26 October 2016
Oscar Chow, who runs a bar and a lounge at Sheraton, usually assigns his apprentice chefs to the oyster corner to teach them hygiene -- the most important aspect of running a restaurant. Photo: Sheraton
Oscar Chow, who runs a bar and a lounge at Sheraton, usually assigns his apprentice chefs to the oyster corner to teach them hygiene -- the most important aspect of running a restaurant. Photo: Sheraton

Chef’s career: a blend of glamor, sacrifice and endurance

When he was just a kid, Sheraton chef Oscar Chow wondered why the lemon ice cream he’s having tasted different from the lemon fruit he’s familiar with. His playmates would just dig in.

Even at an early age, Chow was quite curious and sensitive about tastes, probably a sign of the career he would later pursue.

One could say it’s in the blood. Chow’s mother, the daughter of a fisherman, knew everything about fish. And as a small child, Chow learned from her all the do’s and don’ts of cooking different types of fish. 

But in their family, it’s his father who did most of the cooking.

His grandfather used to own a number of restaurants in China, and his father helped run them. The family lost everything during the Cultural Revolution, except their superb cooking skills.

Following his heart

Chow started his cooking life at the age of six. He had to take care of his younger sisters and prepare the food while his parents were busy earning a living.

He was proud of his big brother role. He always watched how his father prepared food to make sure he got everything right.

Still, Chow had little clue of what he wanted to do with his life when he decided to leave school at 17. He was sure about one thing—he loves eating and cooking.

“I thought a job is something I have to do for the next few decades, it would be really painful if I have to do something I don’t like.”

Still, it took two years before Chow found an opening for an apprentice chef and got his first kitchen job with a hotel in 1991. Before that, like most youngsters, he jumped from one job to next.

Now running the Oyster & Wine Bar and the adjacent Sky Lounge for Sheraton, the Chef De Cuisine owes much of his success to his mother, not because of the fish knowledge, but because of her endless encouragement and support.

In the ’90s, parents wanted their children to become accountants, doctors or lawyers. But Chow’s mother did not impose on him. She just wanted him to “be a good person”.

Chow suddenly became teary-eyed when he talked about how close he has been with his unfailingly supportive mother, who used to chat with him until midnight about everything, including his career.

“Work hard, give it all you have, you will make it,” his mother used to tell him. Those were the words that continue to be his source of strength.

Apple and orange

A culinary career may seem glamorous to outsiders, but it actually involves a lot of sacrifices and endurance.

Standing for long hours in the kitchen was a reality Chow had to get used to. After his first day of work, Chow was simply too tired to eat or do anything; he just wanted to hit the bed right away.

Then there’s the language barrier. Chow’s first boss was a Swiss cook. 

“Apple and orange were just about my entire food vocabulary back then.” Chow didn’t finish secondary school.

Luckily, his first mentor was a very patient guy, who literally thought him the ABCs of cooking. “He used to take out different herbs and test me if I knew their names.”

Getting kitchen supplies was his daily drill as a trainee chef. So word by word, Chow built up his language capability.

In the interview, Chow mentioned probably a hundred English names of ingredients and sauces, including his favorite oyster species from France and the right wine to go with it. Today, few can match his cuisine-related word stock.

Chow can easily give you a dozen tips on cooking, or recommend tons of recipes, but when it comes to the essence of cooking, Chow has a simple theory: use fresh ingredients and go for things that are in season.

Oysters, for example, are always better during winter months. “Oysters spawn during summer, which causes them to be soft and watery instead of having a plump and firm texture,” Chow explains.

The bar serves European oysters during winter, but in hot summer days, sourcing shifts to the cooler waters in New Zealand and Australia.

Cooking is about people

Chow can talk all day long about how to enhance and balance flavors to bring out the best in food. But being a chef is not just about cooking. At the end of the day, it’s about the people who eat the food, it’s about keeping customers happy, Chow says.

Part of Chow’s daily routine is to chat with guests, listen to their food experiences and cravings, or recommend something that suits their stomach and mood.

“Sometimes, I would try to find out if the customer is hungry, and if yes, I would recommend something more filling.”

In other occasions, customers may ask for something that is not on the menu, or a vintage dish taken off the menu to make way for new ones.

“I would do special preparation if a customer informs me earlier when he would be coming and what sort of dish he wants.”

It’s probably this sort of premium and personal service that keep customers hooked.

Advice to young lads

When he was an assistant chef, Chow always volunteered to help even when he’s off-duty. “That’s how you learn from the masters.”

Seeing his enthusiasm to learn, seniors were only too happy to show him the proper way to get things done in the kitchen. It’s very critical in those days when formal training was lacking.

He’s encouraging his crew to do the same. But the new generation may not always listen.

“Today, many young people only care about going home to their video games right after work. Some are actually afraid of learning too much, fearing that the more they know, the more work load they would be given.”

He’s also urging young chefs to get as much experience as they can.

“When they ask me how a certain food tastes, I always tell them to try it out themselves. That’s the only way to tell.”

Sounds like an attitude all of us should have.

The life of a successful chef can be colorful, with all the opportunities for travel and further training, and the excitement of hobnobbing with celebrities and interesting people.

But young lads who aim to be the next Jamie Oliver should also bear in mind the challenges of the catering business.

Chow gives a run-down of the industry’s woes: “Higher wages and rentals, ingredients getting more costly, the industry as a whole is trimming its workforce to balance the book.”

This means more work has to be shared by less people.

Hygiene first, flavor second

Chow usually reserves the oyster corner job for apprentices. While the job involves lots of washing, lifting and other physically demanding tasks, it also teaches them to give top priority to hygiene.

“Whether a customer likes the dish we serve can be quite subjective, but there is no excuse if a client falls sick after eating your food,” he always reminds his assistants.

Take oysters for example. Chow’s team has to make sure oyster deliveries come with all the proper certificates about their origin, harvesting time and freight arrival, among other things.

The staff will also keep a detailed record of their inventory and make sure the stocks are in good condition. Samples would be kept for each lot in case a problem occurs and lab testing is needed.

Though oysters are the main offering, Chow’s repertoire is far more extensive than that. The day we met, he prepared langoustines, crab cake, tuna and rack of lamb as well.

But Chow is not only interested in exotic seafood and best in class delicacies, he also loves doing home dishes for his family.

For him, nothing beats the joy of sharing food with his family and seeing them devour everything he has prepared.

Finding time for family gatherings is difficult because of his long working hours. But on holidays, he cherishes every single chance.

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Chow owes much of his success to his unfailingly supportive mother. Photo: HKEJ

Louis Sauce and Pesto Sauce used as dipping for crab cakes take days to prepare, a task entrusted only to chefs with at least five or six years of experience. Photo: HKEJ

Langoustine is very hard to keep fresh, but Chow says its unique sweetness is worth all the effort. Photo: HKEJ

Working with guest chefs from overseas is one of the best ways to broaden culinary knowledge, Oscar Chow (R) says. Photo: Sheraton

From time to time, Chow gets the chance to represent Hong Kong in international cooking tournaments. Photo: Sheraton

EJ Insight writer

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