The many faces of Chinese cuisine — be it traditional, regional, Westernised or fusion — have evolved gradually over the centuries, and they continue to do so today with a recent wave of new-generation chefs that take it to the next level. At Chinese fine-dining restaurant Yi, which sits impressively on the 21st floor of Morpheus in Macau, Executive Chef Wilson Fam and Chef de Cuisine Angelo Wong are doing exactly that. Offering guests an elevated dining experience, Yi has a daily-changing chef’s menu that blends traditional and regional Chinese cuisines with modern techniques and creative flair. We caught up with the dynamic chef duo to discuss their ever-changing dishes, the future of Chinese cuisine and how they got there in the first place.
What’s behind the name Yi?
Wilson Fam (WF): Yi is named after the book Yi Jing [otherwise known as the Book of Changes, which is considered one of the most important ancient Chinese books ever written and a source for both Confucianist and Taoist philosophy]. It considers many things, including the balance of well-being, so we try to bring that into our food and cooking too. It also translates to other aspects in the restaurant. For example, when you dine in, there are tea and wine pairings; it’s a balance of all flavours.
What do you think is happening with Chinese cuisine today?
WF: There are a lot of chefs out there doing different contemporary versions of Chinese cuisine. They’ll include Western, French or even Japanese elements, to Chinese food. But this can become too fusion — or as I say — confusion.
Angelo Wong (AW): We focus on the traditional, but present it in a modern way. We might be inspired by other cuisines, and use French cooking methods like the sous vide machine. But this is because technology is better now and we can produce our food in different ways.
Do you think it’s important to keep these traditions?
WF: In Chinese cuisine there are a lot of [cooking] methods that cannot be replaced. For example, the wok. You cannot replace this technique with anything else. It takes a long time to perfect — to handle and understand the wok. In a traditional Chinese kitchen you’ll have the ‘end wok’ and the ‘head wok’. The end wok needs at least 5 years experience to master it at a basic level, while the head work needs almost 20 years. That’s almost a lifetime of experience. It requires time, technique, speed and strength. So we can’t lose these traditions. Nowadays, in my personal opinion, the new generation of chefs aren’t willing to spend the time to learn that.
What are the challenges with producing the daily-changing chef menus?
WF: It’s probably the continuous picking of high-quality ingredients — it has to be the best. But also the mixing and matching of ingredients. Because we’re trying to think outside the box, it can’t simply be fried chicken [for example]. It needs to be more.
Are there any advantages of daily tasting menus?
AW: It gives us flexibility. If one day we don’t have the best ingredients for this particular dish, then we can change it and still produce something good. If you’re set on one dish, but the ingredients aren’t good that day, then what you produce isn’t going to be good either.
How do you develop your dishes?
WF: We go to the market in the morning to source ingredients. We search for different ones because sometimes you can’t find all the best produce, so we need to go to a few. When we find it, we have to think about what we’re going to do with it on the spot — how we’re going to cook it, what it will look like on the plate — before we buy it. Then we go back to the kitchen and start to plan and write the menus; we design the dish and consider all the flavours, then train the chefs and brief the team on these dishes and the sequence. Finally, we do our service. We start all over again the next day.
AW: We base all our dishes on the traditional methods that we know. Because at the end of the day, when a dish needs wok hei [the smoky and charred aroma only achieved by using a wok], we will cook with wok hei. If something needs to be scorched, then we will scorch it. We will keep using these techniques to cook. But we are always experimenting and fine tuning to achieve the best possible result.
How about the regional specialties?
AW: It’s usually based on our own experiences. We haven’t been everywhere, but we’ve tried a lot of different foods. So we choose things that have been memorable for us. It’s hard to find a dish that is memorable these days.
WF: The team is mixed. We have a Sichuan chef, Shanghainese chef, Hunan chef . . . There’s an expert for every cuisine. So we can try different techniques and styles. It’s also a good mix of Western and Chinese skills. We’re a young team of like-minded people. So it works.
Do you have any favourite dishes?
WF: The lemongrass pigeon. It’s based on my home [food]. I’m Malaysian and our cuisine has a lot of spices and herbs, and this inspired me. So when we were preparing for the opening, I was thinking that every Chinese restaurant has pigeon but we need to make ours different. I think we experimented more than 100 times; even on the day we opened, we still didn’t confirm the recipe.
AW: Hot and sour soup. That’s my creation. It’s a little bit different, as we use lemon for sourness. Hot and sour soup seems like a very simple dish, but the taste isn’t simple. It’s complex and it can really excite the tastebuds. I’m trying to create memories. At other Chinese restaurants, they’ll have a number of different soups to try, but the guests will remember the hot and sour soup.
Why and how did you get into cooking?
WF: I never thought I would become a chef. I actually wanted to become a graphic designer, but the school fees were too high. I looked up a few colleges, but we couldn’t afford it. Then, I looked opposite the road and saw a culinary school. I was 14 years old back then, so I was just playing around and my first certificate was a D [grade]. The only reason I got serious was when I realised how stupid I was. I opened the books and didn’t understand the words — I didn’t even know what an onion was [laughs]. So I learnt English with one of those digital dictionaries — you can type a word in and it will sound it out. That’s how I learnt to speak English. From a D, I finally got an A when I graduated.
I also tried to get experience during college. I’d go to Michelin-starred restaurants after school, and even hot pot restaurants and hawker centres. I went in to learn, because my mum taught me that everything you learn is a treasure. It might not help you right now, but it might help you in the future. I owe a lot to my mum.
AW: My family and my mum influenced me when I was younger. I also watched cartoons, seriously, about cooking which had some influence too! Growing up, every Chinese New Year, we would all cook together to feed about 30 plus people — so that definitely influenced me.
As new-generation Chinese chefs, what is the biggest challenge that you face?
WF: The biggest challenge is getting people to accept you. The people who have eaten at our restaurant, most of them do [accept us and our food]. But those who haven’t — probably not. A lot of our guests are from an older generation — real traditionalists — and when they first come in, they wonder what kind of dish this is. But once they’ve tasted it, they’re like “aah”, and they get it. It’s interesting for them and they change their minds.
Any future goals?
AW: What Chinese chefs were doing 20 or 30 years ago has become traditional for us, that’s what’s familiar. What we’re hoping to do is create a cuisine that, 20 years from now, will become the traditional Chinese food of the future.
WF: Other than that, we’re obviously pushing for more accolades — Michelin stars, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. This will help us spread the word, I think. It will allow people, especially ones who seek out good food, to understand us and our cuisine.
Yi, Level 21, Morpheus, Estrada do Istmo, Cotai, Macau; +853 8868 3446