• World
  • Hong Kong

‘We’re Not Educated.’ The Untold Story of Lung King Heen, the World’s First Michelin Three-Star Chinese Restaurant

15 minute read

A three-star Michelin chef is going out for dinner. Chef Chan Yan-tak and his four work buddies push through plastic door flaps and squeeze into a fluorescent-lit, Cantonese diner in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The five middle-aged men keep their puffy winter jackets over their graphic tees to shield them from the city’s wet winter chill, but their cheeks redden as the whiskey gets flowing from the bottle kept for them on the shelf. Pictures of them hang on the wall near a bunch of plastic yellow tulips, and when another regular recognizes Chan, he comes over and greets him with a shot of rice wine.

Until Chan flashes his watch—a simple black timepiece with the goofy Michelin Man on its face—you would have no idea that this ragtag crew powers Lung King Heen, which in 2008 became the first Chinese restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars.

“A gift,” the 67-year-old executive chef says with his chest puffed out, mimicking the Michelin Man. “They don’t make them anymore.”

The Michelin Guide gave the watch to Chan when it bestowed haute cuisine’s ultimate accolade on his restaurant. Located on the fourth floor of the Four Seasons Hong Kong, it has held onto those stars tightly now for a decade.

By day, these guys polish the plaque—stoking the BBQ pit, wrestling with enormous woks, shuffling towers of bamboo dim sum steamers. But once the whites are hung up, they’re just your ordinary guys trying to make a living and get their kids through school. After a long day at work, Chan gnaws on fried pork and glances at the soap opera on TV. This is exactly what he likes. “Simple,” he says. “Very simple.”

In an age when chefs are lauded for their indomitable passion and commanding personalities—for the doppio zero flour and grandmotherly lore that supposedly sprinkled their heads as children and sowed the seeds of culinary genius—Chan and his crew are guffawing, plain spoken, back-slapping anomalies. They came to the job simply through economic necessity as adolescents, then inadvertently fell into a celebrity that doesn’t concern them. Like an arranged marriage, it’s a love that came to be, but wasn’t necessarily meant to.

“We’re not educated, we don’t get to choose,” says Chef Ling Yung-cheong, Chan’s second in command, who has worked with him for over 10 years. All around the table nod in agreement. “When you have very little education, you don’t have dreams.”

Lung King Heen, Hong Kong.Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen for TIME.
Lung King Heen, Hong Kong. Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen for TIME.Photo by Aria Chen for TIME Executive Chinese Chef Chan Yan-tak at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong

Becoming a chef was certainly never Chan’s dream. He grew up in the tough, impoverished Hong Kong of the 1960s. His father passed away young, forcing him to drop school and start working at 13. With no formal education in English, Chan used a dictionary to cross-check words he heard from American music and films. Today, he loves Indiana Jones but not Star Wars (unless you’re talking about the first one). His Spotify playlists feature lots of Simon and Garfunkel and Abba, his phone’s ring tone is “We Will Rock You,” and he’ll spontaneously start singing “Unchained Melody.”

Oh my love, oh my darling,” he croaks.

He never received a formal culinary education either. In a time predating laws against child labor, he spent his early teenage years at the Dai Sam Yuen—a Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong’s red light district of Wanchai. For seven years, he cleaned and prepped ingredients to support his family in Kowloon. He eventually made it to stove number five, where he got to fry noodles and rice. During his little free time, he would go the movies, a hobby he maintains today.

In 1975, he landed a similar position at Fook Lam Moon—one of the city’s most prestigious eateries, and a favorite of tycoons and celebrities—before rising to the post of sous-chef at Lai Ching Heen at the luxurious Regent Hotel in 1984. Things were going well. After just one year, Chan became Lai Ching Heen’s executive chef, a job he held for the next 15 years, during which he helped give the restaurant an international reputation. In 2000, however, everything came to a tragic halt with the death of his wife. His son was 20 years old at the time, but his daughter just 12. With only him to care for her, Chan quit and became a stay-at-home dad.

He was fully retired when the Four Seasons approached him to help build its own Cantonese restaurant in 2002. Chan initially demurred. But an old Regent friend, Alan Tsui, was tapped as general manager of the Four Seasons, and wouldn’t relent.

“I was begging him, kind of,” says Tsui. “It’s not about money. It was mainly about friendship and for him to come up and help me.”

Money, discipline, and numbing hard work

Over a century ago, two French tire manufacturers accidentally created the world’s preeminent food guide. In 1895, Édouard and André Michelin designed the first detachable car tires. To get more wheels on the road (Michelin wheels, of course), the well-to-do brothers of Clermont-Ferrand published a guidebook of hotels and fuel stops in the French countryside in 1900. Restaurant recommendations increasingly came into play, ushering in a ranking system that prevails to this day: One star—“a very good restaurant in its category”—two stars—“worth a detour”—and three— “worth a special journey.”

Soon enough, the Michelin pivoted from motorists to gourmands, and today it is the world’s gastronomic atlas. Of course there’s Zagat or the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. But Michelin, with its secret inspections and romantic, open-road inception, resonates deeper with public imagination. And its global reach is incomparable. After its 20th century conquest of Europe, the guide ventured across the Atlantic to the United States in 2006, and then to Japan in 2007. It now covers 25 countries worldwide.

“We remain true to our roots with the intention of helping travelers and localists get around to find people to find a place to eat and sleep,” says Michael Ellis, international director of the Michelin Guide. “We’re going to continue to plant the Michelin flag around the globe. Asia is of particular interest. It’s really economically dynamic, with very strong and deep food culture that is sometimes centuries old.”

Lung King Heen, Hong Kong.Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen for TIME.
Dim sum at Lung King Heen, Hong KongPhoto by Aria Chen for TIME.

For many in the restaurant biz, landing a Michelin ranking is the ultimate triumph. It lifts the red velvet rope and ushers a restaurateur into the vaunted club of Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. It can also springboard a chef into a full-blown celebrity. “Those three stars that you can get, they can give you a platform,” says Juliette Rossant, author of Super Chef: The Making of the Great Modern Restaurant Empires. “Some chefs reject that because they’re passionate about cooking. But some are tantalized by the power and profit that’s inherent in the whole machine that gets created by the celebrity of a chef.”

Of course, there were celebrity chefs before Michelin. They emerged from obscurity in the 1960s, when the likes of James Beard and Julia Child debuted on television, catalyzing America’s emergence from the dark ages of post-war frozen food. But Michelin helped egomania reach new levels. From the fiery f-bomber Gordon Ramsay, to plate-throwing empire-builders like Joël Robuchon, who has racked up an unparalleled 31 Michelin stars internationally, chefs find that one star can explode into a galaxy. “It creates chefs that have huge egos—sometimes way too big,” Rossant says.

“I think they all have healthy egos at the top. You kind of have to to say, ‘Okay we’re gonna be the best restaurant in New York,’” says Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times. At the same time, a lot of the pot-slamming perfectionism that shapes public perception of upscale kitchens comes from television. Holding on to three stars, as Lung King Heen has done for ten years, takes tremendous amounts of money, discipline, and numbing hard work, and doesn’t always take the form of the expletives thrown around on the Food Network.

“Honestly a real show that was just behind the scenes, it would be so boring,” says Wells. “It would be the worst television show ever.”

‘It’s not a prestigious profession’

Prior to winning three Michelin stars, Chan had barely heard of the guide. “We didn’t know that it was something awesome. We had no knowledge,” he recalls. “When we first learned about it, our manager got so happy he teared up. You could see all the tears—happy tears.”

As for Chan: “I just kept doing my job.”

That modesty is typical of the Chinese food world, where there’s a big difference between the gourmets (culinary scholars who propose recipes) and the cooks (the guys who actually execute those recipes). The latter are typically uneducated and looked down upon as mere mechanics.

“In China, most parents wouldn’t want their children to become chefs,” says Fuchsia Dunlop, a cook and food-writer specializing in Chinese cuisine. “It’s not a prestigious profession. You don’t get educated young people from privileged backgrounds going into cooking for idealistic reasons because they love it.”

Even at the Parnassus that is Lung King Heen, that notion prevails. The chefs say that if they could have chosen another profession they would have—an inconceivable heresy in Le Cinq or Alain Ducasse. Even today, some of don’t tell their kids what they do. Would anything change their minds?

“Maybe if Michelin gave out four stars,” says Ling, Chan’s No. 2, to roars of laughter.

Lung King Heen, Hong Kong.Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen for TIME.
Lung King Heen, Hong KongPhoto by Aria Chen for TIME

Even if celebrity chefs were a fad in China, Chan would not fit the profile. The stout sexagenarian lives in Sham Shui Po, a seedy, working-class neighborhood where grimy highrises drip AC runoff onto the market stalls, methadone clinics and brothels below. From here Chan commutes 40 minutes to the Four Seasons by subway, wobbling into the staff canteen around 9 am for rice porridge and news. Next, the clowning begins. He’ll shake a steel bowl of scaly, chopped flesh too close to your nostrils, and implore you to try and identify the alligator claw. Then he’ll slap his belly, cackling over how much he likes meat. “I don’t like animals,” he jokes. “That’s why I kill them!”

Front of house, however, Lung King Heen is meticulously Michelin. For lunch, an average meal per head is about $90, and dinner is $190. Reservations need to be made weeks in advance, and the highly coveted window seats overlooking the famous Victoria Harbour and the Nine Dragon Hills are for VIPs only (Lung King Heen means “View of the Dragon”). The staff of 34 is trained to follow over 150 service steps from the start to the finish of your meal. If serving a western table, for instance, women are served first. But at a Chinese or Japanese one, the guests of the host are served first, irrespective of whether they are male or female. Shoulders should never twist too fast when presenting a dish. If a glass breaks on the floor, the first problem that’s addressed is whether or not any shards have scattered over the nearest woman’s designer handbag.

“Sometimes I joked that I had nothing to do,” says Simpson Yeung, Lung King Heen’s former director. “It’s so smooth.”

The same applies in the kitchen. At the crack of dawn, Chef Leung Ming-chiu, head barbecue chef, and his team are down in the pit handling sticky slabs of honey-roasted pork and turning spit-mounted piglets above a furnace of 100 degrees. Three floors above, Chef Lo Kin-ming and his dim sum team prepare siu mai. Packing the dumplings with pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, Ming pleats the yellow rice-flour pastry, paints it with alkaline water—it keeps the dough chewy—and readies it for a steaming on a translucently thin slice of carrot.

Chan drifts around, occasionally consulting the others in huddled whispers. As lunch nears, the cutting boards patter, the steamers wheeze, but nothing ever roars above the woks. The way the kitchen moves is like watching a highway from an airplane—hundreds of machines rev with explosive energy around turnpikes, but from 30,000 feet, they flow with direction, poise, and silence.

“Sometimes he has to be a little tough, but I’ve never seen him screaming at people,” says Tsui. “He’s mild and calm but he’s firm. His team respects him.”

‘He inspires me, we inspire him’

In Cantonese, Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor.” Some say the name was inspired by Hong Kong’s incense exports, others say it’s from the freshwater influx that streams in from the Pearl River. Whatever the reason, “fragrant harbor” takes on a whole new meaning strolling through any of the city’s seafood markets. At the Nelson Street Market in the blue-collar district of Mongkok, water overflows from the tubs of prawns and lobsters as they wiggle about next to floating styrofoam blocks bearing their price. An old fishwife sees a lobster try to escape and whacks it back in with her net. With his stubby hands, Chan point to a tank of coral trout, a supply of which arrived at Lung King Heen that morning.

“Red is lucky and happy,” he says.

Fresh seafood is the crux of Cantonese cuisine. Once upon a time, before the skyscrapers and stock market, Hong Kong was just a collection of fishing villages and salt pans. But with plentiful access to flavor and seafood, the provincial style developed as one of the most prominent of the eight major Chinese cuisines. Today, it the best known Chinese cuisine around the world. It has also given the Western dining table one of its daily staples—ketchup originated as a Cantonese condiment, its name deriving from the Cantonese word for tomato (kair) and sauce (tsup).

“Cantonese cuisine really plays on subtly and a diverse spectrum of flavor,” says Adele Wong, author of Hong Kong Food & Culture: From Dim Sum to Dried Abalone. “That’s how it really stands apart.”

Lung King Heen’s menu boasts just such an array. While infused occasionally and subtly with rich Western ingredients like truffles and foie gras, simplicity and freshness remains of utmost importance, and adulterating dishes with too many flavors is frowned upon. In its kitchen, there are several live fish tanks replenished daily, a customary feature at most waterside Cantonese restaurants, where you can select your entree while it still swims.

For all of the freshness of Cantonese cuisine, it remains underrepresented in the Michelin Guide. Lung King Heen is one of two Cantonese restaurants to hold three Michelin stars in Hong Kong and one of just five in the world. Altogether, there are just 127 restaurants with three Michelin stars worldwide. Lung King Heen’s victory was a milestone. But it also raised questions about comparative cuisine.

“I don’t think you can apply a universal standard of gastronomic pleasure” says Dunlop, citing appreciation for texture, which is far more developed in China. For example, take sea cucumber, “A slithery, bouncy piece of textural food which in itself has no flavor,” she says Dunlop. And yet it is one of the great delicacies of Cantonese cuisine, with “the kind of texture that a lot of westerners find repellent.”

Equally baffling to Western gourmands would be Chan’s lack of airs and graces. He maintains that he has no philosophy or grand vision. He doesn’t give interviews about his “passion” to worshipful food writers, or produce beautifully photographed cookbooks, or take part in lavishly shot documentaries about the pressures of genius. He doesn’t even lie awake at night struggling to bring forth great recipes.

“How do you compose a song?” he shrugs, while relaxing after work at his favorite hole-in-the-wall.

It’s almost 11 p.m. on a Tuesday. Everyone dumps their leftover scallop shells and pork bones onto the big platter at the center of the table, but the whiskey isn’t done yet and there’s some prawns left to go. Chan plops an extra prawn onto the plate of his neighbor and tells TIME to add The Graduate to his list of favorite films.

Then he gets the bill and the toothpicks circulate, but there’s no rush to go. The chefs only do this once a month.

“It’s hard to find a good boss,” says Ling.

“He inspires me,” adds Lo. “We inspire him.”

“Maybe if I leave the table,” jokes Chan, still chewing some pork, “They’ll start telling you the truth.”

Metal chairs skid across the floor as Chan wiggles out of the corner table, which is flanked by boxes of Tsingtao beer. The world’s greatest Cantonese chef then bums a cigarette from chef Leung, twists his colleague’s ear with a smile, and heads out on to the crowded Kowloon streets, unnoticed and unremarked.

With reporting and video by Aria Chen / Hong Kong

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com