It looks deceivingly simple, the guo zha. A golden-brown, diamond-shaped nugget with telltale curls of crisp batter around its edges, this is no ordinary dish but one that is testament to the level of technical difficulty required to master it. The outside is light and shatteringly crisp, quickly yielding to a soft, creamy centre that dissolves upon the palate, releasing waves of the rich, earthy, savoury notes of Matsutake mushroom. It’s a dish that chef Wong Wing-Keung, a disciple of the great chef Theresa Yiu—better known by her deferential moniker Dashijie—has sought to master for years under her tutelage. Everything must be in fine balance, Wong says, from the thickness of the batter to the consistency of the mushroom custard mixture, the quantity and the temperature of the oil. “Making it is only possible if every step is carefully done. Too hot, and the guo zha dissolves immediately into the oil,” he explains. “Too cold, and the batter will fail to crisp up.”
To walk this tightrope is something ingrained from decades of fine-tuning his craft, says Wong, the executive Chinese chef of Man Wah at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. He references a Chinese saying that a chef is a novice for the first ten years—“I can finally say that I am no longer a novice,” he smiles. “Being a Chinese chef is simple,” he continues, somewhat enigmatically. “All it takes is hard work day in, day out—and you’ll already be halfway on the road to success.” To this veteran chef (Wong has been working in kitchens since he was young), the process of learning is never-ending, and the fact that he is in a position to spotlight the myriad complexities of Cantonese cuisine at one of Hong Kong’s most iconic hotels is a torch he will fight to carry for the rest of his career. Having worked with the group for more than ten years—he first joined Man Wah in 2011 before leading the kitchens at Yat Tung Heen in the now-closed Excelsior Hotel—Wong has slipped into the role of champion for traditional Cantonese cuisine for a new era. With the extensive renovation of the Mandarin Oriental’s flagship Chinese restaurant, comes also new opportunities for reimagining the trajectory of Chinese gastronomy for years to come, as the master chef returns to an entirely new restaurant.