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September 2, 2011

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A martial artist shakes the kitchen

A humble fried codfish masterfully Shook! is surprisingly Asian, with a sauce that's sour and spicy and has a slight herbal fragrance. The dish, crispy outside and firm inside, blends classical French technique and Malay flavor - it is the creation of Kevin Cape, chef consultant at Shook! Shanghai.

Cape, a Briton, is trained in French cooking and schooled in the culinary ways of Asia, in part from his Thai wife. More than his heart is in Asia - Bruce Lee is his idol and in the UK he used to teach Chinese martial arts - tai chi and Wing Chun (he earned a Wing Chun black belt when he was 16 years old).

He has worked in the UK, France, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, and now, for the past year, in China. Cape discovered his kitchen career by accident, since his heart had been set on kung fu.

"While I was in college, I found a part-time job in a hotel kitchen. One day, the chef said, 'Kevin, why don't you become a chef?' You have a natural ability to copy and represent," he recalls.

Though creativity is essential, copying and reproducing a dish is the basic skill every chef should have, he explains. "If other chefs make a dish in front of me, I can copy it, making it exactly at once," he says.

When he met famed chef Michel Bourdin, famous for cultivating talent in his "devil's kitchen," he knew that the kitchen would be an important part of his life.

Once he was asked whether he wanted to be a celebrity TV chef like Jamie Oliver ("The Naked Chef") or a great chef who spent his time in the kitchen. He chose the latter. Cape worked for Bourdin at The Connaught Hotel in London and he worked like the devil.

"Life was tough. Every single day, the whole kitchen is cleaned down. Everything, including mayonnaise, should be freshly made daily," he recalls. "I was forbidden to do things for the sake of discipline and I was criticized nearly every day."

At 29, Cape became one of the youngest sous chefs in London where senior positions are almost always held by French and Swiss chefs.

We met in Shook! on the Bund, with its large open kitchen and the chef demonstrated his rigor and precision in the kitchen and his humor outside, as he joked with diners in his poor Chinese.

"There are two main kitchen disciplines that cannot be broken," Cape says. "First, never compromise on fresh, high-quality ingredients. Second, all dishes, no matter how post-modern they look, are based on classical culinary style."

For example, he says, if he cannot find fresh lime leaf in Shanghai, he will not make tom yam kung (spicy shrimp soup), a famous Thai dish. He not only visits local markets but also has local farmers plant lime seeds that he imported from Thailand.

Although his dishes blend Eastern and Western cuisines, they are based on classical French cooking, and Cape emphasizes the importance of the basics. "If you understand classics, you can do everything, expanding your cooking into various creative styles, such as molecular gastronomy. If not, you can do nothing."

He expresses concern that some young chefs today create food simply for the sake of "innovation" and ignore the classics and basics.

Two women inspired his cooking, says the chef, his mother who taught him the importance of fresh seasonal ingredients, and his wife Tai who taught him about Thai cooking.

"She's important for me. After finishing the tough work, usually more than 13 hours a day, I feel rather tired and she gives me the strength, making me feel relaxed and warm," Cape says about his wife.

He says one of his best experiences is cooking together with Tai.

"Thai food features rich flavor and intense fragrance but little emphasis is placed on presentation. When we cook together, she's responsible for the taste, while I help improve the presentation."

He enjoys the diverse food culture in Shanghai, citing shengjian (pan-fried dumplings with pork filling), spicy Hunan cuisine and dishes from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, featuring cumin and other spices. He visits wet markets and explores the local ingredients. He is writing a cookbook of original, easy-to-make recipes.

Cape says his dream is to open a free cooking school in Thailand. "Teaching poor people how to cook gives them an opportunity in life," he says, quoting Lao-tze, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Kevin Cape

Chef consultant at Shook! Shanghai, from the UK

Q: Tell us about an embarrassing kitchen moment.

A: When I worked as a chef on a train, one day it suddenly ran out of water and I had to say sorry to all the passengers.

Q: Do you have hobbies?

A: Photography. I like shooting dishes and people. I also love Wing Chun martial art that helps me be more self-controlled and disciplined in the kitchen.

Q: Is there something you want to say that people seldom ask?

A: I get annoyed when people talk about fusion food. Everybody labels food they don't understand as fusion food. Blending different styles in cooking is actually the evolution of food, not fusion.

Q: Do you hate any food?

A: No. But some should be banned, like shark's fin. If you use an animal as an ingredient, make full use of it. Don't take the little fin and throw the shark back into the sea.

Q: Any recommended city restaurant?

A: Xiao Yang Shengjian. Although it's so crowded that it can't be cleaned enough, the dumplings are fabulous.


Coconut milk (1 cup); chicken stock (4 cups); 1 tsp of each chopped ginger, shallots, lemon grass, garlic, galangal; chopped chili (1/2 tsp); lime leaf 1-2 pieces; tom yam paste (1.5 tsp), Mae Pranom Instant Tom Yam paste (1 tsp); chicken powder (1/2 tsp); salt (1/4 tsp); MSG (1/4 tsp); 1 tsp of each Thai chili, spring onion, coriander, Thai coriander; 2 shrimp, 5g chopped abalone, 5g enoki mushroom, 1 dry chili


1. Put ginger, shallots, lemon grass, garlic, galangal and chili in a bowl.

2. Heat saucepan, add coconut milk, boil, add tom yam paste, chicken powder, MSG, salt and all herbs.

3. Cook 5 minutes until fragrant. Add chicken stock, cook another 5 minutes, add Mae Pranom Instant Tom Yam paste and chili oil.

4. Sprinkle with spring onion, coriander and Thai coriander.

5. Combine everything, with scalded mushroom and shrimp, in serving bowl. Garnish with coriander, 1 dry chili.


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