The Celebrity's Chef
There are chefs who are celebrities, and there are chefs who cook for celebrities. A small difference in words, but a huge difference in meaning; it’s safe to say the latter have more skills in the kitchen. Celebrity chefs are on-screen personalities before they are chefs, while the rich and famous live la dolce vita and are accustomed to the best of the best. This is why making your mark as a chef to the stars carries a certain amount of prestige.
Chef Zeng Xian Xin, founder of the famous Dechu Private Kitchen in Guangzhou frequented by celebrities such as Chow Yun-fat, Johnnie To, Eric Tsang and Louis Koo, has assumed the role of executive chef at Southern Kitchen.
Inspired by his father, a highly respected master chef of dim sum, Chef Zeng learned from the very best in cuisine at a young age. In 1991, his journey took him to Nagano, in Japan, where he was asked by the owner of a five-star hotel to demonstrate how long it would take to steam, bake, stew and fry eight varieties of dim sum. Chef Zeng famously answered, “It would only take 30 minutes.” Upon witnessing the speed with which he could prepare the meal, the hotel hired him and his team on the spot.
In 2007, after more than 15 years in Japan, Chef Zeng returned to Guangzhou, where he opened several private kitchens including Dechu, which eventually became known as “celebrity canteen”.
“When the rich and famous started spreading the word that Dechu was one of their favourite restaurants in Guangzhou, the phone would not stop ringing,” Chef Zeng says. “The reason celebrities like Dechu is because they trust that I put 100 per cent into every single dish that I make.” He adds, “No matter how simple the ingredient, I will make sure it is cooked absolutely perfectly.”
Another secret to his success is retaining traditional aspects of his cuisine while giving it a modern twist. “It is important to constantly stay ahead of the curve and create new dishes. I am always thinking of new dishes, but I never break with tradition. You will find that each dish preserves its past,” Chef Zeng explains.
In his new role at Southern Kitchen, he will oversee the preparation of Chiu Chow, Hakka and Shunde cuisines, as well as dim sum. “Chiu Chow cuisine will be my main area of focus at Southern Kitchen, and I also hope to have the opportunity to showcase some of my more popular dishes such as pork belly and Hakka tofu claypot from my private kitchen,” he says.
Here are some of the must-try signatures next time you’re at Southern Kitchen.
Summer salad prawn
Sweet and sour pork and mayonnaise shrimp are easily the chief guilty pleasure of most Asians. Guilty because they are so popular that they grace the buffets of Chinese restaurants in countries like the United States, and a pleasure because they are so darn delicious. Chef Zeng’s version of summer salad prawn is, of course, elevated and refined, but it doesn’t lose any of its signature appeal.
The prawn itself is fresh and deep-fried to a perfect crispness. The ingredients are top-notch; even through the batter, you can taste the brininess of the ocean, and the bite of the shellfish is textured and almost crunchy. The dressing does not have the pitfalls of so many versions of this item, where there’s too much of it, rendering the fried seafood too soggy. Chef Zeng’s version remains crisp, with just the right balance of sauce. The bottom of the dish is lined with cantaloupe and honeydew melon, striking a balance of freshness on the palate when eaten in between bites of shrimp.
Superior oyster sauce pig stomach
While it’s hard to imagine the dark and viscous sauce made from oysters, the classic Chinese condiment is made from a reduction of the bivalve. Add to that other ingredients such as salt, sugar soy sauce and cornflour and the result is the base of much Chinese cuisine. Superior oyster sauce has more caramelised shellfish in it, giving it more umami flavour, and it is often used as the base flavour of luxurious seafood dishes such as abalone and sea cucumber.
Pig stomach might not be the first ingredient that springs to mind when oyster sauce stews are mentioned, but after you’ve tried Chef Zeng’s version, you will not be able to get it out of your head. The sauce is subtle and not overpowering but the star of the show is the superior main ingredient. Only the thick, end part of the stomach is used and this is a testament to the chef’s access to amazing produce. The organ is cleaned to the point where there is no hint of gaminess, ample proof of Chef Zeng’s claim that he ensures every ingredient passing through his hands will be cooked perfectly.
Stewed braised fish curd
Braised fish curd is a dish with a long history. Dating back to the Qing dynasty, it is recorded in the history books as having been served in banquets held for the Qianlong Emperor. A mixture of fish, with egg and cornflour, whipped until it’s fluffy and deep fried, this item was traditionally reserved for festivals and banquets because of its versatility. Braised fish curd can be prepared with many kinds of sauces and stews. It’s favoured for its auspicious golden colour, and can be stored for a while because it’s precooked.
Again, Chef Zeng excels in his version of this classic dish. The batter is thin, as is the fish within, making it into a little parcel of air soaking up the delicious soup it floats in. The combination is the best of both worlds, with the flavours of fried batter and fish as well as nourishing soup, in one bite.
Deep-fried marble goby
Marble goby is a versatile and meaty fish favoured across the Asia-Pacific. Whether it’s steamed, stewed in spicy sauces or used in sauces, the thick texture allows the chef to play with the ingredients, unlike fish with its more delicate texture. Chef Zeng decided to go all out, battering the fish and frying the slices golden, giving it an amazing crunchy texture that is dipped in a heavenly savoury sauce. Skin is left on the flesh, adding an interesting texture to the bite, and making this another must-try from Southern Kitchen.