From cooking his underwear in a wok to his Michelin star, executive chef of Mott 32 in Hong Kong Lee Man-sing on his 35 years in the kitchen

Post Magazine

“My mother’s eyesight was not good, so when I was growing up I had to help my family by doing chores. I could cook simple things like stir-fry vegetables and rice. As a child I liked to eat and taste things, and my father was very picky about his food. But I was not the studying type and knew I couldn’t just sit around. So when I was 14 years old, in 1981, I got a job working in a cha chaan teng.

I delivered food to customers carrying a plastic basket. The head chef thought I was hard-working and took me under his wing.”

What did you cook at the cha chaan teng? “One of the first things I cooked there was beef stir-fry with rice noodles. But it tasted terrible because I used those old stoves where you can’t adjust the temperature so you had to be quick or the food was easily burned.

“In those days, the kitchen was hot and the floor was wet and slippery. For six months I learned how to roast meats like duck and char siu, and made egg tarts and pineapple buns. It was quite tough – we only had two days of holidays a year, the first two days of Chinese New Year.”

Post Magazine

Applewood roasted Peking duck from Mott 32. Photo: Mott 32

Where did you go afterwards? “After two years at the cha chaan teng, a relative introduced me to a restaurant job and I knew I had to improve my skills. It was a traditional Chinese restaurant in Yau Ma Tei that’s not there any more.

I started by washing vegetables and the stoves. I learned how to gut fish, so, after a few months, I was a fish chopper and gradually moved up the ranks. After a year there I started to change jobs to learn more and meet more people.

The Jockey Club … hire me to cook at Fortune Room … It was my first time dealing with very demanding diners and I wanted to quit after a week.

Lee Man-sing

“One of the jobs was at a Maxim’s restaurant in Central that also doesn’t exist any more. I was around 20 years old at the time. The kitchen was so hot, it was like 40 to 50 degrees Celsius, and there was no air conditioning. In the morning, before we fried rice, we would take off our underwear to stir-fry it to make it dry.

“The stoves were so old that it was really tough working there, but we got used to it. If your position is a chopper, you won’t make much money; the wok chefs were much cooler, so I transferred to become the third wok, then not long after was promoted to second wok.”

When did you become a head chef? “In 1998, at a restaurant in Western district, where Lin Heung Kui is now (on Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan). It had three floors, and could serve 700 people. Even the ground floor had tables. That was the first time I was head chef. I was nervous because I was only 31 years old at the time. It was quite funny at first because no one knew I was the head chef. Who was this guy talking to the boss? I was there for two years.”

Post Magazine

Signature South African lobster ma po tofu from Mott 32. Photo: Mott 32

What was it like working at Hoi Yat Heen in Hung Hom? “I worked at Hoi Yat Heen in 2003. My first day of work was when Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] hit Hong Kong. All our orders were suddenly cancelled. Business was very quiet until that July, when it quickly went back to normal.”

You also worked at the Jockey Club. What was that like? “When I turned 40 years old, I didn’t want to coast to retirement. The Jockey Club was looking for a chef so I thought I would just go for the interview and then they hired me to cook at Fortune Room, the fine dining Chinese restaurant.

“It was my first time dealing with very demanding diners and I wanted to quit after a week. But I didn’t because I had just come from Maxim’s, where everyone knew I had got this job, so I couldn’t quit so fast. I worked 16-hour days until 1am or 2am, and I commuted from Tuen Mun.”

Where did you go after that? “After I finished the two-year contract, I heard the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong was looking for a Chinese executive chef. At 43 years old, with my baby face, I looked young but I gave the interview a shot. The senior managers tried my food and liked it. The diners were similar to those at the Jockey Club, so that experience trained me for this job.

“The following year we got a Michelin star. I didn’t know what the big deal was, I was just working hard. But we made many changes, including doing lots of promotions. One of the most memorable ones was with Da Dong Roast Duck, in Beijing.

Post Magazine

Fish maw jelly, goji berry and mint from Mott 32. Photo: Mott 32

“At first I contacted [the owner’s] assistant by email but got no response, so then I texted. They didn’t even know the Mandarin Oriental because the group didn’t have any hotels in China at the time. We sent them a web link to show we had a big portfolio of hotels.”

How did you persuade chef Dong? “I did all the communication because our restaurant manager couldn’t speak Mandarin, though mine is so-so. The first time I met chef-owner Dong Zhenxiang it was intimidating because he stared at me and he’s big in stature. He was sceptical about our proposal, but I explained this would be a good way for Hong Kong diners to get to know his restaurant.

“He agreed but then refused to serve his signature roast duck because we did not have the same ovens as him, but that was the whole reason we invited him to Hong Kong. Eventually Dong was fine with our ovens, we just had to carefully check the temperature. The promotion was very successful, and later we did ones with hairy crabs and Sichuan and Hangzhou cuisines.

“I learned things outside the kitchen, like buying air tickets, picking up guest chefs from the airport, arranging their schedule until they left. We had no room for mistakes. I also did promotions at the Mandarin Orientals in New York and Bangkok.”

What was the transition like from hotel to restaurant group? “Mott 32 was looking for a chef with international experience and I went for the job. It’s not much different from working in a hotel because Mott 32 is also a high-end restaurant in Central. We offer five-star service and standards in the restaurant. It has a bar environment where you can eat Chinese food. I like this format; I’m not used to traditional restaurants and prefer those with dimmer lights.

“Before, all Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong served just Cantonese cuisine, but at Mott 32 you can have Cantonese, seafood, Sichuan, Shanghainese and Peking duck. People’s tastes have changed and they like more spice.”

Post Magazine

Applewood-roasted Peking duck from Mott 32. Photo: Mott 32

Post Magazine

Signature South African lobster ma po tofu. Photo: Mott 32

The following year was the first year we got a Michelin star. I didn’t know what the big deal was, I was just working hard

Lee Man-sing

Post Magazine

Fish maw jelly, goji berry and mint. Photo: Mott 32

Post Magazine

Lee Man-sing serves a variety of cuisines, including Cantonese, seafood, Sichuan, Shanghainese, and Peking duck at Mott 32. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Like what you read? Look for more food and drink in SCMP Post Magazine.

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