Kelvin Cheung, a celebrated Chinese-Canadian chef and partner at Jun’s, spent his early years exploring flavors. In an exclusive interview with HN, the third-generation chef discusses how he spent the majority of his youth preparing for a life of travel and working with Asian foods in foreign kitchens.
Throughout your career, you have been awarded many accolades. Which is the most dearest to your heart and why?
I think that the recent 50 Best Restaurants recognition is most symbolic. You’d think our goals of launching in Dubai would have been a little too far-fetched, especially being an unknown name on the Middle Eastern food scene with little to no knowledge of the Dubai food industry, which is trying to reimagine the concept around North American cuisine. I still find it to be a very wild ride. But here we are after only seven months of operation.
Since debuting in Dubai, we’ve received a lot of love and support from many of the chefs listed on the 50 Best Restaurants. Dubai’s hospitality industry and unrivalled energy is unlike any other in the world.
I couldn’t have done any of it without my amazing front- and back-of-house teams and incredible customers. I always tell them this. We’re only as good as our last service.
What are the latest Asian food trends?
With the rise of third-generation chefs, we’re becoming more accepting of the modern version of traditional dishes. The demise of “fusion” and the realization that food labels are unnecessary will be the next big thing.
Third-culture cooking will dominate the hospitality scene. Embracing new cultural identities is our way of sharing our stories of being raised with strong cultural roots in a foreign land. During my childhood, my father’s restaurants and our kitchen at home served as a constant reminder of my country.
The component and flavor of Ube in Filipino cuisine is in vogue. This original purple yam is commonly used in the dessert halo-halo and has a striking purple color. It is moist, with a vanilla-like nutty flavour which lends itself well to desserts. At Jun’s, one our bestselling Kelvin cakes is an Ube cake layered with brown butter taro root schmear, Ube liquid cheesecake and burned milk crumble. We also serve Ube cookies with a caramelized flan on top and fluffy Ube bread loaded with cheese.
I think that sweet and salty pairings will be in greater demand in the upcoming year. I wholeheartedly agree with this, because no dessert should ever be served without a salty balance.
How would you describe your culinary style and what challenges are you facing in consolidating traditional and modern dining?
Nothing felt right during the menu development process until I tapped into my North American and Asian backgrounds, which offer limitless combinations.
As the son of immigrants, I believe that food brings people together but also divides us. I experienced a dual universe while growing up in North America with Cantonese-speaking parents who had relocated to Toronto. There wasn’t much diversity at my school, and I was bullied mercilessly for my unusual lunches. Outside school, I sought refuge in the Asian communities that lived around China Town.
My menu is an ode to the North American Asian food with a modern twist. I’ve reimagined my favorite dishes and flavors as I tell my story through the dishes I serve. You’ll see traditional Chinese flavors cooked using French techniques, as well as European dishes like burrata and rigatoni paired with distinct ones like mapo. Our staff takes storytelling seriously when guiding customers at Jun’s.
You are a firm believer in preserving nature’s bounty for future generations. What sustainable practices have you implemented in your kitchen?
In our kitchen, sustainability is a priority in the preparation of our meat. We butcher our own animals and incorporate their parts in our main dishes and sauces. Furthermore, we use carrots tops for pesto and vegetable scraps for stocks and sauces. For instance, we prepare pickles out of watermelon peels, sugar and vinegar, which are then cut up and added to the dish for texture.
The foundation of French and Chinese cuisine is built on the heavy use of bone broth for cooking and as a base for sauces. So, the use of every bone, protein and piece of vegetable is incorporated into the stocks, which increases the depth of flavor and complexity. We put peels and skins to great use for our beverage program. For example, we make a banana sacrum, which is like a sugar syrup, by adding our ripe banana peels and sugar to a vacuum bag and placing it in the sous vide.