Even after four decades in the business, chef Jackie Ho of Lai Heen Cantonese restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Macau, wants to learn more, boldly experimenting with flavors encountered on his travels.
Having forty years of cooking experience means that executive chef Jackie Ho Hong-sing of Cantonese restaurant Lai Heen at The Ritz-Carlton, Macau, started working on his craft when he was only 12 years old. His first job at that age was as a kitchen apprentice at a Chinese restaurant.
Some industry veterans with that much experience might tend to get stuck in their ways, but that’s certainly not the case for Ho. The chef still maintains a playful element to his mastery, always daring to shake up the Cantonese cuisine served at the one-Michelin-starred restaurant perched on the hotel’s 51st floor overlooking the city.
“Whenever I have new ideas or new ingredients, I will create a new dish for my team to taste,” Ho says. “I collect their feedback, make some revisions and if it works, we will make the item available on the menu.”
These bold experiments have led to a wide array of innovative offerings at Lai Heen, including its signature stewed prawns with port wine sauce in casserole. “With port wine as the base of the broth, the freshness of the seafood comes out very well,” Ho explains. “The fusion dish is a tribute to Macau, which has both Chinese and Portuguese cultural influences.”
This desire to continually push himself – not only to learn new techniques and work with unexpected ingredients, but also to help traditional Cantonese cuisine evolve – is borne from his years of travel while working and living abroad in mainland China, Southeast Asia and Europe.
“I learned a lot about food cultures and ingredients in different places; everything is stored in my mind,” Ho says. “Before Macau, I worked in Thailand, which is famous for its herbs and spices. So I added these to the Chinese dishes I made here, and ended up creating one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.”
Pleasing the stomach and heart
Ho says he will always consider himself a student. “There’s no end to learning, especially if you want to advance with the times,” he says.
But despite the constant learning and improvisation, some aspects of his cooking will never change. Every dish that Ho creates and serves, for instance, has to fulfill a list of criteria. “As I see it, the perfect dish has diverse colors, aromatic flavors, excellent taste and nice presentation,” he says. “The guests must feel the warmth of the food not just in their stomachs, but also in their hearts.”
The guests must feel the warmth of the food not just in their stomachs, but also in their hearts
For Ho, cooking has always been an art form – one in which a dish can evoke emotions and memories. Growing up in Hong Kong’s New Territories, he was greatly influenced by his mother, whom he affectionately refers to as his “life tutor”.
“My mother always spent a lot of time and energy on cooking. The New Territories had many fresh ingredients like chicken, pork, duck, seafood, vegetables and so on,” Ho recalls. “With my mom’s cooking from the heart, the food tasted delicious, and I really appreciated it.”
That connection to his terroir and produce, as well as his love of pleasing people, stayed with Ho through the years. Those were perhaps the first secrets to his Michelin-starred success, which today also include a remarkable passion for global ingredients, a bold approach to challenging culinary rules, and a profound insight: “It’s never too late to learn.”
Explore Lai Heen here.
Trishna Mahtani contributed to this report.