Chef of the Week: Leon Lewis, MasterChef Contestant & Cook with Leon in Swansea
How long have you worked at your current restaurant?
I currently cater for private dinning and one off events and kitchen take overs. I have been doing this for a round a year so far since my episodes of MasterChef aired on TV.
Where did your passion for cooking come from and where did you learn your skills?
My passion for cooking came from my parents and family, being Asian every family event always involved food and lots of it! My parents owned a takeaway and I often helped my father in the takeaway and watching the way he cooked and the passion he put into every dish really got me excited about food. I am totally self-taught and spend most my spare time watching all kinds of cooking programmes and reading cooking books.
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
The most enjoyable part of being a chef is the joy on the faces of your customers, friends and family, knowing that you have made someone happy with what you have created is the best thing for me.
Name three ingredients you couldn’t cook without.
Wow how do I pick only three ingredients?! If I had to then garlic, I love garlic, chillies to keep things spicy and ginger. Simply the flavour and aroma you get from the combination of these three together is amazing and they are so versatile.
Which piece of kitchen equipment couldn’t you live without?
The one piece of equipment I couldn’t live without would be my wok, again for its versatility and size you can do almost anything in a wok.
What food trends are you spotting at the moment?
Recently due to social media there are more food trends than ever before. I am seeing trends about plant based food and street food is also very big right now, but the most important trend right now would be zero waste. It’s important we all learn to do more with the ingredients we have and do what we can to lower our impact on the planet.
What do you think is a common mistake that lets chefs down?
The most common mistake chefs make is when you try to overcomplicate a dish or recipe and try to be too inventive, sometimes the simplest dishes done well are the best.
What is your favourite time of year for food, and why?
I favourite time of year for food is summer. Not only do we get the best of fruit and vegetables like strawberries, cherries, aubergines, tomatoes, carrots and courgettes you can eat them in the sun and get that BBQ going.
Which of your dishes are you most proud of?
I am usually proud of most of my dishes but the dish that I have had the best feedback from recently has been the duck starter I created for my most recent event, and I also used it in a Chefs’ Forum masterclass at Gower College. The dish is a take on classic duck pancake rolls from a takeaway but elevated to a restaurant dish. The duck is cooked in a water bath with all the Asian spices then pan fried for that crispy texture, with a spiced plum sauce on a bed of pak choi, spring onion and cucumber garnish.
How do you come up with new dishes?
Usually when my wife says this is all we got in the fridge so make something. On a serious note my style is to incorporate Asian flavours into more classic dishes or turn a humble Asian dish and elevate it. When I am creating new dishes I play around with different flavour combinations and add similar flavourings from more exotic parts of the world, the simplest way to explain this would be a salted caramel, to put an Asian twist on the classic salted caramel we replace the salt with something like miso paste or soy sauce. Replacing the standard salt with an alternative that will change the dish but still be recognisable as a salted caramel.
Who was your greatest influence?
From a young age my greatest influence was my dad, he introduced me to food and a work ethic that would be hard to understand unless you saw. He worked tirelessly 6 days a week but would always find time to show me how he made his food and talk about the art of cooking.
Tell us three chefs you admire.
Questions like this I find it impossible to choose as there are so many chefs I have watched and read about. Referring back to being self-taught I think back to inspirations and some of the first chefs I ever saw on TV that caught my imagination. I would watch amazing chefs on TV like Keith Floyd, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Tom Kerridge but one that stands out for me from a young age is Ken Hom being one of the first to demonstrate Chinese cooking on mainstream BBC TV he quickly became my hero.
What is your favourite cookbook?
The one book that stands out is Ken Hom’s East Meets West book this book was the first book I ever saw that had any kind of fusion style and again from the great man Ken Hom. I was always going to lean towards one of his books.
Who do you think are the chefs to watch over the next few months?
How do I keep the answer to this question short?! There are many many chefs out there at the moment doing amazing things but a few that stand out to me and I really want to publicly praise for what they do in different ways. I think Simon Wood is definitely a chef people should keep an eye on, some of the dishes he created have been amazing and he is sure to get a Michelin star. Big mentions also to Budgie Montoya, I know Great British Menu was disappointing for him but he is amazing and also in the same vein is Rex De Guzman the food they create and the messages and values they stand for are amazing, and simply for the Chinese fusion food big mentions to Shirly Chung.
What’s been your favourite new restaurant opening of the last year?
My favourite restaurant opening recently has to be a small independent Chinese restaurant that only seats a max of 20 people a family run business that again sticks to making the simple things amazing, its Chinese/Cantonise food done really well, it’s called Chinese Deli, I would eat there everyday if I could. There are many places like the China Deli all around the UK, I would really encourage people to go in search of them not only to taste authentic Chinese cooking at its best but help the little guys out there trying to make a living in these difficult times.