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Chef Creativity: Michael Kang

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 17 and 30

Great Chinese chefs can prepare classic dishes that taste and look terrific. Others can design and invent one or more that one day will be considered classic.

FIVE FEET RESTAURANT, 328 Glenneyre Street, Laguna Beach California 92651; phone: 949 497-4955 is run by one such chef. He was born in Taiwan, raised in Newport Beach, California, graduated from California's Corona Del Mar High School in 1981. Four years later after biking though parts of Europe and Asia, he deemed himself ready, and one year after receiving his Bachelor's Degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Kang opened this restaurant and called it Five Feet.

This eatery combines traditional Chinese cooking with European overtones and California style. It is hip and it is gourmet. This chef, without a lick of professional training, knew he had talent, and knew he wanted to use classical ideas in new ways. Of course he knew he could build things. He wanted to do just that but with items that tease and thrill both eyes and taste buds.

Others recognized his talent. Almost every year including the opening year of 1985, Kang garnered awards. Some of them include that in 1985 his restaurant was honored as the 'most promising newcomer.' The next three years running, Chef Kang garnered Gold Awards given by the Southern California's Writer Association. Then in 1988-89 there was the Epicurean Rendevous Award. In 1993, Michael Kang was one of four featured chefs at the Anaheim Convention Center as part of the Bullock's-Macy's launching. Later that same year, he appeared on their Cable TV Series about Famous Chefs.

There were more awards before and since. On a roll, Kang went on to be one of five semi-finalists in Evian's 1994 Health Menu Awards competition, and the next year invited to participate in their Special Chefs Series. In 1995, he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City as one of their Chef's Special Events Series. Since that first Beard appearance, he has been back twice, in 1996 and again in 1999. Rare is the chef at Beard House invited for so many repeat performances.

What makes Michael Kang and his food special is not only its architecture, but its resulting blending of ideas and tastes. He presents food one person said that was: "living theater that looks and tastes sensational." Probably the only thing he likes better than creating great food is a personal creation, his son Tylan. He adores him and delights in hours donated to the myriad of fund-raising events he participates in. The list of these is unbelievably long. Just a few he has contributed coordination and culinary talent to include: The National Kidney Foundation, the Orange County Museum of Art, Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, Tribute to the Troops, Kids Cancer Connection, and dozens of others, too.

This man is a dynamo inside and outside of the kitchen in a calm, cool, and collected way. With coke in hand he copes brilliantly, no matter the circumstances. Watching him work in the cramped quarters of the James Beard Kitchen preparing to serve more than a hundred guests was a testimony to his talent and his patience. While doing just that, he took time to sit down and chat as he was interviewed for this article. He also spoke about efforts on the brain for an upcoming Chinese New Year Dinner he was helping with, where he would work with Chef Rick Moonen at Oceana at 55 West 54 Street in Manhattan.

The Beard House dinner we attended celebrated last year's Chinese New Year, it was in February 1999. Quite a few of the guests attending were ready to enjoy his great food for the third time. Two couples chatting around the bar area gave details and advised that the first was great, the second even better. One lady was amazed and said, "This guy has unbelievable talent." At the end of this meal, her partner commented as he was putting on his coat, "I'm a pretty savvy fellow and what amazes is that he was even more phenomenal this time."

The foods that enticed him and us began with terrific appetizers. There were five of them brought around to the guests as they chatted and waited for dinner. They included Hoisin Barbecued Prime Boneless Beef Short Ribs, Tempura Oysters with Asian Tartar Sauce, Montrachet Goat cheese Wontons with Raspberry Vodka Sauce, and Toro and Quail Eggs Benedict with Caviar. Each was pretty as a picture, each with the tastiest of its genre we have ever consumed. Must confess to overindulging on the short ribs and the tuna and quail presentations.

The main course was Sake-cured King Salmon with Wasabi Mashed Potatoes and Sweet Chili-soy-sauce. It was served with Sweet Garlic Flan with Peasant Broth and my all-time favorite, his Sichuan Peppercorn-crusted Sweetbreads with Sweet and Sour Purple Rice Salad. These were followed by a Ginger-Pomelo Sorbet. At first I resisted this cooling interlude because I wanted the sweetbread taste to linger in my mouth forever. But after a few moments, I put spoon into glass and learned that he makes fine freezes, too.

Thinking I had died and gone to heaven, I was not prepared for the next phenomenal dish, called Not-so-traditional Lobster Spring Rolls with Confit of Maui Onion, Tomato, and Ginger. It was served with another goodie called Taiwanese Braised Beef Tongue with Daikon and Aromatic Jus. After them, the meal ended with a Passionfruit Sabayon with Marinated Tropical Fruits.

If Michael Kang ever returns to the James Beard House, I will be first in line to wallow in his wonderful cooking. In the meantime, one must run not walk to Michael Kang's 80-seat restaurant, but do make dinner reservatuions first. Five Feet is open seven nights a week except on Christmas eve and the following day, on July 4th, and on Thanksgiving. Go there for what Michael himself calls "high energy fun and food in motion." One would not be bored on any day because Five Feet changes its menu almost daily leaving but a quarter of the selections constant. That is at the request of his regulars because this chef likes to, as he says, "play with what's on the market." He told me he likes the exotic in foods and has been playing with them professionally since age twenty-two when he opened this highly successful restaurant.

Learn from Michael Kang. Test your taste buds. We need more people to do what he did with no professional training--if you do not count his first job at age thirteen at a local McDonald's. He succeeds with lots of hard work, lots of talent, and not a single advertisement. This is an item he is proud of. He created a restaurant worth eating at. Others know it; you should, too.

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