Menex Cheung on The Allure of Off-Menu Dishes
A veteran of the culinary industry, Hong Kong native Menex Cheung has spent much of his career cooking at some of the most prestigious kitchens across mainland China, from the Shangri-La Huhhot in Inner Mongolia, to Beijing's Waldorf Astoria and China World Summit Wing. There, while cooking for the political and business aristocracy of China, he was steeped in a myriad of complex dining traditions, where the importance of giving face to the host is on par with the quality of the food.
One of these traditions—the practise of ordering off-menu—is one that he has brought back with him to his current role at China Tang Landmark, where he has spent the past two years. Having debuted his new tasting menu towards the end of last year that gives his favourite off-menu dishes their time in the spotlight, Cheung spoke to Tatler Dining on the motivation behind doing so, what his proudest culinary creation is, and recent pandemic moments that have left him clueless in the kitchen.
Where did you find inspiration for all your off-menu dishes?
It’s a compilation of my off-menu dishes. At the end of the year, we plan to change the menu, adding a lot of popular off-menu dishes, but before that we wanted to test out which of these dishes are the best received by our guests, so this tasting menu is like the precursor to the menu change.
Why are there so many off-menu dishes to begin with?
When I first started at China Tang two years ago, I got reacquainted with old friends so I got them to taste-test my new dishes. Sooner or later, they began coming to me with strange requests. Some knew I had worked in the mainland, so they asked for specific dishes. At the beginning, the off-menu was really just for good friends and regulars, but now with Instagram and Facebook, they’ll get shared to the point that guests that I don’t personally know will call to ask about them.
What are the challenges of creating them?
The first step is ideating them. Sometimes you’ll have an idea for a dish, but normally you’ll find that your abilities aren’t enough to realise that concept. For example, I’ll have a perfect vision of what I want to make, but when I actually make it, it turns out differently.
The next obstacle are the guests. Say I made something and invited you to try it, you think it’s delicious and share it online, and maybe your friends or my friends will see it, then they’ll come and suddenly order it without my having prepped anything. If they aren’t my friend, then they’re often friends of friends. They’ve made the effort to come to China Tang, so the worst part is making them feel like they’ve come for nothing. I feel like I’ve inconvenienced them.
By putting all the off-menu dishes onto the new menu, I can reduce these pain points—if a guest wants to order it, they don’t have to plan in advance, and I’ve factored everything in and am able to prepare it immediately. It’s a response to the demands of my friends in a way.
What are the weirdest off-menu requests you’ve received?
I won’t call them weird, just unique. I’ve had guests who ordered eight courses of noodles and rice. I looked at the order and thought, how can you possibly eat all this? There aren’t even any soups, appetisers or mains in there. In the end, their whole table was just rice!
I don’t like rules; I like to break things down and recompose them [into something new]. In a classic dish like crispy fried chicken, I follow the traditional way of breaking down the chicken first, then seeing where I can add my own touches to the cooking process. For example, instead of using regular oil to fry the chicken, I’ll use chilli oil. It’s about creating something new while staying within the boundaries of the cuisine.
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You spent the majority of your career cooking in the mainland. What are some things you’ve had to adjust to coming back to Hong Kong?
Some mainland guests might come having heard about my time working in China, and they might have some requests for mainland dishes. But there are some situations where Hong Kong doesn’t have the same ingredients as on the mainland—so when I’m not around the restaurant, my team might not necessarily be able to cater to them.
Let’s take Sichuanese food for example: after I joined, it’s become much more popular at China Tang. It’s not that my Sichuanese cooking is much more delicious, but because I have a heavier hand with the seasoning so it’s considered more authentic. It’s the same with Thai cuisine and the like—they’ll adjust it to the palate of locals, but I won’t when I’m cooking. So mainland guests will think my style of cuisine is more authentic. Now all the chefs in my kitchen have now been trained to handle spice!
Other challenges include outside catering. During the pandemic, when I was asked to cook at clients’ homes, I would encounter home kitchen equipment that I’ve never seen before, despite working for many years as a chef. I couldn’t imagine that even at my age and level of experience, there would be a microwave that I didn’t know how to use. Now there’s not a single kitchen appliance on the market that I don’t know how to operate!
You also helmed the kitchen of the Shangri-La Hotel in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Have you cooked Mongolian cuisine since you returned?
I cook it much less. After coming back, I’ve only cooked Inner Mongolian dishes two or three times. Even if you use some very nice Australian or New Zealand lamb, it’s totally different. If you go to Inner Mongolia and stay at a very nice hotel (Shangri-La is considered the best) the lamb you’ll eat there will be much better than in Hong Kong. But if you go to their local hotels, it’ll be even better. And if you go into the grasslands, it’s another matter entirely.
Why are local hotels better than the Shangri-La? Because the hygiene standards aren’t as good, so they can buy lamb directly from herders from the grasslands—only those are the best. In contrast, the lamb that Shangri-La buys has been sitting in a cold room for a while [because of hygiene standards] before they cook it. In Hong Kong, most people don’t like the gamey flavour of lamb. In Inner Mongolia, they cook lamb simply by simply boiling it, because the quality is that good.
Do you have any favourite off-menu dishes in your repertoire?
From the tasting menu, my favourite is The Bomb. I came up with it many years ago when I was still a junior in the kitchen, to experiment and play around with. The first version was just a ball of rice which I fried. After working in different places like Beijing, Shanghai and Inner Mongolia, my technique has definitely improved. It changed a lot even after I came back to Hong Kong.
If I remember correctly, I was just using some very normal pork belly mixed with breadcrumbs. After coming back to Hong Kong I came across many ingredients— even though there are some items that you won’t find here, as a whole there’s much more variety [than in China]. These days, The Bomb uses Hokkaido pork, and the breadcrumbs are even finer and crispier; it’s a dish that’s a witness to my development as a chef.
I really love the name, too. When I was small, there weren’t any smartphones with cameras, so I’ve always wondered: how do I make a guest order this dish? The answer is, the name has to be great. Not every dish can be like this, but I have one or two dishes can be prepared tableside while interacting with the guest to create a connection. It’s an experience, and not merely a dish.
A lot of guests who come for the tasting menu come just for you, which might not be the case for the a la carte menu. So when I’m taking care of these guests, I really have to put a lot of thought into making their meal special.