Alvin Leung has a rock-star image and a reputation for being slightly shocking. But at his new restaurant in London, he says it's the food that will be pushing back the boundaries. Hilary Armstrong reports
One minute chef Alvin Leung tells me he will be serving "Strawberry Cream and Chips" at his new restaurant, Bo London. The next he says: "I make a lot of things up". Later, he roars with laughter. "You don't really think I'm serving ‘Strawberry Cream and Chips' do you?" he teases. To tell the truth, after one hour in the company of Hong Kong's self-styled "Demon Chef", I'm not quite sure what to believe.
So what should Londoners expect of the Demon Chef and his Mayfair restaurant, set to open on 6 December? Exactly how afraid should they be?
Leung is quick to lay to rest a few misconceptions about X-treme Chinese cuisine. "The restaurant in Hong Kong is called Bo Innovation. I specialise in being innovative. Some people call it molecular gastronomy; some people call it fusion. I don't want any of those headings. I prefer to be called X-treme Chinese - extreme as in "X" [he crosses his arms to make an X]: experience, something exciting, something exotic, erotic, something that takes you to the extreme, to the border.
"I'm going to take you to the border of what you can and can't accept. I'm going to take you to the point where if I go further, you're going to die, you're not going to understand it. I want to take you to the point of maximum excitement. It's like a bungee jump and you miss the ground by one centimetre. One more centimetre and you're a purée."
Thrilling It all sounds thrilling, though Leung resists divulging exactly how he achieves these death-defying gastronomic feats. It's not in the techniques, he insists. "There are no new techniques. Some we are only now putting on the fine-dining table; some we are just reintroducing. Slow-cooking, sous vide… the Chinese have been doing for hundreds of years, it's nothing new to us; dehydration, drying things in the sun to increase the flavour… we've been doing this for centuries, too."
Nor is it in showmanship. "You don't have to serve monkey brains or get a monkey to go on the table doing somersaults to get X-treme. There are subtle ways to do it," he explains. For Leung, innovation is about balance, about innovating with ingredients while retaining their essential flavour or texture. He loves to play with language, often giving his dishes names that turn out to be red herrings. Thus the first Bo London menus only partially disclose what UK diners can expect of Leung's X-treme style. His "Ode to Great Britain" menu (£98 for 12 courses) opens with "Bed and Breakfast" - crispy quail egg, crispy taro nest, caviar - and finishes with "Strawberry Cream and Chips" - yes, it IS really on the menu. In between, one can try his Chinese fine-dining version of "Toad in the Hole" (with frog leg, bone marrow and lotus leaf), "Steak and Kidney" (a type of xiao long bao dumpling) and "Beans on Toast" (red bean and butter toast parfait). "Would that be extreme enough for you?" he challenges. (It is, but were it not, I could always book my flight to Hong Kong to sample "Bo Shit" when it launches at Bo Innovation this year.)
Bo London's menu hints at what's involved to an extent, but Leung never gives away the full story.
"That takes away from the excitement. I can't give everything away yet."
For Leung, Bo London is both "homecoming" and the realisation of a long-cherished dream to open a restaurant in the city of his birth. The £1.5m project has been three years in the planning, but other branches elsewhere in the world (North America and Asia "definitely") are likely to follow. Leung coyly says he has had more offers than he can handle, but getting London right - he's the majority shareholder - is clearly the number one priority. Though he seems relaxed about the opening - he was due to jet off to Australia for a food festival just a fortnight before the London launch - he concedes that the high level of anticipation around Bo London brings with it certain challenges. "It's good that people are excited about the opening but after saying all this about X-treme Chinese and excitement we have to make sure from day one that we exceed their expectations."
He's insulted by any suggestion that he'll play it safe for a London audience: "They have a very sophisticated palate here, they have fantastic restaurants and they like Chinese food. I went to university here in the 1980s so I've seen the change from basic fish and chips and overcooked meat to Ramsay and Blumenthal."
Foodie crowd But he reckons Hong Kong's foodie crowd is harder to please. "I was lucky that whatever I did with Chinese food I got accepted right away in Hong Kong which is a very tough place for any kind of food to be accepted. Deviating Chinese food and serving it to Chinese people is not easy. London will probably be less of a struggle because the people here are really more open-minded and creativity is very important here. You can see that from the Olympics."
The biggest challenge was finding a good site. He settled on a Mill Street site (formerly Patterson's), just minutes from "fantastic" competition in the form of Hibiscus, Pollen Street Social and Wild Honey. It has space for 32 guests in the main dining area, a small bar serving dim sum, and two semi-private dining rooms (one a chef's table for eight) and a private dining room for 20. Remodelled by London designers Your Studio, the basement space draws inspiration from Hong Kong's Wan Chai skyline, while the ground floor is sleek and calming, leaving Leung's cuisine to do the dazzling.
He expects to be here a lot at the beginning, and will only "leave when the child is grown up", when his standards are matched (or exceeded). "I have a British passport so I won't be dodging the immigration people," he laughs. "Anyway, I'm too big to hide behind the fake walls we've put in the kitchen for the illegal immigrants!"
The Bo London team has certainly come through all the proper channels: his chef de cuisine, Mark Sin (ex-Tom Aikens, Mirabelle and Harvey Nichols) has just returned to the UK after three years at Bo Innovation; his Nepalese manager, AJ Gurung, also returning to the UK, used to manage Bo Innovation.
Leung's ascent to culinary stardom has been not far short of meteoric. Entirely self-taught, he learnt how not to cook from his mother; studied environmental science; worked as a waiter for a short time; ran a successful business as an acoustic engineer; gorged on food TV and books, only cooking professionally for the first time as recently as 2003, at the ripe old age of 42, with the opening of his first restaurant, actually a 25-cover "speakeasy" or private kitchen, called Bo InnoSeki. It was an instant hit, growing into Bo Innovation which opened in 2005, and had won two stars by 2009 (it later lost one but regained it in 2012). "I was lucky. I think I have a little bit of talent."
He's not just a chef, of course; he's also something of a star, a rock 'n' roll kinda chef. His old press shots precede him - all blue-tinted glasses, blue-streaked hair and tattooed bicep - and, even though he's changed his look since, he's instantly recognisable with his jade earring and head-to-toe black attire. He loves attention, he admits it, but insists his "Demon Chef" image was part motivational strategy.
"You have got to know what you're good at and what you're not good at. Sometimes, being a pessimistic person, I don't like to take chances. I'm an engineer; I do gamble but it's a calculated risk. Maybe I wasn't that big when that picture was put up buy by tattooing "Demon Chef" on my arm and putting up this massive picture, it definitely forces me to keep on going, to make myself that big or else, man, you're going to be a real fool."
He won't be putting up the same picture in London. Not because people would throw eggs at it, he insists, but because he's at a point in his career where he needn't go to such extremes. His challenge to himself in London is to show his food and Chinese food in a different light. "I'm not coming here with the same proven formula."
Aside from the "Great Britain" menu, Bo London will offer a dim sum menu including his steak and kidney xiao long bao as well as black truffle XO har gau, beef shu mai with hay and morel vermicelli with iberico ham. A 15-course "Chef's Menu" at £138 will include hits from Hong Kong such as "tomato - 'patchun' vinegar, fermented Chinese olives, tomato marshmallow" and "Umami - dried shrimp oil, wild mushrooms, tomato, pappardelle". Sweet and sour pork, this is not.
There may well be flavours, temperatures and textures that non-Chinese diners won't have encountered before, but Leung guarantees they'll enjoy the ride. "Don't think you're going to go to Bo and have all foreign objects in front of you, that you'll be eating something that's crawling. My success is feeding people; they come back, they're satisfied. You're not going to go to Bo and see foams and powders. You're going to see real food and hopefully it will taste good."
Spring rolls with Asian flavoured pesto and chicken
For the pesto
50g Thai basil
50g spring onion
50g toasted peanuts
250g corn oil
50g sesame oil
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
200g tinned bamboo shoots, julienne
300g chicken thighs, julienne plus oil â¨for frying
16 spring roll paper
1 egg yolk, beaten
To make the pesto, blend coriander, Thai â¨basil, spring onion, peanuts, corn oil and sesame oil.
Mix in cheese to taste. Season with salt and pepper.
To make the spring rolls, sauté chicken thighs until just cooked.
Mix bamboo shoot and cooked chicken thighs with enough pesto to just bind.
Place spring roll paper on a flat surface.
Fill spring roll with a rounded spoonful of filling.
Fold up the bottom of the wrapper over the filling and press down slightly.
Fold over the sides until the two ends meet in the middle.
Roll up spring roll. Stick the end with egg yolk. Deep-fry at 180Â°C until golden.
BO LONDON MENU
â- Dim Sum, from £5.50 to £28, served in the bar
â- Sichuan spicy lamb xiao long bao; foie gras, green onion potsticker; taro croquette, Osetra caviar; suckling pig, Sichuan vanilla apple; umami noodles; fried rice with crab meat and tobiko
â- Lunch menu, £30 for two dim sums plus main course, £35 with dessert
â- Chef's menu, £138 for 15 courses
â- Ode to Great Britain, £98 for 12 courses
Sample dishes: trip-fle - lychee cream, mussel custard, tripes, aromatic jelly; hawthorn bubble tea; oyster - green onion lime, ginger, xiaoshing seaweed jelly; lobster - Sichuan butter poached, crispy woba, roasted corn, watermelon; chicken - sand ginger cream, chicken rice; Sex on the Beach (£8 supplement - all proceeds go to the Elton John AIDS Foundation); fried condensed milk - banana, "baijiu" caramel; sandalwood - Chinese almonds, cherry berry compote
Bo London, 4 Mill Street, London W1S 2AX