Executive Chef Alex Au cultivates a deep appreciation for Chiu Chow cuisine
Setting up a successful Chinese restaurant in a foreign country is tricky, especially in a serious food city like Kuala Lumpur. When Hong Kong-based Chef Alex Au started Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant in Starhill Gallery in 2004, there was no restaurant specialising in Chiu Chow food. The city’s ersatz experience of this cuisine was largely limited to Chiu Chow porridge.
While there are overlaps among various Chinese cuisines, there are marked distinctions that can only be discerned by visiting a specialist restaurant. And to understand Chiu Chow cooking, it’s necessary to delve into its history and geography. A prefecture-level city in China’s gastronomy capital of Guangdong province, Chiu Chow lies on a coastline, so seafood is naturally abundant. In earlier times, the locals were not well off, so they had to be innovative to get more mileage out of their food and minimise wastage.
“Through methods like poaching, slow-braising and steaming, or pickling, Chiu Chow people were able to extract the natural flavours of ingredients,” Chef Alex explains. I get what he means when our steamed fish arrives wrapped in a ‘wallet’ fashioned out of tai choy (pickled cabbage). The saltiness of the pickled vegetable subtly plays up the savoury notes of the condiments of minced meat and ginger. At the same time, it acts as a layer of protection to seal the moistness and sweetness of the fish.
Under Chef Alex’s guidance and curation, Pak Loh Chiu Chow has cultivated a fan base that appreciates the hallmarks of classical Chiu Chow cooking, including an exquisite balance of delicate flavours without relying on heavy seasonings, as well as a focus on fresh quality ingredients with minimal use of oil.
A Hong Kong-born-and-bred Cantonese, Chef Alex discovered his knack for Chiu Chow cooking when a series of unfulfilling jobs led him to apply impulsively for a commis chef position at a restaurant specialising in the cuisine. One day, the head chef, thinking of giving the newbie a hard time, demanded to know why a porcelain spoon is inserted under the steaming plate in preparing Chiu Chow fish. Alex, 16 years old then, said the first thing that popped into his head: “The elevated plate helps conduct heat and gets the fish evenly steamed.” Chuckling, Alex recalls, “You should have seen the look on his face. But at that moment, something clicked inside. I thought to myself, ‘Chiu Chow cooking has so many fascinating layers. I want to know more.’”
Fuelled by his newfound passion, Alex apprenticed under several famous chefs through his early 20s. When he joined Hong Kong’s Pak Loh Chiu Chow restaurant in 1997, he refined his knowledge and skills under Master Chef Chan Tung. At the same time, he learned the ropes of what it takes to run a restaurant and worked his way up the ranks.
Still, he largely played bridesmaid to his larger-than-life sifu (teacher), until YTL founder Tan Sri Francis Yeoh walked in and changed his life. An avid fan of Chiu Chow cuisine, the Malaysian businessman talked to Edmund Bui, Pak Loh Chiu Chow’s founder, about setting up a sister branch in Starhill Gallery’s Feast Village. It would be the institution’s – and Chef Alex’s – first excursion outside Hong Kong.
Then barely 30, Chef Alex faced a big challenge on his hands: how could he strike a balance between staying true to a rich culinary tradition with centuries of history, and infusing inventive touches that could distinguish him as a chef befitting his new stature? One way is through new uses for traditional ingredients. Case in point: Chef Au mixes pumpkin, an ingredient favoured by the Chiu Chow people, into traditionally soy-based tofu, so that its texture is crumbly yet melts in the mouth. For porridge, whose umami relies heavily on the richness of the stock, he uses fish instead of chicken bones, which results in a more delicate flavour.
More than a decade on, Pak Loh Chiu Chow has built up a menu – and reputation – that matches up with the original in Hong Kong. Chef Alex’s culinary talents were recognised in 2011 when he and his team won the prestigious Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards for Most Authentic Asian Cuisine Restaurant. This was followed by another hat-trick in the 2013-2015 series when Chef Alex was also awarded Masterchef of Authenticity for Asian Cuisine. The best endorsement of all, though, must be the fact that Yeoh makes it a weekly ritual to come here for his fix of Chiu Chow porridge.
Looking preternaturally youthful for his 40 years, Chef Alex maintains his joie de vivre by drawing his inspiration from everywhere. When he’s not cooking up a storm, he travels around the country. From dibs on the best Hainanese tea in town (Pudu Market) to how long it takes to drive from Kuala Lumpur to Penang (four hours), he has assimilated so well that his colleagues jokingly call him “half a Malaysian.”
His weekend foraging for local specialities isn’t just to feed his stomach; it’s also fodder for his creative soul. “Malaysia has a distinct Chinese culinary culture that’s quite different from China or Hong Kong. For example, the practice of Yee Sang (raw fish salad tossed during Chinese New Year) originated in Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Singapore). Bak kut teh (a meat dish cooked in a claypot of herbal broth) is also unique to this part of the world. Learning new things everyday keeps me excited about my work. I love being a student, whether of life or in cooking.”
Flip to the Chef's Cut section of January's issue of Going Places magazine for Chef Au's recipe for his Authentic Sliced Top Shell With Preserved Vegetables.