The Merchants, one of the newest additions by Hong Kong-based hospitality group Leading Nation Hospitality, offers a modern reinterpretation of classic dishes from Shanghai and the surrounding provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. Located at Forty-Five, atop Gloucester Tower on the 43/F in LANDMARK, The Merchants is helmed by multi-award-winning Head Chef Chen Tian Long. Chef Chen’s expertise was previously forged at Jade de Jardin, where his efforts were instrumental in continuing the restaurant’s Michelin Star standard of culinary excellence.
In 2022, Chef Chen debuted with two ‘Gold Awards’ in the Asia Art of Cuisine Society’s Asian Culinary Exchange cooking competition. His individual and team award-winning dish, Braised Mandarin Fish & Cuttlefish Roll with Savoury Crispy Beans in Crab Consommé, received the Gold prize in both categories.
We spoke with Chef Chen on his experience and future with The Merchants:
How did you get your start and what were the steps that led to your current position?
I have been working in the F&B industry for 17 years. In 2010, my family moved to Hong Kong, and I started to work at Liu Yuan Pavilion (留園雅敘) as an apprentice. I also worked at the Shanghai Fraternity Association Hong Kong Limited (上海總會), where I honed my skills and cooking techniques.
What professional and personal experiences drive you forward in your career and push your cuisine style?
I love to see my guests enjoying the food. [My drive is] combining traditional cooking techniques with my own cooking style; picking the best ingredients; paying attention to details; and aiming to pass down the beautiful history of Shanghai cuisine.
What, or who, would you say has inspired your cooking the most?
Chef Yuen Kwok Hing is my mentor and my friend. He is someone that I look up to, and we always explore new dishes and try to create something new for our diners. The test-and-try process gives me the most inspiration and understanding of my new creations.
[I always try to be] humble and learn from good chefs and seniors. My mentor never hides his secrets, he shares his cooking journey with me selflessly to allow me to explore and enjoy cooking. [It was with his help], my hard work, and accumulated practical work in the kitchen [that I was able to] work my way up to Executive Chef at The Merchants.
How do you deal with the challenges faced both in your kitchen and in the industry as a whole?
Opening The Merchants is definitely a challenge; with a brand new team, we created the whole concept from the start. It’s challenging, yet I am enjoying every part of it. I also attach great importance to team spirit. Even during the COVID pandemic, I never left my team, I boosted everyone’s morale and did not give up on anyone.
What do you think makes a dish successful and what role does creativity play in the process?
[Success comes from] using the best ingredients, and the chef’s experience to bring out the original flavour and the best [aspects of the] dish. I also [follow] the diners’ perspective to create dishes according to their preferences.
How has your culinary style developed over time?
The reason for the success of the restaurant lies in proper management and authentic materials without cutting corners to deceive people. [In doing this] customers will trust the restaurant and return.
The success of the menu must depend on the cooperation of the entire team, not just the credit of one person. The quality of the ingredients, the mastery of the chef’s taste and cooking skills, the personality revealed in the dishes, the value for money, and the consistency of the dining standards all make a menu successful.
What ingredients can you not cook without, or love using in your food.
Seasonal ingredients can best reflect the freshness of the menu and the sensitivity to seasonal ingredients. [I love] paying attention to the use of seasonal ingredients and seasonal flavors, skillfully blending traditional dishes with modern elements, and retaining the original flavor of dishes.
What is your least favourite ingredient and is there a particular reason you prefer to not cook with it?
MSG. As mentioned before, I like to pay attention to the quality of the ingredients and the taste of the produce. We insist on not adding any MSG to our dishes.
What are a few of your current favourite dishes on the menu, and why?
My current favourite dishes are the Deep-fried Mandarin Fish with Sweet & Sour Sauce and the Drunken Crab with 25-year Hua Diao Wine. These two dishes are very elaborate and complicated. We use 25-year-old Huadiao for its flavour and aroma. Deep-fried Mandarin Fish with Sweet & Sour Sauce is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It is a legendary dish in Jiangsu cuisine, one of the eight major cuisines in China. The boneless fish is cut into a cross shape before frying, sprinkled with shrimp, pine nuts, and green beans, and served in a slightly sour sweet and sour sauce.
Why would guests choose your venue over others and how does this influence decision-making going forward?
We pay extra attention to the taste of the food itself, and try to bring out the original flavour of the food while using different cooking methods. In addition, we also change our menu regularly depending on the seasonal ingredients in order to present the freshest and newest dish to our diners.
What changes have you witnessed on the local and global food scene in recent years?
Because of COVID, customers have become more aware of health and hygiene and they want to know what they are eating in their meals. This influences restaurants and chefs to pay more attention to designing their dishes and menu.
What kind of restaurants do you eat at and why?
Something simple and easy. I like to eat at HK Style Food Stalls – Tai Pai Dong and Wok Hei is the key at these food stalls. Gathering around with a group of people after work, enjoying some local dishes like a Fried King, steamed seafood, or a salt and pepper fresh squid paired with beer is one of the great pleasures in life.