goTaiping Everlasting Peace
                                                    Taiping, Perak, Malaysia


May 7, 2012

Call of the kitchen


New York’s latest ¨¹ber fancy restaurant is wowing the fine-dining crowd, thanks to a Taiping boy who is cooking up a storm with his brand of Chinese cuisine.

PETER Parker has his Spider-Man costume while Tony Stark becomes Iron Man, thanks to his “power suit”.

As for Ho Chee Boon, all he needs is a wok to transform himself.

“I know little about investments. I don’t know how to chat up a girl. But when I have a wok in my hands, I become a confident man.

Ho Chee Boon from Taiping
Steely determination: Ho Chee Boon from Taiping, Malaysia, knew from a young age that he had to earn his keep and has worked hard to get where he is today. — Photo courtesy of Ho Chee Boon

“It doesn’t matter where I work, if I have a wok with me, I know that I can kowtim what I’m supposed to do,” said the 39-year-old Ho, who is the executive chef of Hakkasan in the United States.

The New York Times has billed Hakkasan as “the world’s only luxury Chinese restaurant chain” with branches in London, Miami, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

On April 3, it opened its doors near Times Square in New York City, where Ho is now based.

Ho, who has clocked 24 years in the business including stints in Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Britain, Russia and Thailand, is the man behind the meticulously crafted menu at Hakkasan.

There is the black truffle roasted duck which has emerged as one of the signature dishes despite its US$88 (RM267) tag.

Special Dish, Hakkasan
One of Hakkasan’s supreme special dishes: stir-fried bird’s nest with lobster and scrambled egg white.

Other best-sellers include the grilled Chilean seabass with Chinese honey (US$48/RM146) and stir-fry lobster with mushrooms in XO sauce (US$59/RM179).

The seven most expensive items on the menu are known as the “supreme special dishes” where prices range from US$78/RM237 (stir-fried bird’s nest with lobster and scrambled egg white) to US$888 (RM2,695) for the braised Japanese abalone with black truffle.

There are plenty of takers, apparently. Take, for example, the Peking duck with Kaluga caviar which is priced at US$345 (RM1,047).

“We get eight to 10 orders for it every day. In fact, we have to control the number of orders for the Peking duck as we want to ensure quality in our delivery,” Ho said.

There are other more plebeian offerings, though, such as the seafood fried rice (US$18/RM55), Hakka noodles with mushrooms and Chinese chive (US$15/RM45), and sweet and sour pork tenderloin with pomegranate (US$24/RM73).

Ho, who heads a kitchen crew of 70, said business has been good at Hakkasan New York, which can seat about 200 people.

“It’s hard to get in without making reservations especially during weekends,” he said.

Even celebrities have taken note of Hakkasan New York. Denzel Washington, Kevin Bacon and Dakota Fanning are among those who have already been there.

Ho isn’t just taking care of the New York outpost. As the corporate development chef, he is helping to set up branches in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. His tasks, besides “flying here and there to recruit chefs”, include training the staff and developing the menu.

Ho Chee Boon from Taiping, Malaysia
It doesn’t matter where I work, if I have a wok with me, I know that I can kowtim what I’m supposed to do. - Ho Chee Boon

“Every city has its own uniqueness and preferences. Here in New York, diners are big on seafood. They like their lobsters,” he said.

This, he said, was different from places such as Mumbai where more vegetarian dishes are offered.

“But overall, people want healthy food. We use little oil in our cooking. MSG is unheard of,” he said. Canned food is almost a no-no.

Ho is the proverbial product of the school of hard knocks. He grew up poor in Taiping, Perak, where his late father was a restaurant worker and his mother, now 76, was a vegetable seller. There were 10 mouths to feed and Ho, as the No. 9 kid, knew from young that he had to earn his keep.

“I would go to restaurants or roadside stalls, asking for part-time work washing dishes,” he recalled.

His love for the kitchen could perhaps be attributed to his mother, whom he used to watch as she cooked for the family.

“Her dishes were always delicious. The aroma was irresistible. Or perhaps I was always a hungry boy back then,” he laughed.

Despite doing well in his studies, he quit school to find work. He ventured to Kuala Lumpur, taking up odd jobs at restaurants and at 17, he went off to Singapore.

“I would always look for jobs at top restaurants wherever I went,” he said. “I took time to learn about Chinese herbs as well.”

Prior to his arrival in New York, Ho had been the executive chef at Breeze in Lebua State Tower, Bangkok. He was previously the head chef at Turandot, Moscow, and also the sous chef at Hakkasan Hanway Place in London.

Despite the pressure-cooker environment, Ho said: “I am happy being in a kitchen. Yes, it can get very busy and intense and we would holler at one another. I’m not that foul-mouthed, but we are a loud bunch. It’s just all in a day’s work,” he laughed.

Despite his globetrotting job, Ho comes home to Malaysia frequently to visit his family.

“I was back about two or three times last year,” he said. “Whenever I am home, I like to go for the street food. A good plate of char kuey teow is a must,” he said.

But for someone who can dish out elaborate Cantonese cuisine, he is surprisingly simple about his favourite food.

“I like anything that’s good to eat!” If he is cooking for himself, a bowl of Korean instant noodles will do.

His life has always been consumed by work. His days usually end after midnight and by 10am the next day, he is back at work. Ho, who is single, has bigger things in mind these days. During his three-year stint from 2003 at Hakkasan Hanway Place, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. His target now is to earn a two-star ranking for Hakkasan New York.

“The best part about being a chef is when people acknowledge you for the good food. When my food is appreciated, I feel happy.”