Chefs Ian Pengelley and Jason See Meng Hwa reveal what’s in store for new Harrods contemporary Chinese restaurant Chai Wu, starting with their Beijing duck
Could this be the finest Beijing Duck in London served in the most luxurious setting? The ratio of crackling to fat is perfectly balanced as it is carved in front of me. It comes with freshly made fluffy Mantou buns as well as pancakes and a vast array of homemade sauces and moreish pickles. I am seated at a sophisticated chocolate leather banquette in the newly created fifth floor restaurant Chai Wu at Harrods and Group Executive Chef Ian Pengelley, one of the UK’s leading experts in Asian cuisine and Malaysian/Chinese Chef Jason See Meng Hwa have my rapt attention as they explain the intricacies of what makes this such a special dish.
Appropriately Chai in Chinese means wealth, and no expense has been spared in creating the discreet restaurant. Wu means the number five, referring to Chai Wu’s 5th floor location. In addition, the five elements of Chinese philosophy: wood, metal, water, earth and fire have been incorporated by Harrison designers into the look of the restaurant. Fire is explicitly represented with the restaurant’s lava rock charcoal grill.
Chai also refers back to the Pan Chai restaurant that is already well established in Harrods Food Hall, also serving Pan Asian dishes created by Ian Pengelley. Chai Wiu is a restaurant for lingering in more private surroundings with the emphasis on very refined presentation. I learn that David Beckham and family often pop in downstairs and are fully expected to be among the fans of the new restaurant, besides a growing number of Chinese visitors to Harrods (now making up 30% of their visitors).
Chef Ian Pengelley’s name is likely to be familiar to London restaurant scene watchers. Having trained all over Asia including Thailand, Malaysia and China, Ian was the launch chef of E&O Notting Hill and started his own massively successful Pan Asian restaurant, Gilgamesh back in 2011.
A busy man, he is also executive chef of Thai Mango Tree in Belgravia and a regular on Masterchef. Ian reveals that his passion for Asian food goes back even further. He spent his early childhood in Hong Kong as his father was in the army. He recalls that one day when he was only seven, he ran away from his mother in the middle of the market and found himself in a Chinese restaurant. ‘Even then I was blown away by the assault on my senses. It was incredible, steamy and noisy. I was sat in a chair in the kitchen watching the chefs prepare Hainanese chicken. My mother burst in looking terrified.’
Jason has been Ian’s right-hand man in the kitchen for more than 10 years and they work intuitively together. ‘My background combines Malaysian and Chinese influences, so I was born cooking Pan Asian food. For example, our red snapper dish has a sauce that represents the different areas of Asia with sweet, sharp and spicy notes,’ explains Jason. Ian is more explicit. ‘Quite simply, I am setting out to sex up Pan Asian cuisine, using authentic techniques yet making dishes that are rather different and very refined and pleasing to behold. Dishes such as our Chilean seabass in champagne.’
Besides flavour, there’s lots of colour to dishes, such as their take on sweet and sour chicken balls served tumbling out of a dragon fruit. ‘Diners really do want to eat with their eyes too,’ observes Ian.
‘The greatest compliment diners have given about Chai Wu so far is that it is impossible to tell that it was once a retail space,’ reveals designer Andrew Kirk of Harrison. ‘We were working with a very limited space and needed to make it streamlined, yet really warm and inviting. It had to exude simple luxury as well as a touch of theatre.’ Most importantly, the lighting is immensely flattering, ‘we deliberately chose copper mirrors. They make everyone look better,’ he says.
Both Ian and Jason travel extensively for international openings and to gain new insights for their menus. The chefs agree that right now Shanghai and Hong Kong are probably the most exciting places to visit. ‘Both these cities are especially vibrant, blend East and West, and are attracting lots of investment and change. They tend to be ahead of the trends,’ says Ian.
And now, you might just be able to sample them for yourself by travelling to the heights of Harrods 5th floor.
Words by Sudi Pigott
Harrods 5th Floor, 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge SW1X 7XL; 020 3819 8888, chaiwu.co.uk