Features 3 minutes 24 March 2023

Still Waters Run Deep: Hakkasan Abu Dhabi's Lee Kok Hua on Keeping Tradition Alive

MICHELIN-Starred Hakkasan Abu Dhabi is celebrated for its modern take on Chinese cuisine, and its chef, Lee Kok Hua, says that the key to unlocking innovation is attained by staying true to tradition.

There is a Chinese proverb, 饮水思源, which loosely translates to "when you drink water, you must think of its source." And when it comes to today's restaurants that focus on modern cuisine, Hakkasan Abu Dhabi's Malaysia-born chef, Lee Kok Hua, waxes poetic about how innovation can only be truly achieved if one is firmly rooted in his or her heritage.

This philosophy of Lee's is reflected in Hakkasan Abu Dhabi's cuisine. Lee stays true to the roots of Chinese cooking while presenting modern Asian dishes. In tandem with EIRA Water, a brand that likewise focuses on provenance and sourcing, Lee shares more about how tradition and heritage play a key role in one-MICHELIN-Starred Hakkasan Abu Dhabi.

The Significance of Heritage

"My fundamental culinary techniques and knowledge are derived from the traditions I grew up with," shares Lee. Of Hakka descent and hailing from the city of Johor Bahru, Malaysia, Lee comes from a family of chefs, discovering his love for the culinary arts at 17. "I learned a lot by simply watching my mother in the kitchen. I believe my heritage has paved the road for the culinary practices I apply in my work today, at least for me. Without that, I may not be who I am today."

Lee continues to emphasise how tradition plays a huge role in shaping who we are as individuals. "It gives us a unique character," he adds. "The traditional practices of our ancestors provided us with a variety of cultures to learn from, especially when it comes to food." Always highlighting the role of food as a means of non-verbal communication from a chef to his guests, Lee says, "by using food as a tool of communication, one is able to tell the story of their roots and ethnicity. This, in my opinion, is what tradition is all about. This is why it is so important to keep it."

Unlocking Innovation Through Tradition

Recognised with its first MICHELIN Star in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide Ceremony Abu Dhabi 2023, Hakkasan Abu Dhabi celebrates Cantonese classics that are all prepared with enormous skill. After having been with the restaurant for over 12 years, Lee attributes this expertise to tradition.

"Most modern cuisines have evolved from traditional practices," he says. "Cooking with a knowledge rooted in tradition serves as the foundation for modern cuisine. It has contributed to the basic understanding of the ingredients, so that we may create and innovate new dishes without contradicting the flavour of each ingredient."

“Think of tradition as the pillar for many high-rise buildings; it holds the building securely, allowing it to stand strong and create its value.”

According to Lee, modern cuisine involves more precise measurements and procedures, whereas traditional cooking is more rooted in experience, giving validation to how elders usually "cook by the gut-feel".

"The challenge nowadays involves translating experience-rooted cooking styles into precision-oriented recipes," shares Lee. "This translation includes conceptualisation, as well as knowing how to portion ingredients and to take the nutritional values into account. But that's how it is nowadays. We need to learn how to adapt to the evolving times, especially from traditional to modern cuisine. However, as the quote states, 'practice makes perfect'. Through proper practice and a willingness to learn. No obstacles can block the way," Lee says.

The Importance of Provenance in Hakkasan's Cuisine

"In Cantonese cuisine, a plate of green vegetables is a must in every meal," says Lee. "Regardless of the type of vegetable, as long as it is green in colour, it counts." Lee shares that the Cantonese are very particular about their food, highlighting the balance of nutrients in every meal. Of course, the same applies to Hakkasan Abu Dhabi's food. "We emphasise not only the taste, but also the holistic health of our guests — their health is also our responsibility," Lee emphasises.

At Hakkasan Abu Dhabi, the source of all ingredients is scrutinised carefully. "We ensure that the process of procurement, transportation, and handling are all done properly, as we prioritise our diners' well-beings. During this post-pandemic era, I realised that being healthy and present with one's surroundings, especially with family, is the key to living," says Lee. "Therefore, in addition to taste, we also give importance to the safety and nutritional values of our foods. We aim to provide a delicious, safe, and nutrient-balanced meal for every guest and family who dines at Hakkasan Abu Dhabi."

A Message to the Younger Generations on Keeping Tradition Alive

As a father, Lee feels that he has a responsibility to explain the importance of tradition to not only his children, but also to the youth and beyond. "A rising number of young people, including my children, are dissociating themselves from tradition," Lee expresses. "I cannot deny that there are people who are strict with tradition, and that may repel the youth," he adds.

"Understanding and acknowledging our roots and traditions is important for our interpersonal and fundamental skills. These are the things that are passed down from generation to generation," Lee says. He adds that as a chef from his generation, remembering his traditional practices have been crucial in getting through hardships and building perseverance. "I cannot stress enough how important and crucial it is to have a willingness to learn and to adapt during these times, especially in this industry," he says.

“To the younger generations, it is your time to search for the shining gem in your culinary journey — your style and your creativity. I understand there are many unknowns in the future. Do not fear the danger. As I always say, 'Danger is real, but fear is a choice.'”

Still Waters Run Deep

Going back to the Chinese proverb 饮水思源, Lee says that great virtue is like water, as the element nurtures living things, switching into various forms to adapt to its surroundings and environment.

"Whenever you take a sip of water, be aware of the water well from which it was extracted," reminds Lee. "Nothing comes from its own. For example, the durian tree outside my house came from a seed planted by my grandparents. Today’s homegrown durians were an effort from the past. We shall never forget the contribution of our ancestors and acknowledge their efforts, which is why we need to continue to hold on to our roots to achieve progress in this modern world," says Lee.


Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading