A few words with Mr Peng
hefs often talk about where they’ve come from, where they’ve been, what kitchens they’ve worked in and who they’ve worked with. If you asked me what inspired me to start cooking, I honestly don’t know. From when I was fourteen years old, I knew that I wanted to work in a kitchen and that was it.
I’ve always kept my story close to my heart. As far as I’m concerned, all you need to know is that food is my life.
You might think it’s strange to have no provenance when food these days is all about having roots but if I show you my hands, you will understand. Wrinkled and bronzed with age, they tell of more than half a century’s worth of kitchen stories. The fingers don’t quite fully extend because they’ve become so familiar with the unyielding handles of the cleaver and the wok. Bleached white lines illustrate cuts that are so deep they’ve become permanently tattooed on the skin. Hardened pads, built up over many years, are as much a necessity as a by-product.
When I opened my restaurant Hunan in 1982, it was a seven- days-a-week operation. Today we are open for six. This is probably the only thing that has changed in the past thirty years.
Life hasn’t slowed down at all. Even though I am close to seventy, I’m still in the kitchen and in the restaurant every day doing prep, working the wok and talking to guests, many of whom have been regulars for years.
My statues of Buddha are high up near the ceiling of the restaurant along with some of the antiques I’ve collected over the years, and my favourite brush paintings line the walls. The hand-written orders are still sent down to the kitchen by a chute and the food still travels up in the dumb waiter. The restaurant has had a lick of paint here and there but fundamentally, it is still the same.
What makes Hunan unique is our approach to dining. I want everyone to try everything, and to try different things every time, so there is no menu. Instead, each guest is served a selection of small dishes, often more than 15 in one sitting. Each plate is a photograph for the palate, capturing memories of Taiwan, Sichuan, Guangdong and beyond.
The food is simple but the flavours are infinite. It is about teasing out the best of the ingredients. Subtle blends of chilli and Sichuan peppercorns push enormous pearly scallops to the edge while keeping them fresh and sweet, and the gentle salty miso cuts through the tenderest slivers of corn-fed chicken to make the most wonderful savouiy dish.
With three vinegars, four chilli sauces, sprinklings of sugar, pinches of salt, dashes of Shaoxing wine and slivers of ginger, spring onion and garlic, I create hundreds of tried and tested dishes. I always use the freshest ingredients of the highest quality. And that will never change.
So you see, there’s no celebrity to sell here. Just experience from some fifty years of kitchen life.
ESEMPIO DI RICETTA