Father's Day in the UAE: Dubai-based chef on the values he aims to pass on to his son

From childhood memories in his father's bakery to becoming a celebrated chef, Kelvin Cheung honours the influence of his father's teachings. As he embraces fatherhood, he discusses the values and culinary traditions he aims to pass on to his son


Husain Rizvi

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Published: Wed 12 Jun 2024, 5:01 PM

Last updated: Wed 12 Jun 2024, 5:04 PM

Dubai-based chef Kelvin Cheung grew up in the kitchen, stuffing his pockets with mantou and making cookies in the bakery at his father's traditional Hong Kong style Cantonese restaurants in Toronto and Chicago.

From helping out as a toddler in the bakery making almond cookies to washing dishes at the age of 12, Kelvin grew up lending a helping hand. All this shaped his passion for cooking. With Father's Day ahead of us, Dubai-based chef Kelvin, now a father himself, recounts his earliest memories in the kitchen with his father.

"When I expressed a desire to begin cooking, my father made me start at the most junior position - washing and prepping vegetables, and work harder than anyone else to eventually progress through each facet of the restaurant," he tells City Times. "My first official job in a restaurant was as a dishwasher in one of my father’s establishments. He made me prove myself before I was ever allowed to actually cook in the kitchen."

These experiences instilled in Kelvin a deep respect for every role within the restaurant and the hard work it takes to run a successful operation. He adds, "Witnessing my father's dedication and passion first-hand fuelled my own love for cooking and commitment to the culinary arts.

"While I have always loved food but I don't think I realized it until I was competent enough to challenge my fathers head chefs in his restaurants. When I noticed I could make things taste better or more efficiently, that was the ‘ah ha’ moment when I really knew that I loved food and I loved cooking for people because I would always push to perfect things for guests."

We further discuss Kelvin's culinary style which he describes at "third culture cooking," how his upbringing and training influence his dishes, and his relationship with his 5-year-old son Bodhi, who occasionally ventures into the kitchen with his father. Excerpts from the interview:

Your culinary style is described as "third culture cooking." How do your Chinese heritage, North American upbringing, and French training come together to influence your dishes?

I hope that my food and storytelling help us better understand the confluence of identity— how we can be a mixture of things and still exist in harmony. Something we so deeply need at this time in the world.

A big part of my food story is growing up in North America to immigrant, non-English parents, I lived in a dual world. There wasn’t much diversity at my school and I was bullied mercilessly for my 6 component ‘smelly’ lunches while my peers were chowing down on bologna and peanut butter jellies. Outside of school, I sought refuge in the Asian communities that lived around China Town.

During the menu development process I was trying to label my food and the only thing that felt right was that it wasn’t one of the existing labels - until I leaned into the food I grew up on - North American Asian is a distinct cuisine. The food incorporates easier to source ingredients and doesn’t limit itself to tradition as it explores different combinations.

In my dishes, I blend flavours and techniques from my Chinese heritage, my North American upbringing, and my French culinary training. This amalgamation creates unique and innovative dishes that reflect my journey and identity. It’s about embracing diversity and showing that different cultural influences can come together to create something beautiful and harmonious, which is especially important in today’s world.

We always hear that food unites us. True. But speaking as a son of immigrant parents, it also divides us. Throughout history, immigrants have always been incredible at improvisation, adaptation, and invention in the kitchen. This is why I think you’re seeing such a big rise of third-culture chefs. We’re all cooking what we know - the adapted version of culture using ingredients and techniques that were possible in our new home countries that were a world away from our culture.

You've travelled and cooked in various kitchens around the world. What are some of the most memorable places you've worked, and how have these experiences impacted your cooking?

Working in different kitchens around the world has been an enriching experience. Each place has left a distinct mark on my culinary style. Cooking in Mumbai exposed me to the vibrant spices and umami bursts of Indian cuisine, which I love to incorporate into my dishes. My time in Dubai introduced me to Middle Eastern ingredients and cooking techniques, further broadening my culinary palette. A perfect example of a blend of these both is the Za'atar Chaat we serve at Jun’s. These experiences have taught me the importance of versatility and openness to new ideas, which I continually apply in my kitchen.

It’s more than just flavours - it’s textures, patterns, smells, sounds. All of these come together to help bring my dishes alive and are shared with guests via storytelling.

Chef Kelvin and his 5-year-old son Bodhi
Chef Kelvin and his 5-year-old son Bodhi

You emphasise using the freshest ingredients from local farms. Can you talk about the importance of this practice and how it enhances your dishes?

My newest passion project is part of a larger Nature-Based Solution initiative supporting food sustainability in the UAE. We're focusing on the power of local halophytes like Salicornia and Arthrocnemum. I’ve joined a wonderful team under ICBA and Emirates Nature to explore the incredible potential of underutilised local ingredients like halophytes. This initiative not only helps protect our natural areas, such as the mangroves but also reduces the carbon footprint of restaurants and pushes the boundaries of culinary creativity. Using fresh, local ingredients enhances my dishes by providing the best flavours and nutritional value while also supporting sustainable practices.

How has becoming a father influenced your approach to cooking and running a restaurant?

Becoming a father has profoundly influenced my approach to cooking and running a restaurant in several meaningful ways. First and foremost, it has deepened my commitment to sustainability. I want my child to grow up in a world where resources are respected and the environment is cherished. This personal motivation has led me to prioritise more sustainable practices. By doing so, I'm not only contributing to a healthier planet but also setting an example for my team and my child about the importance of responsible stewardship.

In terms of leadership, fatherhood has taught me the value of patience, empathy, and nurturing growth—qualities that are just as essential in a family as they are in a professional kitchen. I've become more attuned to the needs and aspirations of my team members, fostering a supportive and collaborative work environment where everyone feels valued and motivated to excel. I believe that by investing in my team's development and well-being, I am building a stronger, more resilient restaurant that can adapt and thrive in any circumstances, in hopes to create a restaurant that is not only successful but also ethical, inclusive, and forward-thinking.

What are some of your favourite dishes to cook with your son Bodhi? How do you involve him in the kitchen, and what do you hope he learns from these experiences?

Involving Bodhi in the kitchen was initially purely about me being able to spend as much time with my child as possible. Chef hours are not kind. When everyone else is off work, we are working—holidays, nights, weekends. As a dad, that wasn’t something I wanted and made it a point to spend a lot of time as a family in the kitchen, both inside the restaurant and inside our home.

Bodhi first came to work with my wife Andrea at 10 days old, wrapped up against her chest in a Solly wrap for a food photo shoot she was overseeing. He spent his early days snuggled up against me in a carrier, sleeping during busy services, and started chopping alongside us while preparing meals Montessori style by 12 months old. Life as he’s known it has revolved around food, so it comes as no surprise that some of his favourite activities have to do with cooking and eating. As a five-year-old, he loves the process of making recipes from scratch and labels them as “experiments.” When we try to pull a fast one and not turn on the oven to avoid cooking the new dish, he’s not falling for it. Bodhi’s currently in an experimenting phase, trying out new flavour combinations—like ketchup and soy sauce (yikes!) which he dips his favourite bite, salmon sashimi, in.

I hope he learns to trust his gut instincts while still being creative, patience, the value of a process, and most importantly about nature’s bounty and how we need to respect the earth that provides us with so much.

Chef Kelvin and his 5-year-old son Bodhi
Chef Kelvin and his 5-year-old son Bodhi

How do you balance the demands of being a chef and a father? What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?

Having a young child and building a brand that has been open less than two years, there’s not balance yet. Yes, being a father has reinforced the importance of work-life balance. We’re not there yet, and I rarely, if ever, make a family dinner, and if I do, I’m usually glued to my phone—a habit I am trying very hard to break. This isn’t something to boast about, but it’s the reality of the business.

Over the past year, I've learned to delegate more effectively and trust in my team's abilities, which not only empowers them but also ensures that I can be present for my family as well as work on expanding our vision and brand outside of a single standing restaurant.

This balance is also crucial for maintaining my own well-being and being the best leader I can be. It’s an ongoing challenge, but I’m committed to finding a sustainable way to manage both my professional and personal responsibilities.

Do you have any special Father’s Day traditions in your family? How do you usually celebrate this day with Bodhi?

Father’s Day in our family is all about spending quality time together. It’s a day to reflect and appreciate the simple joys of being together. We usually choose an activity that involves a challenge and working through it - currently that is a 1000 piece puzzle that we’ve been working on for a month and riding a bike confidently.

What is the most valuable lesson you learned from your father in the kitchen? How do you pass this wisdom on to Bodhi?

The most valuable lesson I learned from my father is that no one can skip building their foundation. There’s no quick way to the top, even if your parent is the owner. This lesson taught me the importance of hard work, dedication, and humility. I pass this wisdom on to Bodhi by encouraging him to be patient, work diligently, and appreciate the process of learning and growing. Whether we’re in the kitchen experimenting with a new recipe or tackling a challenging project, I remind him that the foundation we build today will support all our future endeavours.

From a food perspective, my father taught me simplicity in food. He always said as chefs we need to edit down instead of adding more and focus on simply cooking things properly with the best of ingredients. This can be applied to life as well - it’s truly just a handful of things that make your life truly successful. Don’t get caught up in the smoke and mirrors!

Humility and hardwork are the two most important qualities in a chef. As young chefs, especially in this ‘celebrity chef’ generation, it is easy to lose focus to reach for success before we master technique. It’s important to remember that technique combined with business savviness is a lasting recipe for success while media attention and celebrity status is fickle. It can be taken away as quickly as it was given. Always play the long game.


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