Two-Michelin-starred Chef Mok Kit Keung’s signature dishes are many – deep-fried whole boneless chicken filled with fried glutinous rice, for instance; or coddled sliced Soon Hock fillet and young coconut in fish broth – but at the end of a resplendent meal at Shang Palace, it’s the deceptively simple dessert of 20-year tangerine peel in red bean soup that lingers bittersweetly in your heart.
Not only are the subtle flavours perfectly balanced, the chef’s emotions also come through cleanly: The dish is a tribute of sorts to his late mother, who would preserve batches of her own orange peel each year.
“When my mother passed away in January, I found that she had left me boxes and boxes of orange peel. She hadn’t labelled the jars with their years, but when we opened one, it was incredibly fragrant, so it must have been 20 or 30 years old,” he said.
It’s a dish that has much emotional resonance, and it also tells you that the father of three is a family man through and through. “Many famous chefs are gamblers,” he said, “but I told myself not to be like that. It’s important to be an example to your children. I don’t gamble or smoke. There’s enough smoke in the kitchen – why would you want to inhale more? It doesn’t fill your belly.”
Now, with 40 years of experience and numerous accolades under his belt, this champion of fine Cantonese cuisine has a clear mission: To honour the idea of family by preserving culinary traditions, resurrecting forgotten dishes and recording recipes for posterity.
A 40-YEAR JOURNEY ACROSS COUNTRIES
“My mother passed down many family dishes – my grandfather’s dishes; her own dishes – but there were no recipes,” he said. And, “When I was a trainee, chefs didn’t have recipes to give us. How many spoonfuls of what went into each dish was all muscle memory. I had to recreate their dishes based on my memories of how they tasted.
“When I became a chef, I didn’t want to do it that way. I told myself I had to record all the recipes down to the gram. That’s how I’m able to train my cooks.”
The game has changed a lot since his parents packed him off to start out as a 13-year-old apprentice in his uncle’s kitchen in Hong Kong. “I remember dragging my suitcase into the kitchen and everybody turning and staring, wondering who this country boy was,” he chuckled. For half a year, his job was to clean kitchen equipment. He had imagined he could spend his evenings learning English, but soon learnt that life in the kitchen was far from nine-to-five. He graduated to killing chickens and ducks; then to learning knife skills. He was a fast learner and by 16, he had cooks working under him.
“I was willing to do everything and anything, and to learn, so my chefs trusted me. Attitude is most important,” he said. “At the end of a day, after the chefs had gone home, I’d still be in the kitchen, practising my technique.”
At 26, Mok was able to buy a house in Hong Kong, and at 28, came to Singapore to work at the now-closed Noble House, under the Tung Lok Group. Over the next two decades, he subsequently held positions at Raffles Hotel’s Royal China; Pearl River Palace at Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre; and Marina Bay Sands, where he headed the kitchens of four Chinese restaurants.
Singapore was where his industriousness in the kitchen morphed into a true passion for food. “I came into contact with lots of different people. And the markets here were also so different. I started to think about many different dishes and cuisines. And I started winning awards,” he said.
Shang Palace’s Soon Hock and young coconut broth, for example, is a dish inspired by fresh produce he found here.
Singapore is also where he met his China-born wife and raised his children, now aged 24, 15 and 10.
Recently, he cooked for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the third time. “I said to him, ‘I have served you three times in total. The first time, I was on a work permit. The second time, I was a Permanent Resident. And now, this time, I am a Singaporean’,” Mok recounted. “He clapped his hands in applause.”
GUIDING TRADITION INTO THE FUTURE
PM Lee isn’t the only dignitary or celebrity Mok has personally cooked for. He can also regale you with tales of the King of Morocco, Vladimir Putin and Jackie Chan – and those are just the ones he’s allowed to name, we imagine.
It’s no wonder, because the touch of a master is evident in his cooking. For a dish of boneless quail filled with bird’s nest in supreme broth, Mok takes only three minutes to debone the bird while keeping its delicate, translucent skin intact, a task that would take one of his cooks 10 minutes.
And for a dish of traditional deep-fried crab meat, coriander and pork dumplings, where the pork rolls are wrapped with pork fat hand-sliced paper-thin, his skill in slicing the fat is unparalleled.
This, after all, is the man who led Shang Palace Kowloon to a second Michelin star in 2012, retaining it for six years. Last year, he took up the executive Chinese chef position at Shang Palace in Singapore, which also happens to be the first of 38 Shang Palaces in the world – the restaurant opened along with the hotel in 1971.
He’s declared that he’s gunning for a star for the restaurant, but there isn’t any pressure; nor is there any secret formula. “You just have to shine in all aspects,” he said. “Getting enough exposure is very important. Customer feedback is very important. It depends a lot on teamwork – how the kitchen runs when I’m not around; how knowledgeable the service team is.”
To the discerning diner, though, what’s really important isn’t the accolades a restaurant wins or even how much of a crowd-pleaser the food is. Instead, it’s the work that is being done here to perpetuate Chinese cooking traditions, many of which are slowly being lost to history.
“It is very important to preserve traditions. For instance, a lot of Chinese cooking is family-style big plates, and it’s all about atmosphere. Now, many Chinese chefs are serving food in individual portions. Not everything is suited to being served that way. Don’t pursue individual servings for the sake of it – that will just have a detrimental effect,” he said.
And in essence, “I believe we have to preserve flavours. The best thing to do would be to leave it alone and not rattle its cage – if you’re doing traditional cuisine, do it properly. Don’t add salt, vinegar or fancy decorations.”
That said, Mok does put his own innovative dishes on the menu, such as the stewed coral trout with foie gras and black garlic, inspired by trips to Paris. Creativity is a significant motivating factor in his work.
But his cherished dishes are “kung fu” dishes that require long hours of preparation and careful technique. That’s part of respecting tradition while also leading it into the future, he says.
“Many customers have never heard of these traditional dishes, especially younger customers. These days, it’s more important that the camera eats first,” he chuckled. “It’s vital for us chefs to have a conversation with diners; to explain the years of tradition behind each dish, and how we’ve tried to preserve the original flavours.
“It’s about education. And if I don’t make these dishes, my cooks won’t have the opportunity to learn them.”
In the past, “The chefs wouldn’t teach you everything. They might teach you 80 per cent of what they knew, and then they would leave. Not me,” he said. “The challenge of my job now is to pass techniques down to younger cooks, and to help them learn to be skillful and quick.”
Shang Palace is at 22 Orange Grove Road, Shangri-La Hotel.