This Chef Started His Life's Work When He Was 14
It was a rainy afternoon at Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, as guests waited to be served the traditional Chinese lauriat, which was to be prepared by the hotel's newly-appointed chef, Chua Kau Eng.
Also known as Chef Eddie, Chua enters the room and greets his guests warmly, entertaining questions about the Chinese lauriat menu that he has created, while sharing snippets of his extensive culinary experience of more than 35 years. "I started as early as 14 years old. I learned to love cooking because I used to assist my mom when she cooked at home," he shares. Chua hails from Malaysia, where his family currently resides.
He recalls, "We didn't have culinary schools in our generation. And even if we did, the family wouldn't be able to afford it." Instead, the young chef-to-be chose to learn the craft by traveling the world and immersing himself in different cultures.
“I started by working as an apprentice at a restaurant,” he recalls. Chua became assistant Chinese chef at the Shangri-La Hotel Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, and soon rose through the ranks to become executive Chinese chef. “After that, I went to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Dubai, Russia, London, the Middle East…” he reveals, trailing off with a smile.
“It’s because I like to challenge myself!” he adds, “I like to really know and learn about the culture of the places I’m in.” Hotel contracts usually span for two years, and even when the hotel decides on a renewal, Chua would choose not to. “I will move on to another country.”
He believes his experiences from his travels and global exposure give him the edge among his other contemporaries. In fact, before signing with Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, Chua was working at the Sokha Siem Reap Resort and Convention Center in Cambodia. He has also previously worked in Cebu as the executive Chinese chef at the Shangri-La Mactan Resort & Spa.
Whether or not he will stay longer than usual in the Philippines is for him to find out. “Right now, my family is still in Malaysia. So I have no definite plans—I plan to be open to what can happen,” he says with a chuckle.
Meanwhile, Chua talks about the Chinese lauriat he has curated for Spiral. “The menu is very good because there isn’t much meat—only beef.” He points out that because family celebrations would usually involve the elderly members, he wants the food to be good for them.
The feast begins with the Five Happiness Combination Platter, which is Chua’s own creation. It features a bevy of appetizers from all over Asia: octopus and jellyfish from Korean cuisine, shrimp and wasabi from the Japanese, pork knuckles from China, the eggplant from Hong Kong, and beef with sesame from Malaysia.
“It is not the usual Asian platter,” says Chef Eddie, adding that in other hotels, the first plate is usually asado or chicken, a cold cuts platter. “But I didn’t want to go old-style.”
The Double Boiled Chicken Soup with Sea Treasures is served next. It was perfect to have in the rainy weather.
Next is the Wok Fried Tiger Prawn with Honey Pepper Sauce, which was tender and had just the exact amount of flavor. Everyone at the table all reached out for a second serving.
The traditional Chinese Steamed Lapu-Lapu in Hong Kong Style is another favorite. One doesn’t really expect much flavor from a fish plate, yet this one was bursting with it.
Up next was the Pan- Grilled Fresh Scallop in Szcheuan Peppercorn Sauce. Chua notes that while he intentionally loaded up on the seafood for his Chinese lauriat menu, diners can opt to exchange certain dishes to include more meat, and he will gladly alter it upon request.
The Wok Fried Mini Chinese Beef Steak is tender and soft and reveals a balance of flavors. “Filipinos like Chinese food, but they don’t like spicy flavors. The dish must also be a little sweet,” observes Chua.
Served next is the Braised Assorted Mushroom with Squid Paste and Broccoli. All the dishes are prepared in traditional Chinese fashion and the menu would be approriate for ting huns, weddings, birthday parties, or any important occasion that would merit a feast.
The eighth dish is the Lotus-Leaf Wrapped Fried Rice with Taro Pumpkin, Pine Nuts and Chicken.
We are told that rice is intentionally served last for one to be able to savor and enjoy the more important dishes first. In Chinese tradition, guests shouldn’t be allowed to leave the table if they aren’t full yet, and the rice is supposed to fill you up in case you’re still hungry.
And last but not least, the Deluxe Fruit Platter is served.