they're all equal. I appreciate every single compliment I get, because they all make me strive to become a better chef. I don't ever want to let my customers down.
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What's your dream restaurant? A fancy-looking Chinese restaurant with a great front- and back-of-the-house staff who gives everyone, rich or poor, the most accommodating service they possibly can.
What's next for you? We're expanding the dining room at Super Star, and I'm preparing for the wedding season, so that means I'm working on new banquet menus. And I'm really excited about the new aquarium we're getting that will swim with all sorts of exotic edible fish -- red snapper, king crab, rockfish, live prawns and elephant clams. It's a ten-foot-long aquarium that's eight feet high and holds 450 pounds of seafood. We're going to have a lot of fun cooking with all that fish.