Hyatt Regency chef in Hong Kong on working at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and falling in love with cooking because ‘there's fire everywhere'

Asia's Tech News Daily

Hugo’s, lemons, Roganic, Aulis, Post Magazine

“I’m from Bournemouth [on the south coast of England], where we have an amazing beach with fine golden sand, eight miles [13km] long. My mum was a chef at one point, a short-order cook for a leisure centre, but not for very long. Apparently, she was a terrible cook. My dad used to joke that when the fire alarm went off, we knew that dinner was ready.”

Was that your motivation to learn how to cook?

“I had to learn how to cook or eat my mother’s cooking. My parents owned a 10-bedroom bed and breakfast for a couple of years so I was around that hospitality environment. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks.

“Every Sunday morning, my paternal grandma would wake up at 6am and start cooking a roast dinner. She did it all by herself from scratch and did a really good job. For the Christmas menu at Hugo’s, I will use her Christmas pudding recipe. My nan on my mum’s side was very good at making soups and stews.”

Hugo’s, lemons, Roganic, Aulis, Post Magazine

Hugo’s dry-aged Challans duck breast.

How did you start working in restaurants?

“When I was 16 years old, I was a dishwasher in a hotel on the weekends. One of the chefs in the cold section got very ill and had to leave work for six months. In the cold section, they just made sandwiches and no one wanted to do it except me. I made the sandwiches and prepared cold starters, and that’s how I got into it.

“I never wanted to be a chef, I just fell into it, and that’s how my passion grew. I liked the whole environment, seeing this busy kitchen, people running around, it’s loud, and there’s fire everywhere. When you’re 16 years old it’s amazing.”

Did you go to culinary school?

“I didn’t, but I worked at the hotel for a couple of years and then decided to travel, to see what’s out there, when I was 19 years old. I went with a mate to Southeast Asia and Australia, where we stayed for two years. We were mostly in Brisbane and Darwin. I was quite lucky to stay there for two years, as you need to do regional work to get a visa.

“Most of the time it’s fruit picking, which is hard work. I spent three days on a farm picking lemons. They told us if we could fill up a bin of lemons we would be paid A$70. But the trees only had about four lemons on them, so it was never going to happen. On the third day it was super hot, 39 degrees Celsius [102 degrees Fahrenheit], and I was picking lemons in a tree and there was a wasp nest and I got stung on my face. I fell out of the tree and nearly broke my ankle.

“I only did it for three days because I found out that if I was a chef in an outback roadhouse, that would also count towards my regional work. So that’s how I got my second visa.”

Hugo’s, lemons, Roganic, Aulis, Post Magazine

Steele at Hugo’s in Tsim Sha Tsui. He says he “fell into” being a chef. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Where did you work?

“I worked as a chef in Brisbane in a Brazilian restaurant owned by a Korean chef named David Kim. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but it turned out to be where I learned most of my skill set. He taught me how to season properly, how to taste, and the restaurant had 30 types of meat so I learned a lot of butchery, about the different cuts of beef and pork.”

Where did you go afterwards?

“When I was around 22 years old, I moved to the Netherlands for three years, working in some good restaurants. At one point I worked at my ex-girlfriend’s sister’s restaurant, a 30-seater with six chefs. I learned a lot about using local produce, and game, like whole wild boar from Germany, venison and geese that we got every week from the hunters.

“I wanted to learn Dutch and that was very difficult because if I went to the supermarket and tried to practise my Dutch, they immediately switched to English. I also worked a few weeks at De Librije, an incredible three-star restaurant. It was set inside an old prison, in the courtyard, so you have this outdoor feel.”

How did you get a job at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s fine-dining restaurant in Bray, England?

“I went back to Bournemouth in my mid-20s and at one of the restaurants I worked at, a chef knew someone who worked at The Fat Duck. I applied and went for a two-day trial but I didn’t do well, I was very nervous.

“They gave me a box of ingredients and when I started cooking, I didn’t know where everything was, the equipment, the chopping boards. They said I could ask for help, and I wanted to, but they were so busy. My dish turned out terrible, but they saw my potential.”

What did you learn?

“It was mind-blowing, surreal, very different from any restaurant I had been in. The organisation of the place was insane. Everything was in its place and they had about 40 chefs working, it was amazing to see. It was hard and tough, the days were long, but again I learned so much. I spent two years there.”

Hugo’s, lemons, Roganic, Aulis, Post Magazine

Baked apple tarte tartin from Hugo’s.

How did you get to Hong Kong?

“I was 28 years old, in Thailand at the time. I had gone to Gaggan [in Bangkok] to intern there, but it wasn’t for me. I got a phone call from the sous chef at The Fat Duck who went to work for Simon Rogan. He told me they were opening Roganic and Aulis in Hong Kong, and asked if I was interested. I had to fly back to London to sort out my visa and did it within three weeks.”

What is Simon Rogan’s cooking style?

“When I was at The Fat Duck, I did very technical cooking. Roganic is very technical as well, but it looks simple, which makes it such a good restaurant. There’s so much technique behind it that it looks humble on the plate. I learned a lot more about flavours at Roganic. Aulis is the development kitchen for Roganic, a place where we would literally just try anything and everything.”

What are you doing at Hugo’s?

“I wanted to get back into the restaurant environment and do my own thing as well. At Hugo’s, I want to bring it back to what it was, classic but refined. It has been around for 52 years. The gueridon [tableside] service is unique to the restaurant and I’d love to do a bit more. At Hugo’s, there’s a bit of entertainment, and not that many restaurants do this.”

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

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