Hot wok tales
APRIL 30 — After working in the “business” for the better part of 24 years and living in nine different countries, you tend to build up your stamina for tolerance and understanding, as well as your willingness to accept differences and opinions.
You also build up a huge repertoire of great escapades which become even greater yarns or stories to tell your children (that’s if you had time to find a woman, get married and have children in the first place) or your mates who are almost always in the same game as you and have better stories to tell anyway.
I always like to start mine with “Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working In Canada”, or wherever the story takes place. After using this line on numerous occasions with the same people, you tend to see them rolling their eyes at each other as if to say, “Oh blimey, here he goes again.”
You can see they are praying for a short story rather than a long-winded drama.
So, did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Hong Kong? I had been there for almost four years and become increasingly incensed with the way the Chinese chefs conducted themselves with ease whilst mastering that key piece of equipment — the wok.
Since I was the only one in the whole kitchen not fully versed in this great art, the onus was on me to prove myself outright to all the Hongkies who were just waiting for me to fail. The first time I had a go was a monumental affair, if not to say a comedy of epic proportions.
Everyone was standing around in amazement that I even had the gall to give it a try in the first place. This is nothing like the tame affair that we call stir-frying in cosy kitchens at home in England.
Oh no, Chinese wok cookery in an industrial-style kitchen is a much more dramatic event. The chef stands next to the wok stove and does not need to move an inch because everything has already been arranged around him.
Any items that he does not already have will be fetched by a poor underling, waiting on his right for orders, which are screamed out at the top of the chef’s voice. Of course, when these youngsters first come to the hotel to apply for a job, the chef can’t believe that these guys even showed up in the first place.
So they are pampered with coffee and biscuits to ensure that they don’t run off screaming blue murder for help from any passer-by in the street standing directly outside the staff entrance (which usually faces the back lane)!
After a few days when the honeymoon is over, the young and innocent find themselves standing in the hot spot being screamed at... a spot which has just been vacated by the chef who is now elevated by the arrival of this new victim.
So anyway, next to the stove will be a very large, burnt-on blacker-than-heck wok, a large ladle somewhat ill-designed for its rather delicate task and a bucket of chicken stock which is liberally doused over most dishes before presentation.
There will also be a tray with a varied selection of condiments, sauces and seasonings. The ladle is, of course, far too large to scoop anything up with any accuracy, especially when you are under stress to deliver the food quickly to unforgiving customers.
When the gas for the high-powered stove is turned on, it flares up so fiercely that it sounds like a Formula One racing car being revved by Alex Yoong, and turns into a powerful blue flame, which makes the wok white hot in about five seconds flat (unlike the speed of Alex).
The chef holds the large ladle in one hand, the wok handle in the other and turns the gas on and off with an already hardened and thick-skinned knee.
To watch a seasoned veteran of the wok stove can be magic in motion and is actually a real art that the experts make look all too easy. But was it easy enough for a greenish Yorkshire cook to have a go?
There I was, ready to start, standing in front of the wok stove with the ladle in my right hand and the wok handle in my left, while everyone stood around grinning and contemplating getting the fire extinguisher ready, just in case.
My “teacher” stood behind me ready to shout clear and simple instructions (probably in Cantonese) to his newest wok pupil. As I lowered my right knee and struck the gas control handle, I banged my knee bone so hard I saw stars.
I set off hopping around the kitchen, slipped on some spilled oil and ended up flat out on the floor. The entire kitchen was in stitches and some runners dashed off to gather further troops from other kitchens to join in the fun.
I got myself up, wiped my hands on what was by now a very oily apron and went to use the phone to try and hide my embarrassment, only to dig myself into a deeper hole when placing the handset to my ear.
The barbecue chef had just used the phone seconds earlier without washing his hands and the barbecue sauce he had left on the handset was nicely trickling in to my eardrum causing all sounds to be muted.
After digging out my ear and returning to my challenge, I got ready for my second go. I kneed the handle and the hot flame surged out with such force that the fire came up around the sides of the wok, singeing the little hairs on my arms, and sending a burning hair smell across the kitchen. This just made everyone laugh hysterically yet again. Sympathetic lot, chefs!
I started to wok the chicken fillet and seemed to be doing okay, so I risked a touch of ladle work and splashed in some chicken stock from the bucket. Next came the seasonings, but I was horrified by how much salt stuck to my ladle. I tried to shake some off but it showered all over the wok and contents, since the ladle was so big and clumsy.
Suddenly, there appeared to be smoke coming out from underneath my wok. When I looked down to investigate, I was horrified to see that my apron was on fire. I tore it off and threw it onto the floor, stamping on it wildly, and burning my hand in the process.
Now with a serious lack of options, I plunged my six digits into the handy bucket of chicken stock. Some smart aleck quipped, “Essence of gweilo goes on the menu next week!”
Since that day the well-seasoned wok chefs of the world have my deepest respect, and I hereby take my tall white hat off to them all
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.