Meet the man blending craft beer, fine dining and the American bistro together in a quiet corner of Sheung Wan to critical acclaim.
It was the esteemed Vietnamese Chef Peter Cuong Franklin that first drew our attention to Leonard Cheung. The 25-year-old head chef of new Hong Kong restaurant Blue Supreme was, Peter told us, one of the most exciting talents he had come across in years. Spearheading his own take on US cuisine with his self-styled Modern American Bistronomy, Leonard’s new hangout takes the concept of the beer bar and turns it on its head, delivering simple food at a fine dining standard alongside a knockout craft beer selection.
Born and raised in a Taiwanese household in California, Leonard grew up surrounded by a very diverse range of cuisines. “I grew up with very diversified American-Chinese food,” he explains. “But, at the same time, I grew up eating in-and-out burgers and tacos and a lot of very southern Californian cuisine. I also grew up in a big family, so my mum cooked a lot. Still now, I still think my mum’s knife skills are better than mine!” And so was born this young chef’s love of cooking. Dedicated and determined from the get-go, Leonard was interning at a bakery at 16 and, just when most of his friends set off for college, he landed his first job in the kitchen at Bo Innovation, Hong Kong.
Leonard pulls no punches when describing how hard it has been to craft a career in the kitchen. “My whole family apart from my Mum did not approve of my career choice,” he tells us. “And it was really hard in the beginning. Nobody else really got it, all my friends were in college or working at white-collar jobs, so the first few years were the toughest. All the hours of scrubbing floors, doing the jobs that nobody else wants to take, everyone has to go through that. You have to remember that this is just temporary, you’re not going to be scrubbing floors for 10 years. And I also knew that all my mentors had to go through that, too. They taught me to be patient and that every hurdle is only temporary.” With a stint studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and jobs everywhere from the city’s big name Eleven Madison Park to Hong Kong’s Otto e Mezzo Bombana and conceptual hotspot Bo innovation, Leonard had some pretty impressive mentors.
The results of all that work and experience in various corners of the world is Blue Supreme, a casual spot in a tranquil corner at 21 Tung Street, Sheung Wan. A carefully designed yet relaxed oasis, it offers a fine dining take on bistro and bar style food that Leonard describes as ‘modern American bistronomy,’ and all in an atmosphere designed to encourage people to feel comfortable and relaxed. Blue Supreme’s main point of difference is its approach to booze – this is a restaurant that’s all about the beer. As the restaurant’s owner Ted Lai explains it, “we aim to create a one of a kind experience. Our food is an elaborate take on otherwise casual dishes. Our selection of live beers are unseen before in Hong Kong. Our vibe is unassuming, we allow for our beers and food to be the focus. You can expect Blue Supreme to be friendly, cozy and always inviting.”
For Leonard, how that plays out is in a small and ever-changing menu that makes the most of the ingredients at hand and uses fine dining skills to present casual, bar style food. So there may be a burger, but it will be a duck burger. As Leonard explains, “I feel like I should know how to do casual. I can’t just do fine dining, I need to do food that’s also approachable to everyone, food that doesn’t look intimidating.” Leonard also places a huge emphasis on his vegetables, sourcing them at both a local farm or Central Market, trying his best to use local varieties wherever possible. “Notice in every single dish, the star is always the vegetables. Because I believe that anyone can cook a steak, whilst not many people know how to cook and manipulate vegetables properly.” It was a skill he learned in New York, he says, as he glances through this week’s menu and says, “even for a dish like the scallop crudo here, if you look at it, you know that the fennel and the blood oranges will be the star of it.” Add to that approach a precise approach to presentation learned from his florist mother, and you have dishes that are anything but ordinary.
The other standout feature of Blue Supreme is its list of craft beers and their approach to pairing their ales with food. This comes under Ted’s command, who sources most of their carefully picked ales from Belgium alongside the odd local variety from brands such as Young Master. A huge part of their selling point to both customers and investors – “they’re individuals who share the same belief as us; that the craft beer market is underserved and that beers can be elevated,” – it’s this that sets Blue Supreme apart from the crowd as they carefully suggest beers for different dishes with all the precision you might expect from an extensive wine list. “At the end of the day, beer is the ultimate beverage pairing for food,” says Leonard. “Ted has a wide range of taste profiles, some are insanely bitter, some insanely sour, but they are well-balanced.” And the concept of pairing steak with wine can be applied to beer pairing, too. You don’t wanna pair a really light salad dish with a really dark, chocolate stout. All these concepts apply to wine as well.”
It’s this blend of fine and casual, high and low that found Blue Supreme many fans over its first few months in operation. That, and Leonard’s obvious talents. But he would be the first to point out that none of it has been easy, and that the cooking business is one rooted in graft. “The thing I’d say to young chefs is to keep their head down for a decade or more before they do anything of their own. And of course, travel. Don’t just stay in Hong Kong. Please travel, please see what other cultures are like. How they run their kitchens, what their standards are, and in return you can see what’s wrong and what’s right when you come back and open your own spot in HK.” It’s an approach that certainly worked for him.