Master Chef Kuan Lai
Growing up as a child, Master Chef Kuan heard the words, “Eat Rice”, used at all meals as these were the words used to call the family together for a meal in his country. Now deemed as one of the top chefs in South Africa, he uses Spekko Jasmine rice as his preferred choice for many of his creative dishes! We were lucky enough to sit down with him and hear all about his passion for cooking, the charity work that he’s involved in, and his exciting new cooking classes that you could win vouchers for!
Interview with Master Chef Kuan La
Spekko: Do you have a favourite local ingredient?
Kuan Lai: Spoilt with choice, I would have to say seafood from the cold Atlantic current and warm Indian current, with a diverse distinction of spices.
SP: What is it and why do you like it?
KL: Most definitely crayfish. It’s available all year round and it is so versatile to cook with. From Japanese sashimi, Spanish paella, Classic French Thermidor, Thai-Curry, Chinese stir-fry or even just on a good old South African braai.
SP: What would you say is the secret to the perfect sushi?
KL: Beside the freshest seafood, the ultimate key is the rice – from texture, taste and temperature. Each and every step from preparing the rice, soaking, rinsing, cooking and flavoring will determine the quality of the Sushi.
SP: If you could recommend one Asian ingredient to keep in every kitchen what would that be?
KL: A good quality Soya sauce.
SP: Do you grow any of your own produce?
KL: Yes I do. I think every chef would agree that growing your own fresh produce is very important.
SP: What is your family’s favourite everyday food?
KL: Curry and Rice.
SP: What is your all-time favourite personal recipe?
KL: My Biryani is definitely my favourite personal recipe.
SP: When you’re not cooking, how do you best enjoy your free time?
KL: I really enjoy being out and about discovering new eateries, inspiring or meeting new people and working towards my cookbook and food blog deadline.
SP: Are there any local or international chefs that you admire?
KL: Local celebrity chef and presenter: Jenny Morris
I just love her unpretentious nature, genuine warm personality and humble approach to cooking and life!
SA iconic chef: David Higg
Besides his creativity and style of cooking, he is a role model for me. David has inspired the next generation of chefs by cooking and creating dishes with a different perspective.
Apart from being a culinary icon, David is also my mentor. He is a key member of Starwood F&B council in Asia Pacific and presently the Director of Culinary at The Sheraton Hotel in Macau. He is adventurous and not afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to cooking. His philosophy of cooking from the heart and with love has become my own personal philosophy.
SP: If you could eat any dish in any country, what dish would that be?
KL: I have visited many places including the Middle East, the Indian-Islands and numerous countries in Africa. Since it’s my favourite dish, I always ask for the local Biryani. It’s based on the same principle of cooking but they all have their own unique flair.
SP: What is your favourite fictional book?
KL: Marvel – X Men
SP: Do you have a favourite food blogger?
KL: I really enjoy our local girl – Tahlia Hamilton, I just adore her vibrant and funky writing style and photography.
SP: What would you say is your greatest achievement?
KL: I would have to say my 10 year culinary career with the Starwood Hotel Group. In 2003 I was appointed as part of the team in opening The Sheraton Arabella in Cape Town until 2011. Another special milestone was my appointment as the Executive Chef at Le Meridian Chiang Rai in Thailand.
In 2013, I began working as the consulting Chef to the Executive Chef at Kitima at Kronendal. Together we transformed the restaurant into one of the best Asian fine dining experiences in Africa, along with winning many prestigious awards in South Africa
SP: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KL: What I would really want is to stay in my beloved kitchen and spend more time realizing my purpose. Also, to use the power of food to help others in need. Being a chef is beyond cooking; my dream is to educate people about the value of food. And to use the power of food for healing – beyond just being a meal.
SP: Do you have your dream job?
KL: My dream job would be to be based on a yacht, cooking beautiful fresh food from the ocean and its surroundings – and pairing the food with wines from around the world.
SP: And lastly, what would you cook when the days are dark and everybody needs a lifting of the spirits?
KL: I would most definitely build a huge open fire with a potjie or paella pan. I love getting everyone involved with different tasks to cook this festive rice dish together, and I would even add in some singing and dancing! Biryani always reminds me of celebrations, happy reunions and religious festivals.