For a child whose recollection is blurry, certain memories can always trigger certain events. From going to school in Hong Kong, moving from there to Belgium (Antwerp), back to Hong Kong, and then, when the child is eight years of age, travelling to the town of Buncrana, County Donegal – for some people, this might be a bridge too far, but for Chef Kwanghi Chan the experience was life-affirming and career forming.
Food was always involved in the long distances back and forth. The move to Antwerp featured Kwanghi’s aunt and a Chinese restaurant. The move to Buncrana featured his uncle and a European-Chinese restaurant/takeaway. It’s fair to say that in 1989/1990, the good citizens of the County Donegal town (and environs) tucked into Peking duck, kung pao chicken, char siu and spare ribs with equal measures of lip-smacking gusto and belly-loving pleasure. Add in exotic concoctions such as fake bird’s nest made of shredded deep-fried potatoes, and you have a distinctive blend of culture and cuisine.
Into this mix is a young boy who began his family-based apprenticeship washing dishes and learning how to use a wok. By the time Kwanghi was 13, he had learned enough to cook all of the dishes on the extensive menu, and was able to oversee the running of the restaurant if his uncle ever needed to take time off. That, as they say, is how to hit the ground running.
When Kwanghi first moved to Ireland, he remembers the food as being so different that it took a while to get used to. “Chinese dishes all came seasoned and packed with different serving styles and flavours. I loved simple foods, like freshly boiled potatoes with lots of butter and sprinkles of salt and pepper. This was amazing for me when I was eight, and even now it’s one of my favourite things to eat. We used to grow a small patch of potatoes and other vegetables in the garden, and cooking them just out of the ground was wonderful to learn about.”
With the business of food in the family, it was perhaps all too inevitable that he would gravitate towards it as a career. “It wasn’t that I came to a decision at that time,” Kwanghi recalls, “but more something I thought about as being part of a Chinese-emigrated family having a takeaway and restaurant. We all had to help out in the family business in order to earn a living.” After the Leaving Cert, he went to Killybegs Culinary College, Ireland’s oldest dedicated catering college outside Dublin. As soon as he graduated, he ventured further afield. “I felt it was important to learn, which I did from chefs such as Ross Lewis, Derry Clarke, Aidan Byrne, Fergal O’Donnell, Martijn Kajuiter. They all taught me crucial lessons, including that ingredients are to be respected, to be creative with, not just used as fuel but also gratification.”
As the years passed, ambitions increased. Ideas came and went, and one that stuck was to branch out into branded products such as ChanChan Asian sauces. “It started as a joke one evening between myself and my partner – that we should bottle what we naturally and instinctively would cook with, and sell it to home cooks. We learned as we went along, taking things step by step. It was really a case of using our knowledge, teaching ourselves about retail sales and navigating all of that with the help and support of so many within the industry. It takes time, patience and skill to find the correct way to do things like this. We’re still learning every day, facing problems with new products and then coming up with solutions.”
Alongside ChanChan sauces is another concept – Bowls by Kwanghi Chan. Located in Dublin city centre (Marlborough Street), Bowls is inspired by long-established Hong Kong-based ‘Cha Chaan Teng’ cafés, which are renowned for featuring Hong Kong and Hong Kong-style Western cuisine. The notion behind Bowls was quite simple, says Kwanghi. The business was conceived and developed as a low budget venture with a quick turnaround. “I had wanted people to taste our products being used in food, that they could buy in the supermarket and cook with at home. The problem, however, was nobody knew how to use them, so I did lots of marketing videos and social media cooking with the products.”
What about the pressures of running a restaurant these past months? Has Kwanghi found the sweet spot between running a business successfully and getting the creativity of the food just right? Bowls is a fun project, he admits. “We create modern pan-Asian flavours that are, of course, influenced by Hong Kong. As for finding a balance, I don’t think you can ever hit a sweet spot in food because it’s a constant battle to keep ideas that are not only fresh but which also need to change to the requirements of the market. But that’s okay because engaging with this brings out creativity.”
Between his restaurant, product range and family, Kwanghi is as busy as anyone can be. His work ethic is perfected as close to super-efficient as possible, but how did it develop through the years? It is based, he replies, on the experiences of growing up with his uncle in Buncrana. His teenage years were all about “hard work, continued evaluation of it in order to constantly improve and learning how to streamline operations year-on-year. I think I’m now worse than ever before! I would work 24 hours if I had to. That said, I try to get weekend time with the kids as much as possible, but because of my competitive nature as a chef it’s a hard balance.”
A hard balance is right – and we haven’t even mentioned his work on television (as a regular chef on Virgin Media’s Six O’Clock Show). From kitchen to TV, each can be a tense environment. “They’re different types of stress. I’m quite comfortable in a busy, heated kitchen environment because I grew up with that. Live television is a different kind of pressure in that you have a time limit to get your message across and the dish completed in six minutes. Even after five years of being on the show, I’m still nervous that the induction hob isn’t going to work for me!”
We leave Kwanghi as industrious as when we met up with him. A visionary, an entrepreneur and, above all, a spicy/saucy chef, like many people this year his outlook is typically philosophical. The plan, as always, is to increase the business, irrespective of how tough 2021 might be.
“If you’re growing it doesn’t matter if it’s slow or fast as long as you’re not standing still. We are very lucky in that we can still do business in the areas of takeaway food, meal kits, retail and our outdoor food trailer. In all my companies, we are keeping our staff with us, and we all work very hard towards that as a goal. That said, we wouldn’t be here without our customers and those in the industry, and we thank those so much for continuing to support us.”
WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA
Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland