RECENTLY, WHILE at JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu—the hotel whose magnificent lobby has seen enough selfies to give even Eiffel Tower a run for its money—I had a seat next to chef Alvin Leung, the notorious ‘demon chef’ known for his brand of ‘X-treme cuisine’. The hotel has built something of a reputation for inviting Michelin-starred chefs, hosting them for a few days and serving their brand of cuisine to Mumbaikars. For the ticket price, it is by far the most affordable way to try a Michelin marvel compared to anywhere else in the world.
Needless to say, the dinners were sold out faster than rock concert tickets. After all, Leung is quite the rockstar chef—tinted blue Chrome Hearts sunglasses, black diamond-studded cross earrings and a devil-may-care attitude that deftly hides the perfectionist beneath. It also explains why Leung ranks alongside chef Heston Blumenthal—he is, in fact, often nicknamed the ‘Heston of Hong Kong’. Leung and Blumenthal are the only two chefs who never trained and yet earned the coveted three Michelin stars. “I don’t think I would have been more successful if I had been a trained chef,” Leung ruminated over dinner and then added with a slight smirk, “Either I can think out of the box or else I have a really big box!”
At Bo Innovation, Hong Kong, Leung is famous for his quirky dishes, the most famous being ‘Sex on the Beach’ (SOTB), which uses extreme techniques and execution to get the desired effect, that of a used condom lying on a sandy beach. It is quite a contrast of a dish for a chef who insists, “You can never go too far away from taste. You leave taste behind, you lose your clients.” However, he explains SOTB, saying, “But SOTB wasn’t a dish about taste, it was a message.” Sales from the dish benefitted an AIDS awareness charity, whose officials have reason to be thankful to Leung and his demonic creativity.
Leung calls his cuisine ‘X-treme’ Chinese because the base is pretty much Chinese (not generic Chinese, but incorporating all the eight branches of Chinese cuisine), but the inspirations can come from anywhere: travel, interactions, observations, etc. So I questioned myself: how do you pair food when it comes from such a source of imagination and inspiration? Is there any wine (Baijiu, beer or equivalent) that can sit comfortably besides food of such ginormous proportions—equal-parts expectation and execution—and still be considered worthy? We had a taut German Riesling and a crisp Champagne to accompany the courses and Sarabjit Singh, the man in charge of F&B at the hotel, made an astute choice by making sure that the wine was structurally supportive and yet never too bold to step into the foreground, for the limelight clearly belonged to the chef and his creations.
Now, this is what I call the perfect pairing of drink and chef. It is about matching the personalities of both and ensuring that the highlight of the evening doesn’t get masked. When showcasing food, wine should humbly take a step back. And when presenting forth a wine estate, the food should play the background chorus.
The price one pays for such an experience—even including flight tickets to and from Delhi and overnight stay—is still cheaper, I think, than a similar experience abroad. So readers, next time another such chef comes visiting, keep an ear out and plan well in advance for a truly exhilarating chef and wine pairing experience.
The writer is a sommelier