This is part one of my interview with Dean Hunag, exec chef of Super Star Asian. Part two of our conversation will run in this space tomorrow.
Clad in a starched white chef's jacket with ornate gold lettering, Dean Huang sits erect -- his posture is perfect -- across the table, a shiny gold medal dangling from his neck. "I've never, never done anything but cook," says Huang, the executive chef at Super Star Asian restaurant. "I'm 51 years old, and my whole life has been in the kitchen." In part, he explains, that's because "when you grow up in Hong Kong and China, there's a big chance that you're not well-educated, so most teenagers get jobs in a restaurant to make a living."
Huang was no exception. His mom was a formidable cook who taught him the basics, he says, but he needed to earn money, and cooking at home was no match for what he gleaned -- and earned -- in a professional kitchen. "At home, we had a lack of equipment -- there were no big woks with huge fires -- but at the restaurant, there was amazing equipment, and I loved cooking in a real kitchen with lots of energy, plus I got paid."
Still, he wanted more, so he worked as a prep cook at a Chinese restaurant in the mornings and at night immersed himself in culinary school. "That's where I learned all about plating, dim sum, strip-frying, and sculptures and carvings," recalls Huang, adding that he spent two long years mastering the art of food sculpting, creating intricate birds from carrots and daikon. "I love putting food sculptures on my plates, because they make food come alive."
The chef, who also considers himself a plating artist, spent fifteen years behind the line at various restaurants in Hong Kong, winning several culinary showdowns along the way -- including a gold medal in the Malaysia-Chinese Cuisine cooking competition in 2005 -- before moving to the States. He landed first in Los Angeles, then moved on to Portland, Phoenix and, finally, Denver, where he's been cooking at Super Star since 2007 -- a long time, he says, for a Chinese chef. "We move around a lot," Huang admits. "When someone who's Chinese opens a restaurant, they'll ask their very good friends to help them, so we don't stay in one place for very long, because we're always going somewhere else to help those who help us."
But Huang has no plans to leave Super Star anytime soon. "I've been here for six years, and I kind of like it," he says. "There's a lot of camaraderie in the kitchen, everyone gets along really well, I enjoy cooking here, and they give me the ability to do what I want and cook creatively, which is important to me."
In the following interview, Huang explains why he won't hire cooks who smoke, reveals the dirty secret behind "fine shrimp sauce" and shares his pick for Denver's best Chinese restaurant.
Six words to describe your food: Colorful, aromatic, artistic, emotional, tasty and healthy.
Ten words to describe you: Serious, kind, moody, happy, playful, talkative, self-conscious, in charge, flirty and sensitive.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love using honey, because it really brings out the flavor -- and color -- of food, and I love the sweetness of honey, which is very different from sugar. I glaze my barbecue pork with it, which not only gives it a luster and shininess, but it also enhances the taste.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Definitely my wok. Nobody -- and I mean nobody -- touches my wok. I'm the only one who's allowed to use it. It's an eighteen-inch wok, and I use it to cook just about everything: I cook my soup in it, I use it for stir-frying, I deep-fry with it, and I even cook my scrambled eggs in it.
Favorite Asian ingredient and where you get it: Tamarind, which I prefer to use instead of plain vinegar; it's sour, but the sourness is a lot different -- and so much better -- than regular vinegar. It has a unique citrus taste to it, and I'm fortunate to have an Asian market right next door to the restaurant -- Pacific Ocean Market -- where I can buy it, along with most of my produce. They always have the freshest vegetables, and I love being their neighbor.
Favorite spice: Maggi soy sauce. I only use that brand of soy sauce, because it has a much better -- and more unique -- flavor than regular soy. I really like using it on my steamed fish with ginger and scallions. It not only brings out the freshness of the fish, but it also adds a wonderful aroma to it. I also use it on a new dish called Maggi sauce chicken wing sections and Maggi sauce duck tongues. It's more expensive than commercial soy sauces, but the taste really comes through.
One food you detest: "Fine shrimp sauce." Don't let the name trick you. "Fine" really means that whoever makes it lets it sit for a long time to ferment, which means it smells like shit! Really, I mean it: It's the stink of shit, and it stinks so bad that it's nearly impossible to cook with it. Some of our customers want it on their squid, and Vietnamese chefs like to use it their dishes. They can have it. It stinks. Like shit.
One food you can't live without: I can't exist without rice, which I've eaten every single day since I could put food in my mouth. For thousands of years, a traditional meal in China wasn't a meal at all if it didn't have rice in it. In China, we don't call it having lunch or dinner: We call it "sheik fan" -- I don't know how to spell it in English -- which means eating rice.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I was invited to a five-star restaurant in Hong Kong that served French cuisine, and aside from the fact that it was the first time I'd eaten food that wasn't Chinese, I remember having caviar from Russia. I had never eaten caviar before, which was amazing, and the plating of French cuisine is some of the most beautiful plating I've ever seen in the world. And for me, personally, I love to plate my dishes so they resemble a piece of art.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Pho 95 has the best pho in town. I'm always impressed by the freshness of their ingredients, and the service is great.
Favorite restaurant in the world: Quanjude in Beijing, China. They have the best Peking duck in the whole world. The roast it on a stake, it's incredibly tasty, and the moo shu skin they use to wrap the duck is excellent.
Favorite Chinese restaurant (other than your own): I really like the Emperor Palace in Broomfield. It's got the nicest atmosphere of any Chinese restaurant in Denver, with pretty table settings and lovely lighting. The staff is great, and the food is really good, too -- but not as good as here, of course.
Best thing about cooking in Denver: There are four seasons in Denver, which is nice, because different seasons means you can cook with different ingredients and you can change the menu to reflect what's going on with the weather. In the warmer months, I cook food that's lighter in taste, while in the winter, my food is heavier and a lot spicier.
Favorite dish on your menu: There are several, including the Sampa-style lobster and the Sampa-style pork chop, both of which are made with lots of garlic, but if I have to pick just one, it would be my signature dish, the Super Star crispy boneless chicken, which is the dish that won me the World Chinese Cuisine competition gold prize. Oh, by the way, if you want to order this dish, you have to let us know 24 hours in advance. Good things are worth waiting for.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I cook what we call bo jai fan -- rice cooked in a clay pot with ginger, green onions, different vegetables and meat, usually every part from a whole chicken.
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Favorite childhood food memory: Roast pork with a really crispy exterior skin and juicy meat on the inside. It's a lot different from barbecue pork. I grew up in Hong Kong, and my house was right across the street from this great barbecue restaurant, and whenever there was a holiday, my parents always went across the street to buy roast pork to celebrate. I loved it so much that I now have it on my weekend menu at Super Star.
Biggest menu bomb: Beef tongue. Recently, during the Chinese New Year, I put it on the menu, and two months later, I had sold only one order. I was quite disappointed.
Last meal before you die: Since it's my last meal, I may as well go all out. I'd like a luxurious French dinner with caviar, lamb chops and steak. Hopefully, my last meal won't be anytime soon, because I still want to cook for everyone. I can't imagine doing anything else.