For some people, cooking is a chore. For others, it’s the perfect excuse to set aside valuable time, find and work with the freshest ingredients, and cook up an impressive meal. Three CPA home cooks share with Jeremy Chan their culinary journeys, the secrets to making their favourite dishes, and how anyone can cook delicious food at home
Photography by Anthony Tung
Desmond Chun, Senior Tax Associate at PwC, making a steak sandwich with yellow onions and Dijon mustard for dinner.
It was Desmond Chun’s failed attempt at making steak as a high school student that taught him the importance of patience and technique. “I kept moving the steak around and flipping it too often,” remembers Chun, Senior Tax Associate at PwC and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. That steak ended up being overcooked, but he decided to try it anyway. “It was far too chewy and wasn’t very good. I only had two bites then put it aside.”
Unfazed, he practiced on the grill, and soon realized what he had done wrong the first time. “When you keep on flipping a steak on a grill, the leftover char easily sticks to the meat,” he explains. “The trick is to not move the meat. Once you lay it down on a grill or pan, let it sit there and don’t disturb it until you need to flip it.”
Chun is now a passionate home cook who uses his free time to cook recipes new and old. To him, cooking is more than a pastime – it’s something he constantly looks forward to. “I enjoy chopping ingredients, cooking and plating food, and of course, eating what I’ve made,” he says. “And when the dish comes out well, I can’t wait to cook it again.” Indeed, even the act of preparing food can help calm the mind, according to Chun. “There’s something therapeutic about chopping ingredients into perfect, symmetrical shapes,” he adds.
Chun, who was born and raised in Vancouver, was introduced to cooking in his high school’s home economics class, where he learned how to make desserts and pastries such as muffins, meringues, crème brûlées and savoury dishes such as beef stroganoff. Outside of school, he enjoyed trying out different restaurants around the city and cooking on his barbecue grill at home. “Back home, I would use the grill almost every day during the summer to cook steak, lamb chops, chicken, scallops and halibut. I loved getting a nice sear on the outside with the perfect grill marks,” he says.
Since moving to Hong Kong in 2019 for work, Chun has continued his passion for cooking at home, even amid his busy work schedule. Though he doesn’t have a grill, he has taken this opportunity to focus on perfecting other dishes such as Vietnamese pho, spaghetti alle vongole and Hainanese chicken rice, and making them from scratch.
But his favourite thing to cook is still steak. Chun says the secret to producing a juicy steak each time is to not rush. “My trick is to cook one side first, letting it rest for five minutes, and then cooking the other side. This will guarantee an even cook through the steak,” he says. “If you cook the other side immediately, you’ll end up with one side that is more cooked than the other because the meat is still hot.” Because there are various cuts of meat, cooking steak requires constant practice, he adds. “You can’t use the same cooking methods on different cuts such as tenderloin, ribeye or strip loin. They all have varying levels of fat. If you cooked a ribeye, which is high in fat, on a grill, this will induce flames and you might burn the steak.”
On most days, Chun prefers to prepare healthier options such as baked vegetables, tofu and eggs and usually packs lunch for work, noting how it is more cost-efficient and that he feels less tired after eating his own home-cooked food. “I’ve also been trying to lay off the carbs – I packed on a bit of weight during the work-from-home period,” he laughs. He says cooking from home doesn’t need to require too much time, and that those new to cooking can consider buying an oven. “An oven is your best friend if you want a quick and easy meal such baked chicken, fish, lamb chops or roasted vegetables,” he says. “Pop them in the oven for 20-25 minutes and you have your dinner served. You can even take a shower, clean the house or wash the dishes while everything is cooking.”
“My trick is to cook one side first, letting it rest for five minutes, and then cooking the other side. This will guarantee an even cook through the steak.”
Michelle Chu, Assurance Director at Moore, enjoys cooking over the weekend. Here, she is making japchae, a Korean noodle dish.
The quest for flavour
Michelle Chu’s love for cooking Korean cuisine stemmed from her fascination with the Korean language and culture. It was her interest in Korean dramas that led her to begin teaching herself the language more than a decade ago. “I didn’t want to depend on subtitles anymore, so I thought I’d start learning Korean,” says Chu, Assurance Director at Moore and an Institute member. She began visiting the country, sometimes up to six times a year, and started taking formal lessons with a teacher in 2012. “I’m now able to converse with native Korean speakers, but I still find it difficult to read a Korean newspaper,” she adds. One lesson, Chu’s teacher had cooked and brought a non-spicy version of tteokbokki, or Korean rice cakes, to class. Chu greatly enjoyed the dish but found it too spicy. “They were delicious, so I asked her for the recipe and tried to make it myself,” she says.
Eager to try out the dish, she went out to purchase the ingredients and closely followed the recipe, cooking the rice cakes in a hearty, creamy sauce. “I think that was the first time I really cooked something,” she says. “It was quite easy to make, and that led me to think that it was easy to make Korean food.”
Since then, Chu has taught herself to cook and prepare classic Korean dishes such as japchae, stir-fried sweet potato noodles, galbijjim, a beef short rib stew with carrots, chestnuts and turnips, ganjang saeu, raw shrimp marinated in soy sauce, and also banchan, smaller side dishes such as beansprouts, pickled cucumbers or spinach, which are served alongside cooked rice.
Chu notes the cooking process for Korean cuisine is rather straightforward, but the challenge she faces is finding the right ingredients in Hong Kong. “I visit South Korea quite often so when I go, I also bring back all the ingredients I need,” she says. “Of course, I can’t travel there right now, so I’ve had to carefully look for those ingredients in Hong Kong.” She frequents Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, a street famous for its concentration of authentic Korean restaurants and shops, and also known as Hong Kong’s own “Little Korea,” and keeps her eyes peeled for hard-to-find yet essential vegetables such as kkaennip or perilla leaves. “We use this vegetable to wrap certain meats or fish,” she explains. “I can’t always find what I want as the shops only import certain ingredients at different times of the year. They’re also much more expensive because they are imported – sometimes three times the price.”
With every approaching weekend, Chu looks forward to cooking, and says she has been hosting more regular family potluck lunch or dinner gatherings. “I’ve been staying in more and eating at restaurants less because of COVID-19, so I’ve been cooking pretty much every week,” she says. Asides from Korean food, Chu also cooks Italian food such as gnocchi and baking cookies and cheesecakes.
She says she fully enjoys the process of buying and cooking ingredients, and also doesn’t mind the task of cleaning afterwards. But the real pleasure of cooking, Chu notes, is sharing her food with others. “It’s satisfying when you’ve cooked something and your family and friends say that it’s delicious,” she says.
Chu will be challenging herself this year to make samgyetang, a hot ginseng soup boiled with a whole chicken stuffed with garlic, glutinous rice, red dates and ginseng. “It’s not that hard to make, but it requires a lot of time and effort. I need to find good ginseng first,” she says. Her advice for new home cooks is to stick to cooking what they like. “Don’t feel pressured to cook something popular,” she says. “Cook what you genuinely want to eat and share it with other people.” Doing this allows her to unwind after a long week of work. “It helps to relieve me of stress – especially when I’m making a dish I truly love.
“It’s satisfying when you’ve cooked something and your family and friends say that it’s delicious.”
Kenneth Lam, Associate Director, Advisory at Grant Thornton, enjoys cooking seafood, especially along with his son. Here, they are making clams boiled in butter and rice wine.
No place like home
When Kenneth Lam moved out of his family’s home after getting married, he found himself longing for the food he grew up eating. “I didn’t cook much before getting married because I had the best chef at home – my mother,” says Lam, Associate Director, Advisory at Grant Thornton and an Institute member. Being in a family of home cooks also meant Lam had little opportunity to set foot in the kitchen. “My mother cooks the best Chinese cuisine and my brother cooks Western food quite well, while my grandmother and uncles all take turns cooking for family dinners.”
Lam grew up eating mainly home-cooked Cantonese dishes such as stir-fried vegetables with pork, as well as seafood such as steamed fish in soy sauce, pan-fried prawns, crabs fried with ginger and spring onions and clams boiled in butter and rice wine. “Over dinner, my family would talk about how and where they found each ingredient, how they cooked it and how they wanted to improve on that dish in the future,” he says.
Desperate to recreate the dishes he ate back at home, Lam began cooking more for his wife and five-year-old son. Relying on the knowledge he gained from those family dinners, he started cooking the same Cantonese classics he grew up eating, and eventually found the courage to replicate the seafood dishes his mother used to make. “I try to cook healthy food day to day, usually a good balance of vegetables and meat – but I love cooking seafood the most,” says Lam. “Crabs, clams, fish, lobster – I love anything from the sea.”
In cooking for his family now, he seeks inspiration from what he finds at the market first. “It all depends on what fresh and seasonal ingredients I find in the market that day,” he says. “But every time I spot large crabs, I find it too tempting to resist.” Cooking seafood such as crabs and getting the flavours in the sauce right wasn’t an easy task for Lam at first, leaving him to do his own research. “I would first buy the ingredients, and then look for the recipes on my phone going home,” Lam adds. “Or I would have to call my parents and ask ‘how do I cook this? Could you share any hints?’ Thanks to their advice, I usually manage to cook well in the end.”
Lam likes to get his son involved in the cooking. They recently made a pizza from scratch together. “During the work-from-home phase, there was more time to experiment and cook more dishes, so pizza-making became a bit of a family activity,” Lam says. After he prepared the dough, his son picked out his favourite ingredients from their fridge for the pizza toppings. “We put what we could find that day such as shrimp, crab sticks, cheese and sausages,” he says. “Since then, my son’s been asking to cook more.” Lam took this opportunity to do more baking, and says he has been baking pastries such as coconut buns, muffins and even birthday cakes. “My son always helps me to measure the ingredients and beat the eggs – he loves doing that,” he adds.
Lam is busy with work, and though the family has a helper to help with the cooking during weekdays, he tries to squeeze in every opportunity to cook. “Sometimes, I’ll ask our helper to prepare the ingredients in advance, so I can cook once I get home from work,” he says. But during weekends, Lam says he is at the ready to prepare breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for his family and says this is a good way to also ensure that everyone eats healthier food. “I prefer stir-frying, baking and steaming instead of deep-frying,” he says. “I also use less oil and salt and replace that with herbs and spices.”
Lam says his parents have already tried his food, and have fortunately commended his efforts at trying out their seafood recipes. “We had a potluck gathering where I cooked clams in rice wine, and they said it was really good,” he says. He knows it can be difficult finding the right time to cook, so one way to get cooking, Lam suggests, is to host a party. “Plan a dinner party and invite your friends. This will force you to cook,” he says. “And make sure they love food – because the happiest moment for me as a chef is seeing people enjoy my food.”
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology reports that people who take on creative tasks such as cooking or baking note feeling more relaxed in their everyday lives. The study followed 658 people for about two weeks and found that in the days after cooking and baking, participants reported higher levels of happiness, creativity and enthusiasm.