Known for his versatile cooking techniques, chef Kelvin Cheung is known for capturing the nostalgic flavours of North American Asian dishes.
This globe-trotting chef has travelled the world and now opened Jun’s situated in the heart of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard with delightful dishes to indulge in.
Known as a third culture chef, Jun’s invites guests from the globe over to indulge in delectable delights with a menu that takes fusion cooking to the next level.
To see his journey as a chef, Emirates Woman, speaks to Chef Kelvin to delve into how it all began.
Talk us through your career.
Both my father and grandmother were chefs, so I spent a lot of time growing up around cooking. I have vivid memories of my father’s traditional Hong Kong style Cantonese restaurants in Toronto and Chicago where I would always help in the kitchens, so I suppose my culinary career started here! After mixing with well-respected chefs and mentors while living in Chicago as a young adult, I joined Kendall College of Culinary Arts. During my time there, I placed in the San Pellegrino Rising Young Chef competition which was one of the biggest confidence boosts in my career, and when I realized that I could cook for a career. During that contest, I met a prestigious chef who offered me an unpaid internship in Belgium, which I happily accepted. This was a huge risk, leaving the family business for the first time to move to a different country on a different continent to a restaurant that I knew nothing about. On top of this, neither my mother tongue Cantonese nor my second language English were spoken – only Dutch and French. This was a kickstart to my foundation of classical French cooking. Following my return from Belgium, I took on leadership roles in Canada and America. This path eventually led me to a six-month contract in India, which turned into nearly a decade of me living there! Then in 2021, it all began and here we are in Dubai, with our recent adventure, Jun’s.
What inspired you to launch Jun’s in Dubai and enter the culinary world?
I remember the first time I ever visited Dubai, it was in 2016 and I was on a market analysis visit. Five years later, I moved to Dubai in May 2021 after seeing the hospitality industry crash due to Covid. Neha Anand of Three Layer Hospitality reached out to me about moving to Dubai to open our dream restaurant, and at that point, I was very intrigued! I was already aware of the expected up-and-coming hospitality scene in the Middle East and wanted to be a part of it.
You’re a third-generation chef, how did it start for you?
My first memory of food is folding fortune cookies and pressing almond cookies in the basement of my father’s restaurant in Toronto with his head baker when I was around three or four years old. My elder brother and I would spend most mornings under the watchful eye of the baker, helping with small tasks while my immigrant parents worked hard to build a new life for us in North America. While I am heavily influenced by my father’s love of cooking and flair for hospitality, the person who had the most impact on my culinary journey is my grandmother, who came from Hong Kong to help my father in his first three restaurants in Toronto, and I cannot remember a meal that was not perfect. There is something magical about her cooking and at 103 she still leads a kitchen like a head chef. Her first job was back-breaking labour in a Lime Quarry in Mainland China, and she eventually escaped poverty after meeting my grandfather who was a University Basketball Coach. Together they moved to Hong Kong and openedmultiple successful, hole-in-the-wall eateries. Their love of food and basketball is honoured at Jun’s during our biweekly Basketball and Breakfast team days.
You focus on seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients from Hong Kong, Canada and India. How do you source these and fuse them so successfully?
Over time in my career, I began to realise that there were no rules, no borders, and no boundaries when it came to cooking. I started listening to instinct rather than the old-school rules of using specific ingredient combinations that were taught in culinary school. The focus is on respecting and using the local seasonal ingredients and creating dishes and recipes that let the beauty of each ingredient shine.
The restaurant is known for its eclectic dining experience – can you expand on this?
The vision of Jun’s was to create a space that is the go-to place for every occasion, where you know you are guaranteed an unforgettable experience with delicious food and drink. Jun’s should be the place that you go when you are hungry, the place where you go for a drink and a snack, the place for date night, and even the place for special occasions and celebrations. We want Jun’s to bring joy to all our guests, no matter the reason. Jun’s is also third culture cooking, where every dish has its own story. Jun’s is my life on a plate – American Asian in a modern progressive format, which is why I want guests to feel like they know me after listening to the different journeys of flavours and reasoning behind each dish.
How has your background and culture been represented in the food?
While we now refer to our food as ‘fun, inventive cooking without borders’, it is still North American Asian at heart. Growing up in North America to immigrant parents, I lived in a dual world. There was not much diversity at my school, so outside of that, I sought refuge in the Asian communities that lived around China Town. During the menu development process, I was trying to label my food and the only thing that felt right was that it did not fall under one of the existing labels. I then decided on North American Asian, a distinct cuisine. The food incorporates easier-to-source ingredients and does not limit itself to tradition as it explores different flavour combinations. We always hear that food unites us, and this is true to some extent. However, speaking as a son of immigrant parents, it also divides us. Throughout history, immigrants have always been incredible at improvisation, adaptation, and invention in the kitchen. This is why I think you are now seeing such a big rise in third-culture chefs. We are all cooking what we know, the adapted version of culture using ingredients and techniques that were possible in our new home countries that were a world away from our culture.
What was your though process when designing the menu?
When building menus, I like to think about the menu as one meal, a meal that is balanced in flavour profiles as well as dietary needs to complete a full experience. Whether it be a full five or six-course meal or just a night where you want to come in to relax and have some small bites, Jun’s has you covered. My menu is an ode to the North American Asian food I grew up with, served in a modern format. I have reimagined my favourite dishes and flavours from across the entire continent and tell my story through each of my dishes. This is why you will see Chinese flavour combinations using French techniques that I learned during my time in Belgium, and the opposite too. You’ll find dishes that are considered traditionally European, like Burrata or Rigatoni paired with unusual flavours like mapo. Just in case the food does not convey the message, our team members take storytelling seriously while walking guests through the Jun’s experience.
Which for you are ‘The Hero Dishes’?
Honestly, my dishes are just like children… you do not have favourites! Each dish has been crafted with love and passion, respect for the ingredients, and simplicity without gimmicks. However, if I absolutely had to choose, one of our hero dishes would be our famed Rainbow Heirloom Carrots. This is a true third culture cooking dish, inspired by a very American core childhood memory of mine, incorporating Asian flavours and essence. During primary school, my mother fell in love with bagels topped with cream cheese and smoked salmon, which inspired me to recreate that same smoky flavour profile in a vegetarian form. Another hero dish would be our delicious Scallops & Corn. Growing up in Toronto, I spent a lot of my time in the summers picking fresh vegetables, including my favourite, peaches and cream corn. This is a fond memory of mine and is the reason I created this corn dish, paired with fresh Hokkaido Scallop and homemade Yuzu Kosho over crispy sushi rice. Lastly, our Baked Alaska Tiramisu Mochi was inspired by a childhood memory where I befriended two coffee shop owners at a skating rink below my father’s largest restaurant. He would not want me in the way during his service, so I used to visit the ice rink and coffee shop instead, where the owners would gift me hot chocolate with extra marshmallows.
How has the UAE’s diverse nature contributed to the range of flavours in your dishes?
The diversity in the city makes it an incredible opportunity to offer a wide range of flavours, textures, and truly push culinary boundaries. There is something for everyone in Dubai and someone in the audience for every type of restaurant. As the food scene in Dubai offers top-quality food and service in every corner of the city, it keeps my team and I motivated to deliver excellence with every experience. There are very few places in the world that cater to such a diverse set of people. With that being said, when creating a menu, I have to ensure we have options for everyone, to allow an inclusive experience for all diners. Every menu offers over 50 per cent vegetarian options while being sensitive and adaptable to allergens like gluten and dietary preferences like vegan. Balancing a menu and dishes to be as creative as possible while also keeping in mind affordability and approachability is a skill I have practiced for years and that is what will keep us in business.
What’s next on the roadmap for Jun’s?
We have big dreams, as always, but I have read somewhere that research suggests that telling people about your big goal won’t increase the chance of succeeding at all. On the contrary, the more people you tell, the less likely that you’ll succeed. So, for now, we will keep it under wraps, but will definitely keep you all posted when we are ready!
This is The Trailblazers Issue – to you, what does it take to be a trailblazer?
The trailblazer vision may be seen as different or diverging from what the rest of the world is doing but having the courage to continue and push on, is what truly defines being a trailblazer. A trailblazer needs to believe and have unwavering faith in what they are doing. It may not be the easiest path, nor the fastest path, but the person needs the grit and determination to never give up. They may fail and fail again, but to persevere and keep the vision is key to what a trailblazer can achieve. Failure is instrumental to building your character and your empire.
September – The Trailblazers Issue with Amira Sajwani – Download Now
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