Q&A: Alvin Leung, MasterChef’s Michelin-starred—and Chinatown-bound—bad guy

Q&A: Alvin Leung, MasterChef’s Michelin-starred—and Chinatown-bound—bad guy

(Image: Claire Foster) (Image: Claire Foster)
 

If Peoples Eatery wasn’t a sign that Spadina’s Chinatown was changing, then the presence of a triple Michelin–starred chef in the neighbourhood just might be. Alvin Leung—the self-proclaimed “Demon Chef,” and the mean guy on MasterChef Canada—is teaming up with the CTV show’s season one winner, Eric Chong, to open R&D. Set to open in April on Spadina just south of Dundas, it’s a development that’s bound to be interesting, at the very least: Leung, the creator of Hong Kong’s lauded Bo Innovation (where he serves “x-treme Chinese cuisine”), has previously drawn dish inspiration from prophylactics. We sat down with him to chat about being a self-trained chef, yelling as a management technique and his blue-hued hair.

You have said that you want to open Bo restaurants around the world.
Yes, restaurants, but not necessarily Bo. That’s a more refined, fine-dining brand.

So why aren’t we getting a Bo here in Toronto?
Well, it’s a collaboration between myself and Eric Chong, and it’s a reflection of the two of us: we both grew up in Canada, we’re both of an Asian heritage, we’re both scientists and we’re both engineers. I’m not saying that Canada doesn’t deserve a Bo, but this project is not just about me. It’s no lesser than Bo Innovation, and I’m not going to say it’s better either. The food at R&D will be a mixture of dishes that we both enjoyed growing up, and there will also be a lot of Canadian influence. This menu is completely new. It’s something special.

What has the creative process been like between you and Eric?
When two creative sources come together, of course there will be a little bit of clashing. I was the one who initiated this project because I saw a lot of myself in him and a lot of potential. I’m more experienced than him, but he has great ideas—he just has to learn how to take those ideas and use them to create a product. It’s not all one way, like I’m the judge and the master—you have to drop your ego and stubbornness at the door. At the end of the day, it’s what we both feel is the best way.

Chinatown can be a difficult neighbourhood—Strada 241 didn’t last very long. What makes you think your restaurant can make it?
I think Strada 241—that’s the exact location where R&D is going—is just one example. I think the neighbourhood is changing for the better. You’ve got Peoples Eatery, and it’s doing very well. That part of town is up-and-coming, and it’s good to go where nobody else is. And if you make something that tastes good, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Getting people outside of their comfort zone has been important for you as a chef. Is that something you’re looking to do at R&D?
When people see the Demon Chef logo, they will be expecting something out of the ordinary. I won’t be doing all shocking dishes—this isn’t going to be a Halloween restaurant. This is a place where people will go to have a good time. There might be one or two shocking experiences, but they will be pleasant shocking experiences. I’m not going to go to the same extreme as Bo Innovation. But I’m a scorpion by nature—I do like to strike.

How do you continue to shock people after you’ve put an edible condom on the plate?
Well, a lot of creative people become burned out or finish after one hit and that could potentially happen, but I get my inspiration from a lot of sources. There’s the whole library of Asian cuisine, which is humongous, but I also take things from life. I think I can always do something better and when the idea comes to me, I’ll go all out. I do have another one coming, but I’m not going to reveal it yet.

Will we see it in Toronto?
Yes, you will.

Over-expansion is a trap that many celebrity chefs have fallen into. How do you plan to avoid that?
Well, I’m not a celebrity chef.

Some people would say that you are.
Well, my reputation is on the line, and I do value my reputation. I’ve had success and I’ve had failure, and I’ve learned from failure. When you expand, you have to make sure you have a good partner and good staff. This project has been ongoing for over a year now, and we’re prepared. We’ve spent a lot of time researching and tasting so that when it opens, it will be as perfect as it can be. I’m aware that over-expansion could happen, and I will avoid it.

Tell me about your process of teaching yourself how to cook.
I think cooking comes naturally to me, and therefore easily. I’m a guy who likes to experiment, and I have a lot of confidence. I’m not intimidated by anything, and that’s very important—never be afraid of criticism, and never be afraid of failure, because you only get better through criticism and through failure. But food is very subjective, so you have to take criticism with some sort of process. You can’t make everyone happy. It’s not about winning or losing—there’s a lot in between. The road to my success was in learning and observing what is needed. I have a degree in engineering, so I can observe trends, what to look for, what to avoid.

I don’t think that just anyone could self-learn the way you did.
It’s not an attribute or a talent that everyone has. I’m one of a few self-taught Michelin-starred chefs in the world. Nothing is impossible. But if you go to school and learn a particular craft, and you go through the formal training, do you think you’ll be good at your job if you don’t enjoy it? I still seek knowledge, and I’ll forever be seeking knowledge. You’re never too old or too good to learn. Whether it’s formal or informal, I don’t think it makes a big difference.

You were in your forties when you became a chef. At the time, did you ever think that what you were doing was crazy? You always hear that being a chef is a young person’s game.
Well, I’m proving that it’s not. Age is irrelevant—you’re never too old, and the heart is always young. When is the time to stop following your passion? At any age, if you have the opportunity and you have the health and you can do it, then go for it.

On the show, you have a bit of a reputation for yelling. Do you ever feel bad about it?
Why should I feel bad? If someone doesn’t believe in yelling, then they don’t yell. Some people yell, some people swear, some people kick. I think sometimes yelling reveals the passion that I have, and sometimes it can scare some passion into the person I yell at. Chefs are notorious for being nasty in the kitchen. I do not believe in intimidation—it doesn’t work. I yell at people to get the message deeper. If I say, “Hi,” it reaches your outer ear drum. If I say, “HI!” it hits your middle ear, and if I go louder than that, you’ll never forget. I’m not trying to scare people, I just don’t want them to forget.

What do you make of Toronto’s restaurant scene? Does it compete on an international level?
I think Toronto’s restaurant scene is way underrated. Hopefully MasterChef and the presence of Michelin-starred chefs in the city will change that. People always see Toronto as a younger brother to the Americans, which is not true. It’s a secret that only Torontonians know, and now we have to release that secret to the rest of the world.

How long will you keep the blue hair?
Until I lose it all. It’s either blue hair or no hair.