With TV stints, restaurants across the world and his own style of cuisine under his belt, multiple Michelin Star winning ‘Demon Chef’ Alvin Leung is at the top of his game. He talked Hive Life through a career spent breaking the rules.
With three Michelin Stars, a slew of restaurants around the world and a TV job as the judge on Masterchef Canada to his name, chef Alvin Leung’s career is the stuff of culinary dreams. His larger-than-life personality, unmistakable ‘rocker turned chef’ look and superb confidence are all hallmarks of his brand, one recognised around the world thanks to his agenda-setting, ‘X-treme Chinese’ cuisine and far-out dishes as showcased at his legendary Hong Kong restaurant Bo Innovation. What is less common knowledge is the fact that Alvin Leung started out as an engineer, taught himself how to cook following a career change, and bought what is now one of his adopted city’s most revered, 3 Michelin Star restaurants off a friend for just HKD 30,000. He talked Hive Life through a career spent breaking the rules.
“I got lucky,” says the now 58-year-old, self-styled ‘Demon Chef,’ of his start in the food industry. Taking over his friend’s speakeasy on a side street in Wan Chai, he simply states, “the opportunity to make a living from cooking came at the right place and right time.” Luck may have played a role in chef Alvin Leung’s culinary debut, but for the next decade and a half, the self-taught chef steadily built up his reputation and remained on the radar. He’s now progressed outside of Hong Kong to set up establishments in Toronto, Shanghai and Singapore, with Macau and Vancouver still to come. Today, his presence sweeps across Asia and beyond, whether you turn on the TV or are on a food-hunting spree. “People say I’m diluting myself, but I’m very careful in choosing territories to venture into. Unless I’m completely confident, I won’t go there,” he stresses.
Admittedly, the journey hasn’t always been this rosy. Alvin’s Bo London restaurant, established and named after his birth city, closed for good just five years ago. While this came as a complete shock to many, he is unfazed. “Failure is a fact of life and happens all the time,” he reflects. “I consider it an opportunity to learn. You can repeat those mistakes again, or apply those lessons to the next restaurant.” Sustaining a food empire, as he learnt first-hand, requires you to give people what they want, rather than shove them on their plate and force them to accept it. His trick is to do it creatively — think his signature ‘sex on the beach’ dish which resembles a used condom made of konjac and kappa on a mushroom beach, one that made headlines for all the right and wrong reasons.
Controversial as he is, there’s underlying wisdom in this maverick. For one, he doesn’t discount his early days in engineering as part of his recipe for success; “Engineers don’t take many chances because, if they do, the consequences can be catastrophic. Likewise, I carried instinct and logic with me…life decisions can be best solved with logic. It’s always definitive and requires less of a chance.”
As is the case for Alvin’s unorthodox approach to cooking, not everyone will find his creations their cup of tea, and that is fine with him. His culinary journey is less about pleasing everyone than it is about making fans return. “A wise man once told me that what is new today could potentially become tomorrow’s classic. In my mind, I always ask myself what makes a dish stand the test of time, and it comes back to taste. If I can improve the taste or add a different experience to it, then it becomes a classic and can be enjoyed over and over again.”
His latest endeavour, 15 Stamford by Alvin Leung at The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore, does just that, putting a spin on Asian-inspired cuisine and reimagining signature local dishes, a challenge he relishes. “It’s never easy to recreate a dish in a home country, and Singaporeans will make it known if I don’t cook their favourite food well,” he states matter-of-factly. “So, in paying tribute to different heritage cuisines, I look for the elements of comfort in each dish and bring out these tastes in nouveau ways so that both its heritage and modernity can be appreciated.”
Besides finding windows of opportunity to expand, Alvin’s also intently watching the industry unfold. As a judge on Masterchef Canada, he’s seen how talents like 19-year-old Beccy Stables can win the competition and follow the unconventional path he did, something he says couldn’t have happened twenty to thirty years ago. He tips his hat to this rare breed of up-and-coming chefs who hone their talents outside of cooking school, see things from a different perspective and eschew tradition, creating something entirely new in the process.
In a career like his, has the Demon Chef reached his pinnacle? “I hope not, because once you get there, the only way is down. Life would be very boring,” he laughs. When asked if would he do anything different in hindsight, Alvin’s response is just as philosophical. “I never look back on my career, marriage or life to try and change something.” There’s no time to dial it back to the beginning — this chef-entrepreneur is only going forward.