A few years ago, there were whispers through the culinary grapevine that Ellipsis’ new wonder chef would whip up anything your heart desired. Then it’s entirely likely that Chef Kelvin Cheung plucked it from its roots, poked, peppered and parfaited it, before serving it atop his infamous kogi BBQ tacos with beef tenderloin, pork belly and chill lime slaw.
“Innovation is something we are faced with everyday,” he says, having made something of a career in delivering culinary surprises. “Running a kitchen here in Bombay you literally have to adapt and change with every dish and every ingredient everyday because of the lack of consistency you get in products.”
Despite conducting his kitchen persona with a particularly modern transparency however, when charged with the herculean task of transforming Mumbai’s Ellipsis (one of the most over-hyped, under-whelming restaurant experiments India had ever seen) even his impeccable track record couldn’t save him. I mean, the man had been in a kitchen since he was 12 years old, going from running his family’s restaurant empire to the executive chef at Ginger Asian Bistro in Chicago, which Chicago Magazine went on to dub the city’s ‘Best New Restaurant.’ But Mumbai’s unexposed gourmands weren’t necessarily buying it. So he turned the menu on its head; substituting the exotics (think yellowtail and iberico ham) for more localised goodness, whether it was potatoes from Vashi (apparently the perfect consistency for really good french fries) or fresh fish from Sassoon Docks, and he started catering to customers’ oddest whims even if it was the one thing he swore he’d never serve at any of his restaurants—-nachos. Hell, he even hit the ground running on social media, literally fielding populist food requests on Twitter. In an era of celebrity ‘chef’dom, it’s this ability to consistently innovate around his stylistic range that makes Kel stand out. And this is just the abridged version of his story.
“A professor once told me that if people don’t either love or hate your work, you haven’t done anything. Just being daring and provocative, it might just change design.”
– Tinker Hatfield, designer of the Nike Air Max.
When the first pair of Nike Air Max rolled out in 1987, it was undoubtedly a revolution in innovation. Tinker Hatfield, once a corporate architect and now one of the most iconic sneaker designers in the world, had put his stamp on it and no one had ever seen anything like it before. Inspired by the bare-it-all aesthetic of he Pompidou centre in Paris, he loved the fact that the all-glass approach allowed people to understand the structure of the building, see how it works. And it’s this that gave him the idea to quite literally cut a hole in the side of the shoe and allow wearers to see how this new airbag technology for cushioning actually worked. As such, he took an idea and put it within the context of his own work, a sentiment that resonates strongly with Kel C too. That’s why we knew we’d found our moment of perfect synchronicity when he waxed eloquent with us about true innovation coming from within. Someone, somewhere has already done what you are doing in some context. It’s taking those ideas (while giving due credit of course) and making them your own by adding your own flavour or ideas into the mix. Essentially, putting some of yourself into it,” he said. And thus, our decision to put him into our #LeaveYourLegacy campaign, in collaboration with Nike Sportswear, featuring the Nike Air Max, was born. That combined with the fact that he’s been replenishing his collection with a new pair of the iconic sneaker every year for over a decade now!
Over the years, Kel has cooked across 3 continents, not to mention completely changed the game in India. Working 17-hour-long days on little more than 2 pints of coffee and a whole lot of eggs, over 20 kitchen hands quit their jobs initially, struggling to keep up with the tyrannical chef but the ones who stuck around swear by his genius and dedication. Moreover, he’s made the very idea of a standalone restaurant of true quality in India first fathomable, then expected. But the unabridged version of his narrative was so compelling that neither photos, nor words could do his vibrancy of spirit the justice it deserved, so we put the two together to provide as all-encompassing a glimpse into the maverick chef’s life as we could manage.
Scroll on to have all your senses engaged. And we suggest you grab a bite before you do.
I. Tell us a little bit about the beginning of your relationship with food?One of my fondest memories growing up was being put to work with my brother when I was 5 and he was 7 in out bakery below the restaurant. We were too young to stay at home and it was too busy for one of my parents to stay home with us so naturally being the Chinese parents they are they simply put us to work. We would go to the restaurant with mom around 9 am and the old 60 year old baker would make a monster batch of cookie dough and bread dough and we spent the day rolling out odd fun shaped cookies. The customer became so used to it that they expected our weird shaped pastries on weekends.
Then there was Sunday ‘mom food’. Even with multiple restaurants and the weekends always being the busiest for her, she somehow managed to magically always have pots and pots of food ready for us. The simplest of congees to exotic Singapore style chili chicken to the always favourite Chinese soups.
II. Can you contextualize your food philosophy for us in a single line?Honesty & Respect to the ingredient, to the customer and to myself.
III. What about a few early Kitchen experiences that helped you solidify this philosophy?One of my first jobs in Belgium, I would head to the garden at 7 a.m. and would have to have all the herbs and vegetables needed for the day prepped and ready before Chef woke up. Then around 10 am the local hunters would bring their daily catch and I would spend the next hour or so picking buckshot out of wild pheasants, ducks, partridges and even wild boar. For every fish order we got I had to run out to our fish pond, catch the fish then butcher and cook it to order. Seeing and experiencing all the steps and care taken made me realize how important it is to stay true and respectful.
IV. How much of your food innovation is based on pure instinct and how much is based on experience/research?50/50. I make sure to spend at least an hour a day reading cookbooks, chefs blogs and even just creeping on my chef crushes’ Instagram or social media. I love to stay current and up-to-date watching what everyone else in the world is doing. From that and from daily random experiences and cravings, I turn that into my personal version or twist from instinct and what or how I think something would taste better, perhaps combined with another ingredient and flavour.
V. 3 things that constantly inspire you to keep innovating?1). Growing up watching my father build his empire from nothing. He packed his bags and with $25 USD in his pocket, he made his way to NYC to North Carolina to Toronto, Canada and opened his first of 8 restaurants to come. In order for me to consider myself to be successful I need to match and or overcome his legacy.
2). The Promise. Before my mother passed away we had a long talk, and I told her that I would be successful and that I would make her proud.
3). My peers. I have had the amazing fortune to have worked with some of the greatest most talented chefs growing up. They are by far much better chefs than I am and it pushes me to constantly get better and work harder to not disappoint them.
VI. You’ve been working in the kitchen since you were 12, changing places and innovating incessantly, would you consider yourself restless?I would not use the word restless but I definitely have a short attention span. I constantly need to be working on something or testing a new dish or prepping something. I am 100% sure I would die if you stuck me in a cubicle with a desk.
VII. One person whose culinary legacy you particularly admire and why?My father’s unending passion and love for the industry. He has been doing it for over 40 years and still studies every day: reading, watching, testing. He’s the first person in the restaurant day in and day out and he is never satisfied with anything. It comes from his attention to detail, his love for food, and his love for his craft.
VIII. Narrate your ultimate food dream to us.Every time I go home, I do a Limited seating dinner with my closest friends and we usually do a tasting menu with wines paired for every course and it turns into an epic, gluttonous event that lasts 12 hours with 15-18 courses. I would do the same with only my closest loved ones and friends, and a couple of chef crushes like Sean Brock, Daniel Patterson, David Chang, Dave Beran, with my mother and father seated at the head of the table.
Head over early (4 a.m. maybe) to the fish market and veg. market to figure out the menu, then head to my personal butcher in Toronto and grab a couple special, dry-aged cuts with a couple of lobes of foie, and some wild game.
Begin prep around 7 a.m. and have the sommelier come over to figure out the pairings and courses, he being our baker as well he would custom make a bunch of breads and pastries for the meal as well. Friends and family usually show up around 8 p.m. and we eat and drink, course by course, until sunrise the next day. What’s scary is that we actually do this quite often, minus the legends of course.
IX. You’re known for your incredible attention to detail. Tell us a few interesting details about your food at ellipsis that you think people might not notice?All the little things that go on behind the scenes.
- It takes us 3-4 hours to wash our salad greens because we change the water at least 3 times
- All proteins are re-wrapped daily in clean towels.
- All seafood is fresh from the market and that’s all we use.
- Everything we serve from sauces to bread to pastas, to even the ice-creams, are all made in-house, by hand, from scratch, daily.
- I count our dark chocolate and cookies everyday ( Mostly just so I can eat them.)
X. Considering this is hardly your first pair of Nike Air Max, how do you think this iconic sneaker has evolved?Honestly, I buy a pair of maxes every year almost and have loved them since I was a teenager. I just love how they get more and more comfortable and lighter every year.
XI. You’ve dabbled in almost all types, but what’s your true comfort cuisine?Has to be the food I grew up with, so classic Cantonese cuisine. I love cooking it, I love eating it, I love serving it.
XII. What are some of the qualities that set apart a good chef from a great one?True passion and true love. Stubbornness in the pursuit of perfection.
XIII. And finally, in your opinion, what’s the most powerful thing food can communicate to a person?Love. There’s nothing like pouring yourself completely into cooking a dish even if it’s a bowl of soup for a loved one or a complete stranger.
A. Who, according to you is the most exciting person in the culinary world today?Sean brock. He is essentially bringing back what food used to be, a preservation and conservation of seeds, and proper grains and vegetables. Back from the science and molecular, to good, simple delicious food.
B. If you had to feed an alien one dish to show what humans eat, what would you feed it?Double Double burger, animal style.
C. The last thing that really moved you?Seeing my old man laugh and play with my nephew and niece.
D. What really excites you these days?Simple things. Every time a new dish or new idea works, even if it’s something as simple as a pickle or kimchi.
E. One dish at ellipsis you’d recommend most highly?Double double burger animal style with poutine.
F. Two cuisines that fuse well together in your opinion?French and Chinese.
G. India’s best local ingredient.This changes every time I find a new local ingredient. For the last week or so, it was bhindi because it’s so versatile and so underused and under-appreciated. At the moment, I also have this crazy old village red rice that is unpolished, and has the craziest flavour and texture.