Are you curious to know the favourite Cantonese dish of Thailand’s royal family? Essential spoke to the new chef of Cantonese fine-dining restaurant Lai Heen, Jackie Ho
Born in Hong Kong, Jackie Ho Hong-sing’s relationship with cooking began when he was just 12 years old. At that time, working in restaurants was a popular job and young Jackie found a position in a traditional Cantonese teahouse in Sheung Shui, selling dim sum. While working there, Jackie really admired the chefs in the kitchen: “I thought they were very impressive so I asked the chef to teach me and I became the apprentice at that restaurant,” he recalls. After a few years’ training, Jackie left the teahouse and started his journey from the Hong Kong city centre to Guangzhou, Beijing, England, Thailand and now Macau, at the Michelin-starred restaurant Lai Heen.
With over 40 years of experience in Cantonese fine dining, chef Jackie works almost as an ambassador of this cuisine, sharing the delicious taste of Canton with guests from all over the world. “Working in Europe, in addition to Cantonese cuisine, we also had to cook Beijing duck and hot and sour soup – the kind of dishes European prefer,” said Jackie.
Although the chef has travelled across many different cities, he still has great affection for Asia. He spent over a decade in Thailand and this experience still shines through his dishes today. “During the outbreak of SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], it was hard to find a job in Hong Kong. At that time, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok was looking for a chef, so I moved to Thailand.”
Chef Jackie is highly proficient in the preparation of seafood and bringing Southeast Asian touches to classic Chinese dishes with a modern twist, infusing them with exciting flavours and stunning presentations that promise to elevate the dining experience. “In Thailand, I still cooked using traditional Cantonese techniques, but I adjusted the recipes with some local ingredient and seasonings,” he said. “I think it’s important to keep up with the times, which is why I also learned how to present the dishes in a modern way.”
And because good wine needs no bush, during his time in Thailand, even the royal family was the loyal guest of chef Jackie. “We used to cook for them in the palace and they also came to our restaurant,” he revealed. The chef’s signature deep-fried fish fillet with crispy garlic was one of the royal family’s favourite dishes. “They loved seafood,” he says. “I cooked the fish with a very thin batter, to ensure the outside was very crispy, while still keeping the fish inside very moist and tender. The seasonings, such as the crispy garlic, added a savoury and spicy touch. They enjoyed it very much.”
The return of the prodigal son
Jackie Ho returned to China this year and became the new chef at the Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Lai Heen, at Ritz Carlton Macau. The chef brings decades of expertise to the table for patrons seeking an exceptional service that redefines the boundaries of Cantonese dining. Lai Heen has also launched a new menu featuring some of his signature dishes to satisfy the most sophisticated palates – even those of Thai royalty – and take a sumptuous dining experience to a superior level.
Chef Jackie’s philosophy is continuous innovation – looking at the local culture, he created an array of new dishes for Lai Heen: a casserole of stewed prawns with Port wine sauce is a highlight of the menu. Whereas this dish traditionally features oysters, the chef has given it a fresh new twist by substituting them with Vietnam prawns and adding a dash of sweet Portuguese wine in honour of Macau. “You can see the Portuguese and Chinese cultures coming together in Macau. I think it’s a very interesting place to work.”
Jacki Ho has also refined his signature deep-fried fish dish, which undoubtedly reflects his innovation as well as his expertise with fresh seafood. The inspiration behind this dish is Hong Kong-style crab fried with crispy garlic, but instead the chef prepares it with cod fish – an essential ingredient in both Macanese and Portuguese gastronomy – sourcing French cod in particular for an even smoother texture and richer flavour.
Top-quality ingredients such as Bird’s Nest, abalone and lobster can be also found in the menu. “I will update the menu with some seasonal food. For example, I plan on cooking a white gourd and boletus soup, which is very suitable for guests to drink in the summer.”
Chef Jackie Ho’s arrival at Lai Heen signals an extraordinary opportunity for food lovers to enjoy a distinctive new approach to Cantonese cuisine, one that combines the best of classic cooking with creative new methods and influences.