Is Jayson Tang Hong Kong's Youngest Sifu?
20 Sep 2021
The notion of the sifu or 'master' in Chinese culture - especially in martial arts - comes from the combination of two characters: "teacher" and "father." It's clear that the sifu is both paternal or maternal, looking after others in their family or unit, as well as someone who ensures that they learn from their skills and experience.
While sifus tend to be of an older generation, reflecting their years of knowledge, there are also notable exceptions for outstanding younger individuals. Being a sifu also extends to the professional kitchen and it's in one of them, Man Ho at JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong, that we find Chef Jayson Tang.
He is naturally very modest when asked about being a sifu, saying that people can choose to call him sifu, Chef, or Jayson. But seeing his career to date, his Michelin star, his work ethic and his standing amongst his peers, it's clear that he is one of Hong Kong's most influential, respected and knowledgeable - in other words, a sifu.
He is quick to mention two key sifu chef mentors in his own culinary life, Paul Lau of Tin Lung Heen at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong and Dicky To of The Peninsula Paris. From Chef Lau he learnt that being a master chef is not just talking, but doing and performing, consistently.
From both Chef Lau and Chef To he learned to promote his team, to teach them to perform better, to give them more responsibility, ensuring good operations in the kitchen and restaurant, and to promote dishes in the market at the most appropriate times.
All of which begs the question, how he works with his 35-strong kitchen team at Man Ho?
"I treat them as a partner. The average age in the kitchen is older than me, so I'm not teaching them but sharing. Because of the mechanism of the team, I want them to do more by motivating them."
One other area in which Tang stands apart is in how he inspires them:
"I seldom share media exposure with the team, but I showed them the Michelin coverage as it was really special for us. It shows that we're not just earning money but are part of something really special, a bigger sense of purpose. I also want their families to understand why they sometimes spend so long in the kitchen."
When it comes to his own food inspiration, this young sifu shows another different approach: "It's not normal to dine outside, but I like to go to other restaurants, to compare and see, I love to experience other foods."
That includes cuisines from all over the world, as he cites the French restaurant Epure in Harbour City as one of his favourites, as well as cooking by Argentinian Chef Agustin Balbi at Ando. This understanding has led him to regularly feature non-Chinese ingredients in his dishes, something that may be unusual for other chefs - but for Tang it is about learning from culture and ingredients and technology:
"There is nothing uniquely Chinese in ingredients or food, especially as the world is now so co-related. It's about how we can deliver the best food and that depends on seasonality, supply and also what guests ask for."
Innovative dishes include creations such as the unusually prepared pan-fried fish maw with almond chicken broth and also steamed egg with flathead lobster, dried fish roe and saffron:
"These dishes are good for all seasons but are very suitable for summer. The steamed egg with flathead lobster (depending on the season) used dried fish roe and saffron. We cook the steamed egg under the lobster using seaweed water, not normal water, to make the dish more exquisite. It really delivers refreshing and light flavours."
Another mark of a sifu is to love to share and spread their knowledge, so it's fascinating to hear Tang talk about the legendary French chef Joël Robuchon, someone who famously allowed his French fine dining to succeed and win acclaim in cities all over the world. He feels that Cantonese cuisine deserves better understanding around the world:
"For Cantonese food, there is still a lot of things for people to explore. Some people still think of Cantonese food as sweet and sour pork. It's also about Cantonese culture as historically Cantonese food has not been explored or understood, but now we have the opportunity to let people know more about us."
When asked whether there could one day be a Cantonese equivalent of Robuchon, he isn't so sure, given the complexity and particular skills of Cantonese food:
From growing up, working and cooking in the dai pai dong run by his parents, Tang clearly has an incredible work ethic, ability to connect with people and understanding of the restaurant business. He also has retained a sense of modesty, as he stresses that what is important is not awards or accolades, but happy diners:
"The focus is not to get a Michelin star, the ultimate goal is always to prepare the best food, regardless of recognition. Our most important duty is to keep guests happy and give them the most wonderful moments when they dine in the restaurant, to prepare the very best food."
As I leave the interview, it's clear that happy diners are very visible at Man Ho, delighting in fabulous steaming dim sum, impeccable roast meats, and innovative dishes all served in the recently-remodeled elegant surroundings. So, once again, Jayson Tang - quite possibly Hong Kong's youngest culinary sifu - has delivered on his promise