Chef Chat, Part 1: Hoi Fung of Fung's Kitchen, On Starting Out As a Cook in Hong Kong Before Coming to America to Make a New Life

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This is the first part of a three part Chef Chat series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

Fung's Kitchen is a veritable Chinese food institution in Houston. Past host to President Bush senior, the Queen of Thailand and the Imperial Family of Japan, it is the go-to choice for visiting dignitaries as well as discerning Asians in Houston. Visit any Saturday and Sunday, and you'll be greeted by a bustling dim sum scene worthy of most restaurants in Hong Kong. Weekends are also the scene for many Asian weddings, where Fung's hosts parties of up to 500 while still running the restaurant.

A restaurant of Fung's caliber would not be able to run without a strong executive chef. And at Fung's, the executive chef is also the owner. Hoi Fung, a master Cantonese chef who has won numerous awards in cooking competitions, is still there daily, cooking in the kitchen and making sure things run smoothly. We sat down with him a week before Chinese New Year to talk about his history at Fung's.

EOW: Tell me about Fung's Kitchen, it's been here since...?

HF: I started Fung's Kitchen in 1990. We started with 3,000 square feet, and now we have 25,000 square feet.

EOW: Wow! Okay, tell me about your background. How did you become a chef and how did you come to Houston?

HF: In 1971, I was in Hong Kong. I learned how to cook in a famous restaurant kitchen.

EOW: So 1971, you're learning in this kitchen. For people who don't know what Cantonese food is, can you describe it?

HF: Cantonese food is more light. Cantonese like all the live seafood. Even the chicken -- they want to kill the chicken and then cook it right away. So everything they like fresh.

EOW: What about the sauces? What are the techniques you use in Cantonese cooking?

HF: Cantonese cooking, usually they like it more light and not too spicy. Cantonese food isn't too spicy. They like steamed fish. Even the chicken, they like it steamed. They want the original flavor. They do a lot of steaming, and they also use the hot wok for quick cooking.

EOW: How old were you when you started cooking?

HF: 17.

EOW: Is there formal training there, or do you just go in and cook?

HF: When we start, we just clean the kitchen or cut the vegetables, so we don't get to touch the cooking department. But if the master -- the main chef -- likes you, then they try to give you a chance. You learn to cut the vegetables first, then to cut fish; after that, you get to cut the meat. Then they will give you a chance to go to the cooking area. Then if you want to cook, you get to watch the first chef or the second chef, and then they'll let you cook the employee meal.

EOW: Okay, so what kind of food do you make for the employees?

HF: In Hong Kong, for the employees, they provide the food. Even right now, we provide the dinner and the lunch. So in the beginning, you cook for the employees, and if all the employees feel like you're good, then you get to try and cook for the customer.

EOW: For the employee meal, give me an example. What are you making?

HF: Usually we have seafood, vegetable and beef.

EOW: Do you remember the first meal you made?

HF: The first meal I made was beef.

EOW: Do you remember how you made it?

HF: I used ketchup, sugar, soy sauce and then the look. Because the color is very important. For Chinese food, you want to look first. If the food is colorful, then the people will think it tastes good. So, after that, then they will taste. Even if it tastes good, the first touch is the eye. And then the smell. The smell and the look is very important.

EOW: You started in Hong Kong. What brought you to the U.S.?

HF: We came to the USA in 1982. I wanted to go outside to learn something. I was 28 at the time. My father owned nine restaurants in Hong Kong. In my family, we have three generations of chefs.

EOW: So, wait...let's go back. You said you started when you were 17. Was it in your father's kitchen?

HF: No. I go to the outside. After that, 1976, I went back to my father's restaurant, and worked in our family restaurant. In 1982, I came to the United States because I wanted to change my life. My father owned nine restaurants, but I thought the United States had more opportunity. I tried to bring the Chinese-style food to the United States. I talked to my father, and told him that I wanted to bring our food to America, the other side of the world.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Hoi Fung.

Hoi Fung Fung's Kitchen 7320 SW Freeway Tel: 713-779-2288 www.eatatfungs.com

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