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Globetrotting canteen walla chef packs a wallop

A noted Canadian canteen walla packs a wallop at the Hilton Shanghai starting next week. Aubrey Buckingham affords a foretaste in an interview with the illustrious Kim Canteenwalla himself This city is a prime draw for many of the world's culinary greats, and there is no shortage of guest chefs chomping at the bit to present a stint here. The latest in the long line of illustrious names to grace these shores is globetrotter Kim Canteenwalla, who currently mans the burners amid the glitz and glamour of Sin City USA, Las Vegas.

The Canadian maestro, who was invited to the prestigious James Beard Foundation twice in his star-studded career, will give local foodies a taste of his talents at the Hilton Shanghai next Tuesday through Sunday. In addition to al carte offerings, a five-course menu is available each evening.

Canteenwalla's career has taken him around the world from Cambodia to Dubai. The Canadian plied his trade in his native land before moving to Bermuda for a few years. He was then lured by the exotic Far East when a friend encouraged him to visit Singapore in the early 1990s.

"First time I traveled by myself I knew I was going to end up traveling again," he says. "I just went from there and traveled and lived in Southeast Asia for 10 years. As soon as I was in Singapore I knew I wanted to live (in the region)."

Like many Western chefs coming to the continent, Canteenwalla was blown away by the sheer variety of incredible flavors enjoyed by locals. "It opened my horizons completely with all the markets and product available. Some of this product was very new as things weren't as global as they are now. It was really great to see this fresh product.

"Also, being in Asia, the labor force is so different from North America, and there are so many more persons working (vis-a-vis) hotel guests, which was something very fascinating. It meant more attention to detail."

After living in Bangkok, Bali ("As soon as I saw it I knew I had to live there; after two years of Bangkok pollution it was a welcome change."), Cambodia, Singapore and Dubai, Canteenwalla returned to North America.

These days the Canadian has much less time to don his toque and whites. He is president of Blau and Associates, a consultancy set up by his wife Elizabeth Blau in 2002.

The company advises boutique hotels, independent restaurants all the way up to huge, full-scale hotels with multiple food and beverage outlets. While the firm can step in at any moment, Canteenwalla prefers to come on board from day-one to implement planning, designing, and even the concept.

For example, Canteenwalla and his wife work with groups, such as Destination Hotels in the United States. They took over a former Jean Georges Vongerichten property in Houston, Texas, and from there they were asked to work on another property in New Mexico. The group apparently liked their work and Blau and Associates was then contracted to work on a flagship property for them from the ground up in California.

"It's way easier in my mind (to start from the ground up)," he says. "It's more work but you are there from the very beginning so you have the say and control to make things happen."

This is Canteenwalla's first visit to the Chinese mainland. The self-professed travel-holic admits to having a romantic impression of Shanghai and is looking forward to the blend of Old World architecture with contemporary design.

His stint at the Hilton affords him a much welcome return to the kitchen, where he lets ingredients speak for themselves. "Simplicity is getting great product and don't over sauce it, don't over garnish it. Let the great piece of cheese, let the great piece of prosciutto speak for itself."

East-meets-West cuisine is not quite old hat yet but is still very much de rigueur these days. Canteenwalla humbly rejects notions that he was ahead of his time, and celebrates the prevalence.

"I love the fact that it's now so prevalent in design also. Not just product-driven and equipment, but it's so much cleaner in design." He speaks highly of firms like Japan's Super Potato (which designed Nadaman in the Shangri-La here and Vue in Hyatt on the Bund), stating that look is very popular and often emulated in North America now.


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