Written by Melanie May
Hong Kong-born, Ireland raised, French-trained, Chef Kwanghi Chan’s recipes brim with multi-cultural influences. He is on a mission to spice up kitchens across Ireland with his range of ChanChan Asian spices and condiments and to tickle tastebuds in his restaurant, Bowls by Kwanghi Chan.
From working in his uncle’s Chinese takeaway in Donegal, Kwanghi Chan worked up through the ranks in kitchens across Ireland and beyond eventually becoming Head Chef at one Michelin-star House Restaurant in the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford before taking on the role of Culinary Director of Soder+Ko in Dublin.
Now, he has his own restaurant, Bowls by Kwanghi Chan on Marlborough Street and his own range of spices and condiments called ChanChan, which can be found in many Irish kitchens, and you’ll find Kwanghi Chan in many Irish living rooms too as he is a regular on the Six O’Clock Show on Virgin Media One.
You can also check our our Modern Asian Cooking YouTube series with Kwanghi here.
What a work ethic!
We were lucky to nab a minute with the busy chef to chat to him about his career, ChanChan, Bowls and everything in between.
Let’s start at the beginning. Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking?
I always had an interest in art. After my Leaving Cert, I had a choice of going into art design or cooking. I went with cooking as I was helping out at my uncle’s restaurant. I think I would have had an interest in anything in the creative space.
Do you think being a great cook is a natural talent, or is it something anyone can learn?
I think it’s both. You need to have talent, and then lots and lots of learning and practice over the years. Learning your craft is a long road and a tough one but the passion for the craft will get you through the hard times.
Which chefs have had the most influence on you?
Oh there are a lot of people over my career that have influenced me and when you talk about influence I don’t see it just as food, I have been influenced in work ethic, the business mindset, building teams – Fergal O’Donnell, Derry Clark, Ross Lewis, Aiden Byrne, Martijn Kajuiter and Adrian Bartels.
What do you think makes a dish delicious?
With the right ingredients, method and time, also knowledge of basic cookery, you can cook anything delicious! Or just buy ChanChan products! Lol.
Speaking of which…
At what point along the way did you decide to bring out your own range of sauces and seasonings?
I had this idea since 2015 that I wanted to create something for retail. There were a lot of mistakes made over the years and it was a big learning curve meeting with distribution companies to get my products stocked as the retail space is so competitive, but now, we have 10 products in our ChanChan range.
Tell us a bit about the flavour profiles of the sauces and seasoning and a bit about black garlic.
We are one of the biggest producers of black garlic in Ireland as we supply three companies. We sell to high-end restaurants, to large wholesale companies and to fine food distribution companies. We get our garlic from Spain and France as no one growing garlic in Ireland could supply us, consistently, with the amount we go through. The black garlic has a balsamic and roasted flavour to it and is full of umami. It goes perfectly as a base for a good dressing or a marinade.
What is your favourite way of using your sauces at home?
I designed the sauces to be used as another Asian condiment. You can add them to anything and be creative with it when you cook. I love using the street sauces as marinades, in stir-fries, as dressings, or just on its own with burgers. The spice bag seasonings you can use instead of salt during the cooking process.
Any tips for our readers on getting the most out of the ChanChan product range?
What I say is be creative with it. The products can be used in combination with each other. I have some recipe ideas on my Instagram stories and I also cook with them on the Six O’Clock show on Virgin Media One.
Kwanghi Chan regularly cooks up a storm on the TV show.
Are you comfortable on TV? You seem like a natural.
Yes, I have been doing live TV for over five years now with the Six O’Clock Show and I love it. The people I work with are great. They make it easy for me. I have gotten more confident over the years of doing it, but yes, I still have that nervous feeling every time I go live hoping that the dish is ready in six minutes.
Your recipes are so full of flavour. What is your creative process for new dishes and recipes?
I reference my flavour profile from my past and present, from my travels and with the knowledge gained over the years to create recipes and come up with ideas.
What ingredients are inspiring your cooking right now?
Our black garlic chilli oil “rayu” products that have just launched. They are very good. It is very close to the best Chinese chilli oil on the market, “lao gan ma” but we have put black garlic through it, for a natural Umami flavour rather than MSG as some other products use.
Tell us about how your cooking evolved over the years.
I have gone back to my roots over the last five years in a big way and I love it. I think it is the best thing that has happened to me – creating your own identity. I think in the next five years I will have something totally different, a move towards different concepts of modern Asian street food and growing the Bowls brand.
And, speaking of Bowls…
Was opening your own restaurant always a goal?
I always wanted to open a small high-end restaurant after my time in the Michelin star kitchens, but after having our first child my perspective changed and I wanted to put more of my time into my family. So, I started creating something with my own identity and stamp on more casual Asian food.
Why do you choose to open Bowls where you did and when you did?
I had an opportunity to open up in the Chinatown area in Dublin on Marlborough Street. I wanted to create something totally different and something that you would not usually get with modern Asian cuisine. There are similar dining concepts to Bowls in America and Canada, but I wanted Bowls to be different; healthier, using local suppliers and ingredients.
And why rice and noodle bowls?
I’ve travelled to Hong Kong and Macau quite a bit every year for the last three years promoting Irish food with Bord Bia and the Irish Consulate. Over there, rice and noodles are the stable, casual, assessable food for all demographics and has been for centuries. So, it’s a good place to start.
When you go back to Hong Kong, what is your favourite thing to eat?
I love Hong Kong street food, noodles, rice bowls, seafood markets with fresh shellfish, etc., etc. It’s just an amazing mix of food cultures in one city.
Do you have a restaurant that you go back to each time?
I go to a place that serves congee. It’s very close where my Hong Kong family lives and I go there every morning for breakfast, it brings me back to my childhood.
Is that a childhood comfort food that you think about a lot?
I love congee. It’s a Chinese rice porridge, and every home has its own version. I serve it in Bowls when we open for breakfast. It’s huge in the States with people suffering from celiacs diseaseand wheat intolerant diets.
Do you think the perception of Chinese food in Ireland has changed over the years?
I think Chinese food is changing slowly. More and more people are travelled and understand that our food is not all about curries, chicken balls, etc. But we have to change it slowly and it gets better year-on-year and I’m pushing this constantly.
Do you think it is easy to marry Chinese and Irish food cultures?
Yes, I do. The Chinese community has been here since the early 1950s, so our food culture and blueprint has been here for a long time. So, it’s easy to marry the two foods together using local ingredients, adding Chinese flavourings and mixing cooking processes and techniques.
Ok, time for some quick-fire food questions…
What’s your most memorable meal?
In Spain, Madrid has a three-star restaurant called DiverXo, it was class.
Is there a food that you hate?
I don’t hate any food. I would try anything. But I do have a hate of food snobbery. Try everything – casual, high end, street food – and respect the culture of others in the world.
Is there one food that you’re secretly obsessed with having or making at home?
I love pasta, saucy dishes and I am not Asian if I don’t have a few packs of instant noodles stashed in the cupboards somewhere. Lol.
Have you baked banana bread or sourdough during lockdown?
No, but I do like eating them. We are more of a chocolate rice crispy cakes household with the kids. Lol.
What foods are you craving the most right now?
A really spicy and hot beef noodle broth dish Szechuan style.
Which country’s cuisine do you think is underrated right now?
Mexican and South American food is going to be huge in the next few years. Delicious.
What food trends are you seeing in Ireland today, and which are you most excited by?
BBQ! Andy Noonan at Baste is doing some cracking stuff.
What would be your ideal day in food?
All staff are happy, the retail factory is running smooth, trucks are picking up pallets for our clients, the restaurant is open, no staff called in sick, supply is in, no major equipment is broken or the WiFi down that we can’t take card payments lol. This is a great day! 🙂
You have a sauce and seasoning range, you cook on TV and run your own restaurant, do you ever get a day off and if so how do you relax?
I know! A lot of people ask me this. I have a great team around me and over the years getting the right people is the most important thing you can do to build a company.
We all have the same goals, so that helps, but I still do all the admin in bed at 2am! It’s not easy, but the drive gets you through it. Family time is important so we try and take time out when we can.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I have lots of ideas to grow the brand in spaces like what we are doing in Glasthule in All Alfresco with Michael Hogan (there is a Bowl’s pop-up here), which we will be back once the restrictions are lifted. There’s a plan for a street food truck, too. But it’s hard to plan with the pandemic, so just lots of patience and planning for the next steps at the moment.