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Ivan Li is a man of many talents - designer, architect and artist - yet it’s fronting his family’s Imperial Chinese restaurants that has afforded the chef worldwide recognition and a Lifetime Achievement award from Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
He a fierce protector and ambassador for traditional Chinese cooking, carrying on the mantle from his Grandfather who worked in Beijing’s Forbidden City as chef to one of the last every Emperors of the Qing dynasty - the recipes he cooked in these kitchens were never forgotten and in 1985 Li’s father opened the first Family Li Imperial Chinese restaurant in Beijing.
The family now have restaurants across Asia and plans to open in Paris, serving up a selection of dishes that represent the opulent and grand dishes served by the Imperial Courts of china.
His approach to the protection and promotion of traditional Chinese imperial cuisine is unfaltering and his dishes, like steamed duck stuffed with diced abalone, sea-cucumber, dried scallops, fish maw, mushrooms, bamboo sprout and rice, have made his restaurants a must stop for anyone wanting a true understanding of Chinese cuisine and food culture.
We caught up with Li before the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 final to discuss his role as a mentor and how own career starting out as a young chef.
Who was your most important mentor for your profession and why?
My father was my most important mentor. The recipes and essence of our cuisine were passed down by my ancestors. I learnt how to cook from my father and my mother. Another important factor is my passion for good food.
What’s the best advice you were ever given when you were training?
Honesty is most important. You have to always choose the best ingredients, and should not, no matter for whatever reason, try to use the second best. And do not simplify the necessary procedures.
Do you remember one of the big mistakes you made in a kitchen when you were training? (Can you explain what happened and what you learned?)
It was the first time I cooked the traditional dish of “well-stewed fish maw”. As it was in the early 90’s in China, the choice of good fish maw was very limited. I could not get a piece of fish maw with very good quality. Besides, I discovered that the type of water that I used was also very important. (I only realized this later.) The third factor was the shape of the cooker being used. It was because during the cooking of this dish, I need to use chicken oil, but afterwards, I need to take away the chicken oil again from the soup while it was still being cooked. If the shape of the cooker was not suitable, the chicken oil would not surface to the top of the soup at the best timing to be cleared away. Then this dish could not be perfect. So when I first cooked this dish, I made all these 3 mistakes!
Is there one mistake you see young chefs making very often?
What should they do instead? Bachelard Gaston, a 19th century philosopher, “distinguished between two forms of imagination, the formal imagination and the material imagination….both at work in nature as well as in the mind. In nature, the formal imagination creates all the unnecessary beauty it contains, such as flowers; the material imagination on the contrary, aims at producing that which, in being, is both primitive and eternal. In the mind, the formal imagination is fond of novelty, picturesqueness, variety and unexpectedness in events, while the material imagination is attracted by the elements of permanency present in things. In us as well as in nature the material imagination is productive of germs, but of germs where the form is deeply sunk in a substance.” (page xiii, “The Poetics of Space”.) His theory reminds us that when we create, we have to take care of these two aspects. To put it simply, we must attain novelty, but we must also attain a state of permanency. I see that a lot of young chefs indulge themselves in attaining novelty, but they neglect the essence of permanency in things.
What are the best characteristics a young chef can have, nowadays?
Passionate, eager to learn, be brave to innovate.
What are the worst?
Always want to be famous and rich, but unwilling to work honestly and hard.
What’s your main focus in advising the S. Pellegrino Young Chef candidate of your region?
Our candidate uses his scientific methods to analyze the traditional Chinese cuisine, then he recreates his dishes with advanced cooking methods and presents the dishes with contemporary aesthetics. This is not easy, because he needs to first fully understand the essence of traditional Chinese cooking, then he could add his sense of modernity to the dishes, without just limiting his innovations on the presentations. What I do is try my best to let him understand the essence and authenticity of traditional Chinese cooking.
What’s your message to all the finalists of S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2015 worldwide?
Be passionate. Be brave to explore and learn, not just limiting yourself in the culinary area, but get more knowledge and exposure in various areas.