If his food is as interesting as the metaphors he uses to describe it, then we’re all in for a treat
I MET ALVIN Leung shortly before the launch of Bo in December. For someone who says he’s ‘all talked out’, he seemed perfectly happy to chat away over a cup of tea in the reception of the Westbury hotel.
Known as ‘the demon chef’, he is an intriguing man — acoustic engineer turned Michelin star chef with 16 chihuahuas, purple tipped hair and a controversial reputation.
Bo London is his first venture outside of Hong Kong and one that he is personally funding and overseeing. This doesn’t just mean gastronomically; he is also looking after the budgets, overseeing construction, picking china and putting up with the English weather. So why did he choose to set up shop here?
‘London is very important to me because I was born here. It is my first restaurant out of Hong Kong. We have had good success in Hong Kong and Asia. I think being Chinese right now is the hottest thing. Everyone is interested in China, interested in the Chinese, because they are interested in why our economy is booming, our work ethic, everything. I have had quite a few offers in the past couple of years — New York, Vegas, Dubai, Australia, Singapore, just to name a few — but I have always had my heart set on London being number one. I wanted this to be special as London is very special too. This is why I have spent three years on this project.’
Jetting to London twice a month from Hong Kong shows dedication. Leung is pushing himself and his restaurant concept to the extreme. He admits to being out of his comfort zone, but tells me it is all worth it, as he loves the adrenaline rush, more importantly, loves to see the end product.
He says he wants people to embrace him and his concepts because he’s ‘a show-off.’ Bo London has been created to be an adventure for Leung’s guests: from the extravagant presentation to the much debated dish concepts, it is all about creating excitement. I asked Leung why they kept the details of the restaurant so quiet prior to the launch, was this to increase anticipation?
‘This is a movie. This is an adventure coming. I don’t want to give away the ending. You can come and see it for yourself. Everybody knows that I create surprises, I am well known for doing that.’
Alvin Leung ‘the demon chef’
GIVEN ALL THIS, what should people expect, I asked Bo.
‘I think first of all they are going to expect, and they should expect, elements of Chinese in the food. Some people say, there are no chopsticks, we’re not eating from a communal plate or eating from a round table etc, but everything about the food has Chinese elements.
‘I wouldn’t say it’s 100 per cent Chinese, but it will have Chinese DNA. Nothing is 100 per cent anything anymore. Everything in the world in terms of cuisine is coming together and being mixed, because of the internet, and because of the ease of us travelling. There is no such thing as pure anymore, but there is nothing wrong with that.
‘I am not trying to westernise Chinese food and I am not trying to easternise English food. That has been done. What you will get is something that is a little more unique than chips with curry sauce: you will get strawberries and cream with chips. So figure that one out!’
Alvin Leung’s crispy glutinous rice dumplings with chocolate showcases Chinese elements
Leung is not just coming here on the back of his ‘Sex on the Beach’ dish — which featured an edible ‘used’ condom on edible sand — hoping to cash in on this one novelty. He is keen to make it clear that was just one dish he did, it just happened to be one that caused a lot of controversy.
I also helped raise over $40,000 HK for Aids charities, so he joked that this will perhaps secure him ‘a colder spot in hell.’ He is here to provide excitement, surprises and debate, but also amazingly tasty food.
I raised the issue of taste often taking second place when chef’s compete to show off gastronomic inventiveness or technique. He told me he was ‘happy’ I raised this.
‘I focus on the taste because at the end of the day you come back for the taste. You see a horror movie with all its bang, bang, bang, wow, surprises, but you’re not going to go back and watch it again. Who wants to watch a horror movie ten times? It is not something that is comforting. It excites you for that moment, but it is not going to excite you again and it is not something comfortable that you want to do every day — eating is, taste is. You can eat chips every day, you can eat pizza every day, you can drink tea every day and why do you do it? Because it provides a comfort sensation to you. Sometimes it provides too much comfort so you overeat!’
Inside Bo London. Photo by Ivan Crispo
AT THIS MOMENT Leung looks down at his stomach and gives it a little pat, before leaning back in his chair to continue.
‘What was the question? I’m having fun talking. So, about too much on the plate and all that, the thing is: yes, we do get carried away sometimes by trying to tell a long story on a very small plate. Sometimes we want to provide an epic — but an epic gets confusing. I treat my plate as a small play, limited actors and supporting actors, not too many stars, because that way you can get a closer understanding of that dish. A successful dish is one you come back for again and again and again.’
So, that is what we should expect – great taste, excitement and yet something that we would happily come back to. But with a new restaurant opening on every corner every week at the moment, does a restaurant with its cheapest menu priced at £98 have a chance of survival in London? Does Leung think it wise to open up at such a high level during a recession?
‘London is on top of the world right now in terms of restaurants. Everybody is worried about the economy. People say to me, “are you nuts? You’re opening a fine dining restaurant with a set menu? You will be spending £90 a head in a recession?” I said, “No, I’m not nuts, I’m a business man. I am Chinese, we are born gamblers, this is not a long shot.
‘Every business is a gamble, everything you do is a gamble, you wake up in the morning, you walk across the street, it is a gamble. But I think my chance of success is good in London. In London you have Arzak opening up, you have Hakkasan opening up — all these people cannot be wrong. I never feel or see anyone as a competitor or competition, not in this business. This is about providing a unique experience, and if it is unique you don’t have a competitor.’
It is now really up to the restaurant-going London public to see what they think. The restaurant has been open for just over a month and so far the reviews have been pretty favourable, if rather filled with takes on the X-treme concept – X-pensive, X-citing and so on.
Leung is engaging, intelligent, self-assured and self-styled. If his food is as interesting as the metaphors he uses to describe it, then we’re all in for a treat. Personally, I’m planning on popping in later this month so look out for a Spear’s review in the not too distant future.
Read more by Emily Rookwood