Masters of Menu: Dongguan Chefs & Their War Stories

These pages are a portal through another dimension, one not of sight or sound, but of smell and taste—its surfaces gathered on jovial social occasions. Its legends sparked not by plain tales of human sensation. These are the true stories of kitchen masters from foreign lands, the people who serve kings and stars of stage, men that tame zombie snakes and detonate dynamite beef.

Vianei Rodriques

BB BRAZILIAN BBQ
TANGLA DONGGUAN HOTEL

Most of our chefs trained their skills from a young age, beginning at 17 in Santa Catarina, Brazil, Vianei is no exception. But beyond his mastery of Brzilian BBQ, he stands out in the crowd as Dongguan’s longest running chef. He’s been one of the city’s favorites since 2001.

Growing up on a farm in a rural area of southern Brazil, his family raised livestock and now owns the land that was rented in his youth. Carving meat is second nature and he now believes he could butcher a side of beef with his eyes closed, but it was his older brother who inspired him in childhood and now challenges him to grow as a chef. Vianei says his brother and he are competitive. “He does one side, I do the other. I have to do it better.” However, if you ask, you’ll find the competitiveness stays in the family. “I will say he is better than me and he will say I am better than him.”

When there is down time, Vianei uses it in only a few ways. If he’s not in his restaurant, it’s very likely he can be spotted fishing. “I always go to the same place. The only thing I do very often is fishing, and making BBQ with my staff.”

0615_cover story_2Q&A


Q: SURPRISE SKILL?
A: I can fix your bike.

Q: HOW HAS DONGGUAN INFLUENCED YOUR TRADITIONAL RECIPES?
A: Here, when we marinate things. In Brazil we use more wine than beer in China we use more beer than wine, the flavor can be a little bit lighter than if we use the wine.

Q: WHAT WAS THE WORST THING YOU’VE EATEN IN ASIA?
A: The first time I had a fresh live oyster in Japan. One night was snowing too much, so we decided to go out. And they gave me some s#!%. It was alive and moving. I took a half hour thinking if I can eat that.

WILDEST WAR STORY

I’ve had fire here three times already. One of these times, I had 200 people eating here and just had a fire on the grill and the interesting thing is we didn’t shut down after the fire, but we couldn’t grill anything. We were cooking a shoulder; actually we call it the hump. It’s wrapped in aluminum. It’s more or less like your boiling the oil so if you touch it in the wrong place, it’s like a bomb. Most were regular customers and so I went table by table to see what I could do. I pan fried steaks for who wanted to eat more.

Suresh Kumar Nemkul

TAJ MAHAL INDIAN CUISINE
CHANG’AN

A first look at Suresh would never disclose his age and experience. At a middle-aged 46, his youthful face has surprisingly fathered two children, one of them already in her adulthood. Hailing from Katmandu, Nepal, he has now spent 10 of his 26-year-career in China. Originally he arrived in Shenzhen’s Shekou area. He was advised by his father to follow in his footsteps for the career that he saw as secure work, but the Austrian man he calls Dr. John was his true inspiration.

0615_cover story_4The master chef taught him more than how to prepare delicious dishes at a popular Katmandu eatery called The Bakery Café. There, Suresh learned the philosophy of atmosphere and a way of life that can improve a person’s day with respect and care. “He changed my life,” said Suresh. I learned to treat even small children as equals. “I always miss my chef. He will be my chef until I die.”

His confidence came when his own cooking was recognized in at a Katmandu food festival. The judges at the event came by and asked him if he was the chef responsible for the flavors at his booth. Suresh didn’t speak English at the time, and had to nervously ask for his boss to translate what the judge wanted from him. To his delight he discovered he was being rewarded the second place prize for his lamb curry. “He gave me one golden spoon and I still keep it at home.”

Q&A


Q: CULINARY PHILOSOPHY?
A: Asking for change the recipe is like asking me to change as a person.

Q: WHAT FOOD DO YOU NOT LIKE?
A: Okra. This is not because I can’t make it good. For the body inside, it is healthy, but inside [okra] is slimy.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: My mother gave me a paratha (flat bread) in a frying pan with green chili and salt. And I will never forget this in my life. The salt and chili, this is very good. Now I’ve worked a long time—26, 27 years—I can’t make this taste. I’m always thinking, here the water must be different. In many places I tried. My mother made it, my eyes watch.
Later I decided to try again, I went home and I tried again using mountain cold water. I tried it, made it and came back. If it was still good I would put it on the menu, but it didn’t work.

WILDEST WAR STORY

Nepal had a King, Birendra (b. 1945 – d. 2001). The king’s son was coming our restaurant, always come to eat something and sometimes he has no time to come, so I would bring food. The king would give it to the dog, wait ten minutes. “OK, it’s good.” Then he would eat. The first time [I was] very nervous, but the king spoke with very much respect. He gave me something to drink, we spoke and it is a little better. The next month we spoke again and this time I was little bit OK.

Antonio Talamoni

BUONGIORNO ITALIAN RESTAURANT
DONGCHENG

0615_cover story_3One of the freshest chefs on the menu, Antonio has been in town for just a little over a year, but he has been working around the world since the age of 18. Now 35, he’s done stretches in Switzerland, France, Germany, Hungary and New York. His world-spanning career, he says, is in honor of his father who passed away in a car accident on the way to his restaurant at the age of 26. “I didn’t know my father; I know he was a chef. I make this for my father.”

He may have followed in his father’s footsteps, but there were plenty of paths laid out around him if he got off course. Antonio’s earliest memories of the kitchen came very early. He remembers his grandmother, a woman of ample size and appetite, began her day at 5 or 6 a.m., preparing sausages. Her passion rubbed off on much of the family. “My brother works in the kitchen; my sister works in the kitchen.” And at Christmas, at home in Rome, his entire family not only socializes in the kitchen, they bond with everybody adding a little to the table .

Now in Dongguan, Antonio says he is most pleased when he enters the restaurant’s dinning room to find Italian compatriots sampling his food. Knowing that they have had to fly some great distance to try his food, whether that was their intention or not, it is important to him to be able to serve authentic Italian cuisine to sooth their homesickness.

Q&A


Q: HATED CHILDHOOD FOOD?
A: Tripe. Now is OK, but before it is not cleaned and it was really stinky.

Q: WHAT IS THE HARDEST LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED IN CHINA?
A: When in Italy, kitchen staff is a brigade. It’s almost like being in the military. In China it’s not like this. If the dish washer want to discuss something they will. After one month, I didn’t use tact to make changes. After one month the staff left. Only one stayed. The executive chef was angry for a week.

Q: WHAT IS the EARLIEST DONGGUAN ADVENTURE THAT YOU REMEMBER?
A: I like to go to try those different foods, but for me it’s not easy to eat outside because I’m a chef. The first visit to BBQ street, which has a very strong smell, left an impression. No body with me was [bothered], but I was new. On one side was trash and on the other side was food. Now I’m used to it.

WILDEST WAR STORY

One customer asked me, “Can you cook snake?” I like to try all food, and it’s possible to try whatever you want. He gave me the snake; it was not dead. For me, it was no problem, but the staff went crazy. We skinned and gutted it, and still for two hours it moved in the water. The ayi fainted.

Çetin Bildirici

NAZAR TURKISH CUISINE
DONGCHENG

0615_cover story_5Turkey is a country of deep culture and customs. It is a place where answers come quick and straightforward for the question: “Where do the best chefs live?” Among the three cities famed for the culinary arts, Çetin (Chee-tin) is from Antep. Ask a Turkish friend. They might agree with Çetin, with its spicier dishes, it is the Hunan Province of Turkey—a hot and dry one.

Described as a bit adventurous by friends, Çetin himself just arrived to China for the fresh opening of the newest arrival of Dongguan’s culinary map. He’s patriotic in his reasoning for accepting the new position. He says he wants to show people that Turkey is doing “something excellent” with its dinner tables. “I came here because I didn’t want Dongguan people to live and die without eating Turkish food.”

What got him into cooking was in part to his mother’s less than keen cooking, and following his father’s more than ample, though not professional, aptitude. He speaks of it as an honorable profession. Maybe that’s why Turkish kitchens are open to the dining room. The four stations, a cook for doughs, meat and hot and cold appetizers, are to be put on parade.

Q&A


Q: CHEF JACKET OR NO?
A: Yes. Shoulder ranks, the chef don’t need, but chef is the chief.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: My father’s bulgur (Turkish cuscus). The dish is infamously tough to cook. The bottom part of the dish you have to burn a little bit, but if cook it too long you burn the whole thing. It’s just a moment you have to catch.

Q: WHAT FOOD WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD NEMESIS?
A: I hated beans, red beans. I still don’t like, but still cook. Their part of a traditional Turkish menu, I put them on my menu all the time. I won’t eat it anyway.

WILDEST WAR STORY

I was working in a restaurant with two assistants and one day a very big group of 120 people arrived during a three day religious holiday. These holidays, everybody travels. One assistant cut his hand and another was sick and they were off. I worked alone the entire day. I’d bring out a dish and go back for another, by the time I had returned the first was empty. I ended up making omelets to order.

Piero “Ghigo”Paolini

HOSTARIA WINE BAR & RESTAURANT
DONGCHENG

0615_cover story_6His mother called him Ghigo (Gee-go) since he was an infant, a name that he took to extremes in the christening of his first restaurant, Ghigolo—“like gigolo,” a professional male companion. His philosophy to opening a restaurant, a task that he has realized more than once, is to concentrate most effort on atmosphere. As he says, we can go a week to ten days without eating. Ghigo doesn’t expect to draw customers on sustenance alone; he believes that a restaurant is a destination to relax the mind, a place where tough decisions seem distant.

This is very likely due to his untraditional entrance to becoming a chef. Early on, Ghigo was a party planner. He says he put together the kind of events that bring food together with dance. It was his grandmother, and great-grandmother, that passed down his passion for cooking, and chefs along the way that taught him what is found on his menus. Sometimes I’m a chef, sometimes a supervisor, sometimes I teach, when the restaurant is ready, I go.

Q&A


Q: CHEF JACKET OR NO?
A: Yes. Shoulder ranks, the chef don’t need, but chef is the chief.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: In my family my grandmother and great-grandmother make two fantastic things. They make a fantastic osso buco (braised veal shanks). I ask my grandmother to make it every day. She doesn’t make, not every day, but she make. She used a cast iron pan; you never clean. You think it’s dirty, but it’s not dirty because of the heat. And pepper salad. They go into the garden and they make a salad for me because I like so much. That smell is always in my nose. I try to make the same but it is impossible. When I go to some place and get the smell of osso buco or peppers, I go back in my mind.

Q: WHAT IS THE CRAZIEST THING YOU’VE DONE FOR A CUSTOMER?
A: We are like the father in the church, if we make the good work many people talk to us and tell us the secrets. They want to talk, talk, talk, and we know many things. One customer, one day, ask me if he can book my restaurant for one night, “I want to ask my girlfriend to marry and I want to ask the book the whole restaurant. If it is expensive, don’t worry, arrange for me.”

He is a really important political man in Italy. I make the same thing from the movie (Once Upon a Time in America), the candles, all my waiters ready for work, but for only two. And the girl, when she arrives, she starts to cry and said, “Oh, I love it. I will marry you.” And he says, “No, wait, wait.”

WILDEST WAR STORY

The first night I arrived here, I had jetlag. My friends say Friday we must go outside. First dayI went to [Bar Street]. Now I know, but when I first arrive here I don’t know where I am; I don’t speak one word in Chinese. My telephone with my home address finished its battery and I was drunk. My friend left to get another friend home safely. I stay here at 3 or 4 o’clock—drunk, no telephone, and I’d arrived just two days. So I go out and get a taxi and asked all, “Speak English?” “No.” “Speak English?” “No.” I go with one taxi. We went down wrong streets. Maybe after 30 minutes I arrived home. I live around the corner.

Andrea Evaristi

LUIGI ITALIAN RESTAURANT
SHERATON HOUJIE HOTEL

0615_cover story_7This Italian chef comes from a quiet little city, raised by a nice mother and father with a brother and sister, was treated well by a grandfather and grandmother who tended a farm, while Andrea cleaned potatoes after school in “the chapel,” La Cappella that is, his parents’ restaurant. It closed and his parents retired four years ago, but Andrea left the continent on Christmas Eve 2009 after taking a job over the phone. He was so excited for the offer that he had to double back to check his hearing. Ye, he’d be moving to China.

His father had a similar reaction, joking, “Me. Yeah, I go to Mongolia.” But on December 24 he was landing in Hong Kong, waiting for a visa so he could get to work on December 25. It was the same day that he met his future wife and mother to his three children.

He had spent time away from home when he studied in France’s bull fighting capital of Nimes, but this was a different matter. There, he wasn’t a fan of the French cooking style of Novel Cuisine or being called vattel, a lightly derogatory term for an Italian. Either way, Andrea has made Houjie his home and plans on staying.

Q&A


Q: MY BIG BREAK?
A: The day I hung my first uniform in my closet, I looked all night. I had dreamed this one.

Q: WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST ADVENTURE IN DONGGUAN? 
A: When we start one business in Dongguan. I see the kitchen was made by a magic man (chuckle). They paid a [fengshui master] he decided where to put the fire, where to put the water.

Q: WHAT WAS THE STRANGEST INTERACTION WITH A GUEST?
A: I still believe the guest is always right. I argue with the staff, but never with the guest, but an American guest in 2012, May or June, asked to tell me, “Why is there no mushroom and green peas in the Bolognese sauce?” I told him, “I am from Bologna. Never in my life have I seen it done. He had had in a restaurant in New York by an Italian chef. He was a VIP, and he threatened to have me fired. I was still on my three month probation.

WILDEST WAR STORY

My chef teacher, he would tell us, “Never sit on top of the tables.” One day we were doing the training, the chef sat on the stove with the pilot light on. We see some smoke rising from behind. When he finally noticed, he start to scream and open his jacket. He get fire from the back. I remember, he was very prideful and threw his jacket on the floor. He says, “This, guys, is a sample of how to take off the jacket during the fire.” But he wouldn’t admit that it was a mistake.

Andrew Mast

ROADHOUSE BAR & GRILL
DONGCHENG

0615_cover story_8Although the term outport seems fit to describe a sci-fi outer space safe house, it is really a small community with a population under 2,000, a fishing village in Canada’s beautiful Newfoundland Province. Andrew saw many of them in his youth, popping from one to another as his father set up a fresh dental practice every couple of years. The transitory lifestyle of his youth became comfortable, where he never felt completely solvent within the more wholesome and naive people of small town Canada. “I take comfort in the feeling of being lost not really knowing where I am or what I’m going to do next. I guess it’s kind of one of the reasons I moved to the opposite side of the world.”

When he finished high school it was a life of rock ‘n’ roll and kicking around Canada until ending up in St. John’s, capital of Newfoundland, where he discovered a real care for preparing food that motivated him to work his way up through the ranks and eventually getting a degree from the Culinary Institute of Canada.

His philosophy is that food should be simple, honest food for the soul. Keep the quality high and the value good, but when you’re at home, Andrew will tell you to eat the way the Chinese do. Buy your vegetables at the neighborhood market, they’re too assorted and cheap to pass up.

Q&A


Q: BEST SPOT IN RESTAURANT?
A: I love having a pint of beer, having a cigar and playing foosball.

Q: WHAT IS CANADA’S NATIONAL DISH?
A: In Newfoundland the big thing is cod fish. There is a saying in Newfoundland, “In Cod we trust.” King Cod, it built that province.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: It was being in Montreal and getting to eat at a restaurant called Joe Beef, which I’d admired for a long time. A really cool rustic style of cooking, and they had this dish that was a play on KFC’s double down burger (a beef patty between two fried chicken breasts) and they had their own, but in the center it was two pieces of seared foie gras, really thickly cut, and in the center was sticky-braised pork belly and it was seriously orgasmically good. There were four of us eating and we literally fought over the last piece.

WILDEST WAR STORY

Hazing the new guys. These are fun things we like to do to new kids. One would be mopping the walk-in freezer. And they quickly learn that they can’t mop the walk-in freezer and they have to get a bucket of hot water to get the mop off the ground.

We were in a restaurant in the kitchen one time and this kid comes and he’s quivering because he’s so nervous, and he says, “Hi, I’m from the restaurant up the street and the chef needs the bacon stretcher. And my chef looks at me and says, “I can’t handle this so you’re going to have to deal with it.” And I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, ours just broke down. You can ask the restaurant next door.” And he went to a bunch of restaurants in downtown St. Johns until someone was like, “Dude, there’s no such thing.”

Armando Monti

SOCIAL
QIFENG VIEW

0615_cover story_9Another in the fraternity of Italian chefs, Armando, a man of seemingly endless energy and jovial spirit, may have only come to his current post three months ago and won’t be staying long, but he is no newbie to Dongguan. He has worked for Hollywood Baby Café and Maccheroni Grill in the past, but he is as restless professionally as he is in person.

To get to where he is today he left his native Naples, Italy to study in London. That was after he spent five years studying dentistry to follow in his father’s footsteps, which he knew early on wasn’t for him. Now he pops back and forth monthly from Dongguan to his partnered restaurant in Bangkok, and he already has his eyes set on his next restaurant project, Australia.

His has been a passion since the days of his grandmother hanging him on her hip while she cooked for the family. Armando says it was the smell of the food and the sounds of the people surrounding them in the kitchen as the social center of the matriarch’s home that left a lasting impression.

Q&A


Q: FAVORITE ITALIAN CUISINE
A: Ciociaria

Q: WHAT IS THE CRAZIEST THING TO HAPPEN WITH A GUEST?
A: To remember. Sometimes some sweet lady come in and ask me chef can you teach me to make tiramisu. It’s the truth. It’s a funny story the girl come in and asks me, “Armando, can you teach me?” And then she came to the kitchen, and she was crazy for my tiramisu. Come into the kitchen I’ll teach you. She was pretty and beautiful. And later we went on date. Actually it happened to me a couple times.

Q: WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST ADVENTURE IN DONGGUAN?
A: When I arrived four years ago, the first day in china, the same night I go out with my staff. I mean I go out with them and we get drunk—I mean drunk—we drink a lot and then they leave me near to my house in Houjie and then walking back to home I find one street restaurant. I stop there and I ate beef sticks. I ate three or four there. And the day after I got sick, I mean I could not work. So my friend he took me to the hospital. The doctor said, “What did you eat?” I say, “I eat this kind of food.” And he said, “OK, you eat rat.” He said, “You know, it’s normal.” And I say, “What the #@$!. I ate rat that I didn’t know was rat!” I got sick for one week. Actually it was really very good. I was drunk. I ate three or four.

WILDEST WAR STORY

In Thailand they were a little bit emotional. One time, one chef, for example, I have 200 to 250 people for lunch, it was crazy busy. He was doing something but very, very, slowly and looking around. I said, “Move your ass. There are a lot of people.” And he take off the jacket and jump out the kitchen window and ran away. They are so proud and you can not raise your voice too much. And when you live there you understand the philosophy they have.

Fabio Mariella

SONGSHAN LAKE HYATT REGENCY
DONGGUAN

0615_cover story_10When Genoa, the historic maritime town in northern Italy, is pronounced natively, the word squawks of savory wisdom. As most users of the language, Fabio is lifetime lover of food. As a child of about 9, he could be found in the kitchen stirring out a tomato sauce or Bolognese, cooking for his mother when she worked. However, it took time at university studying IT before he, realizing he didn’t have the patience for math, took the show on the road to Las Vegas. “I went to Las Vegas at the Venetian, and there, when I see this kitchen—how they set it up and how they worked—I was like, Oh, this is my job. This is what I want.

The big chaotic, industrial kitchen was to a new chef like an ambitious amateur tour golfer playing St. Andrews, but after three years there, Fabio was looking forward to bringing his skills home to Italy and following his career there. For him, however, the small homey restaurants of Genoa were no comparison and he became a little jumpy, which is exactly what he did when the opportunity to work in Hong Kong came along—jump.

Q&A


Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: My dad is from Taranto and there they get quite a lot of seafood because it is near the coast, actually, even more than what I got in Genoa. I remember my dad used to like diving, taking the sea urchins, and bringing them to us fresh on the beach and we were cutting and eating them like that. It is the most amazing thing you can eat.

Q: DESCRIBE THE NEW GENERATION OF CHEFS. 
A: Old style is much more egotistical. The young generation doesn’t want to be yelled at, like on Hell’s Kitchen. Honestly, yelling is good way to learn. It motivates you, gives you a sense of urgency.

Q: DO NOT ORDER
A: A poached egg in an Italian restaurant.

Q: WHAT FOOD DID YOU HATE AS A KID?
A: Legumes, like beans, chickpeas, I really hate that. Even on my menu there’s not many.

WILDEST WAR STORY

In Vegas you get to cook for a lot of actors sometimes Pavarotti come, Van Damme—Beyoncé. They were coming to eat. We just greet them, say hi. Ask them about the food. They were quite nice people, simple, nice.

Antonino “Nino” Scordo

THE Q HOTEL
HOUJIE

0615_cover story_11Nino, Nino, Nino. In his presence most everything else seems small. Confidence pumps out of him like solar flares. He was just 24 when he became executive chef at the Hilton Malta and he says he had his own place in Italy before times got tough there and he packed it up for the opportunities of new China.

Here, he barreled through a number of restaurant openings and says he has recruited some 15 chefs from Italy to work in and run kitchens in China. However, he has not always been on the road with so many. He had to hide away from his father, an engineer who wanted Nino to follow in his footsteps. He thought he was winning the battle, too. Until one day on a business trip in Reggio Eimilia, his father told the owner of a small restaurant there that he was from a small town in Sicily. It was a familiar small town, and the dinner guests must know his new chef in training, thought the owner.

Nino, says when he was called out to greet the guests he stood back as his father was the last at the table to turn to recognize him under his flour and tomato sauce covered uniform. The reaction that followed was more expletive than accepting. Of course, Nino had told his father that he was at university studying to become an engineer.

Q&A


Q: YOUR HERO?
A: My god is Gordon Ramsey.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FOOD MEMORY?
A: One day, mother had ten people come in our house to eat. My mother says to me, “Nino, now I need to go the store. After one hour you need to put this egg together [in the parfait] and later you can put in the freezer.” I wait one hour for this dish’s egg, but I don’t remember where I put it. When my mother arrived, I tell her I did, but no. I open the freezer; no egg, but really good. Still to this day I make parfait without egg.

Q: WHAT IS THE CHILDHOOD FOOD THAT YOU HATE?
A: Since 11-years-old, and still now, no cheese in my life. Before, I tried to eat cheese, but when I was 11 I make the decision that I don’t want cheese in my life.

Because in Italy there is one cheese called pecorino you know the blue cheese and the smell of this cheese is awful.

WILDEST WAR STORY

I like all the guest that come in my restaurant to respect me and my staff. And I don’t like the people—“Hey, hey. Come here, come here.” The first thing is you need to respect my house. The whole time I work in the restaurant it is the same thing as is my house. And one time I have one [employee] is from Tunisia and one guest tell this people, “Hey, [derogatory word for black].” And you know this word is not a good word. I hear and I ask him to go to another restaurant to eat and he say, “No.” And no food for him for sure. The first thing is respect for all my staff, because it is the people working to make you happy.

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