Interview| The Art of Dim Sum with Lester Fong

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Friday, April 08, 2016 

under Food by Quintana Hoyne

If a server slacks under Lester’s watch, they are sure to expect a scolding at 12pm. “An hour before the busiest lunch hour, you know what I mean?” As Lester confided in me, “Just long enough for them to recover.”


Over 16 years, he has devoted his daytime to Imperial Treasure’s F&B empire in Singapore and now in Shanghai, and his nights to hunting down rare ingredients. Just kidding. The thing is, not a lot of people nowadays even stick with one job for longer than five years, which makes 50-year-old Lester Fong a rare find. He can spot a bad pork bun eater (did you know they exist?) from across the room and won’t be able to control a burning urge to correct him. So I sat down with Lester to let him take it away, and show me the way of proper dim-sum fine-dining…

EnjoyShanghai: What are some interesting things you’ve noticed about non-Cantonese ordering dim sums?


Lester Fong: They always ask for chili and sweet sauce for pairings, or soya sauce. DIY, very inventive. But there is always a right sauce that gets served together with each dim sum dish, a traditional recipe from Hong Kong meant to best elevate the taste. For example, Lea and Perrin sauce is for deep-fried shrimp bean curd rolls. Sweet and sour sauce is for fried wontons.


And also, I noticed that they like to order more fried stuff than steamed. Which… I have no comment.


ES: What tips do you have for expats trying to pick up dim sum fine-dining?


Lester: How to develop a food passion? That is essentially what you are asking.


For expats, they cannot be hesitant to try anything that does not look like rolls or buns. How do you overcome this great mental barrier between you and phoenix claws, a.k.a chicken feet? Courage. Courage and experimentation, my dear.


Think, how did you hear that Imperial Treasure has the best creamy custard buns and how did you find me? Through trying, isn’t it? You eat with consistency, you eat with variety, and you eat at as many different places as possible. I do recommend for all expats to try all the Cantonese restaurants in Shanghai and make their own comparisons.


Sooner, rather than later, you should try phoenix claws [a.k.a. chicken feet], pig tripes, and ox tripes, odder ones like these. A diner’s attitude should be adventurous. Make yourself in love with the food. When you can claim to be an expert, there may be the price; you’ll probably be on a diet just like me.


ES: I sense that you disapprove of fried dim sums, but they are so tempting. Is there a way to eat healthy at a dim sum restaurant?


Lester: Remember dim sums come in groups of four or three, tiny in size and meant to be shared. You have options, between the hundreds of steamed, fried, and stewed varieties. I am only naming three out of literally hundreds of cooking techniques involved here.


Like custard buns, for example, are steamed and taste fantastic, but they are significantly “healthier” than radish cakes, which are pan-fried. Puff pastries are of course the oiliest, even though BBQ pork just tastes better in a puff pastry than in a bun. So you see, you will always win some and lose some, so take your picks. It’s like deciding how much water you drink per day, all in your control at the end of the day.


ES: Dim sums are certainly what Imperial Treasure’s first location on the Bund is known for. So why not continue to expand this custard bun dynasty? Why feature Peking Duck at the second location in Hongqiao?


Lester: For a man with food passion and the know-how in food’s taste and the F&B industry, there is no limiting yourself to one thing. I’m talking about our CEO and founder Mr. Leung, and his vision.


When he opened up the first Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck Restaurant in 2008, which was in a very posh area on [Singapore's] Orchard Road, many people were dubious, just like you. They didn’t think Mr. Leung should have ventured into a thing that was not abalone-y and shark’s fin-y, not Hong Kong, where he is from. But nine months in, critics were comparing our Peking Duck with famous old ones in Beijing, giving good comments.


Mr. Leung only revealed years later that, for five years before opening, he would consistently fly to Beijing every three months to research. He learned every famous duck restaurant’s methods and tastes, and he didn’t tell anybody. He is a very humble man who believed in shí lì (实力), real power backed up by hard work and an understanding of what the food is and should be. Whether on the Bund, or in Super Peking Duck, or in Nan Bei, even in our bakery Treasures — everything is a treasure. But I digress…


What I meant to say is we will prove it to you with our shí lì, with the taste of our Peking Duck.


ES: Are there changes to be expected from signature dim sums made at Super Peking Duck Restaurant then?


Lester: Dim sums are old recipes with history. You don’t change dim sums.


ES: Dim sums change you?


Lester: Yes. And how good dim sum comes out depends half on the chef, half on the recipe. Recipes are best kept unchanged, with respect to what our ancestors have found out to taste best. And as to chefs, dim sum masters here all come from Hong Kong and are put under 6 months of training, just so they can perform the recipes well. That is what makes a good dim sum.


Imperial Treasure/Yù Bǎo Xuān (御宝轩) Hongqiao branch is at 3/F, 688 Shenchang Road