Featured image: Steamed lion buns; Photo credit: MGM Macau
Art can be found in abundance at every corner of both MGM Macau and MGM Cotai, and this includes their kitchens too! Drawing from the spirit of the lion and its symbolism–aligned with its iconic brand image–this summer, MGM launched a host of Palate-Awakening delicacies at both of its properties. The talented pastry chef Neo Ng and dim sum chef Alex Lau weave their creative magic with their teams to breathe life into lion-themed goodies including Chinese steamed buns with an array of chocolate sculptures and pastries. To learn more about MGM’s Palate-Awakening dishes on offer at Imperial Court, Chún, and Anytime as well as the creative process behind them, we spoke to the men who crafted them with their own hands–Chef Alex Lau and pastry Chef Neo Ng.
Could you tell our readers a bit about your background and what are you responsible for at MGM?
Chef Neo Ng: I’m a pastry chef at MGM Cotai and have been working at the property since its opening in 2018, after having worked at MGM Macau before that. I’m responsible for pastry and dessert preparation in the kitchen for our dining outlets, including Anytime, as well as hotel and in-room amenities.
Chef Alex Lau: I’m in charge of dim sum production in MGM Macau and MGM Cotai, particularly for the two refined Cantonese restaurants–Imperial Court and Chún. I am responsible for dim sum creations and their presentation, also for Chinese sweet soups and other desserts.
Could you tell us more about your journey as a pastry chef and its challenges?
Chef Neo Ng: I’ve been a pastry chef for 20 years now. When I started out, it was just a job. Back then, Youtube and Google weren’t easily accessible, I had to go to Hong Kong to be able to find specific books on pastry, as I wasn’t able to find them in Macau. I would hop on a ferry and stay at the library reading books for the whole day. Two years into this field, I realized that working in pastry requires a lot of hard work, persistence, and dedication, and that challenge made me grow more passionate about it.
In this profession, every day you start with some of the most minute steps. This includes sorting through raw materials, then going through several stages of a process that requires patience. From eggs and flour–for baking sponge cakes–after that, you need to layer the sponge cakes and prepare a frosting which you’ll later use for decorating.
Chef Alex, what’s your history as a Cantonese cuisine chef?
Chef Alex Lau: I’ve been in this industry for 24 years now and at first I just wanted to give it a try. When I ventured into Cantonese cuisine, people would say I had great talent, complimented my cooking and that motivated me to work even harder. I am from Hong Kong and after working in the city for several years, including at Michelin-starred restaurants, I felt like taking on a new challenge and left to come to Macau.
How would you define the Lingnan culture and its gastronomic singularities?
Chef Alex Lau: Lingnan gastronomy originated in the very Southern part of Guangdong, in a small village called Chaozhou. My specialty, dim sum, is one of the most important foods within Lingnan culture. Its three main cuisines are rooted in Guangzhou, Chaozhou, and Hakka, and all of them are characterized by the use of seasonal ingredients only. “Yum cha” is an occasion of great importance in Lingnan culture too. It goes beyond having tea and dim sum. It’s more about gathering with your loved ones over a meal or comfort food, which includes dim sum, steamed rice, and desserts which are light and delicate in sweetness for most Cantonese people.
It takes a great deal of creativity to be able to craft the lion-themed pastries and buns intricate as the ones on offer at MGM’s outlets Imperial Court, Chún, and Anytime. Could you tell our readers how the creative process has been for you? How do you select the ingredients?
Chef Neo Ng: Every year, MGM hosts a series of lion dance-related activities, including a lion dance competition. This year, I attended one of the performances planned for the elderly, by our volunteer team, for research and inspiration. I understood that since I wanted to create sculptures of the lion dance lions to echo the Awakening theme, I need to study the motions in every movement of the lion dancers, so I took countless pictures and asked the lion dancers to repeat dance moves so that I could get as many notes and details as possible. I observed their movements closely, the way they work–the lion’s head, eyes, limbs, and so on. That imagery served as the blueprint for the sculptures I created, but that is just the beginning.
Anytime has a wonderful location, as it sits under the large, free-span grid shell glazed roof of the Spectacle, where sunlight is always abundant on a good day. We had to take into consideration when creating a sculpture for display in the outlet, that it can withstand the gentle yet constant heat from the sun through the glass ceiling. It took three of us a total of seven eight-hour days, which translates to 168 hours in total, to complete the two showpieces. It wasn’t until we were halfway in the production, that we realized, the bigger challenge was replicating the lion’s beard, or tassels, as they need to be sturdy, but also fluid in a sense that they do look like the thin skin of fur that moves as the wind blows. We finally figured out a way to do it, which is similar to when ladies get their eyelashes extension–to attach small tufts of sugary tassels to the sculpture, bit by bit. That is one of the main features that give life to this piece of work.
As for the ingredients, in our lion-themed macarons, I decided to use those associated with the Lingnan culture like dry-aged mandarin peel, along with well-loved ingredients in Macau like black and white sesame and paired them with Western ingredients such as cinnamon.
Chef Alex Lau: My mission for the Palate Awakening special, was to create a delicious bun in the form of a lion head inspired by traditional lion dance. The biggest challenge lies in the timing of creating the dough from scratch, shaping it, and steaming the bun, all within a 30-minute time frame. The eight steps to create this bun must be completed on time so that the yeast in the dough does not over-proof. It took us about 20 trial sessions to perfect the time frame, and also the coloring.
Traditionally, the lion dance has a vibrant array of colors that are used for different occasions; but when this is applied to food items, we want something that stands out but also looks appetizing to the eyes–certain colors don’t work and are a turn-off. I used beetroot to attain an appealing red color, of just the right balance. The bun is vegetarian where no animal products are used in its preparation. The aged tangerine peel used in the filling is from the town of Xinhui in Guangdong province–it’s famous all around the world! That is why we decided to use it in the lion bun because it is synonymous with Lingnan culture. Also, the fact that we use 10-year tangerine peel is important because it allows it to keep its freshness and citrusy flavor. Longer aging means a stronger flavor. And then onto details similar to what Chef Neo has said about the beard of the lion, we also have to cut the rims of each lion bun to make it look realistic.
Would you consider culinary art an art form in its own right and how so?
Chef Alex Lau: Definitely yes. In my field of dim sum, the taste and quality of the ingredients are all the basics. But to kick it up a notch, we need to consider the presentation which includes the size and color combination–anything that makes it visually tantalizing. It is a work of art and creativity combined. Especially nowadays, guests value presentation more just as much as the taste; oftentimes guests photograph their food before savoring it. Innovation is key; while we try to retain the classic, artisanal aspect of food creation we also need to balance it off with a touch of contemporary aesthetics in order to fit in with the appetites of today.
Chef Neo Ng: I agree with Chef Alex. When it comes to pastry, I also feel like guests come with high expectations right from the start. They want a cake that is an art piece too. For the Palate-Awakening special, we have created a lion sculpture made out of chocolate brushed in gold coloring, a model of our distinctive brand image. This edible sculpture is a welcoming amenity for our guests and is available for sale. They are impressive to look at and we are aware that most people will keep it as if it were an actual art piece, which is why we garnish this sculpture with macarons or bonbons on the same platter when served to in-room guests so that they are still treated to sweet bites.
What are the main challenges that crop up in your work?
Chef Neo Ng: One of the biggest challenges is manpower, with fewer and fewer people joining the culinary field. I might have good ideas but in order to materialize them, I need to be backed up by a skilled team. Sometimes the talent has the creativity but lacks the skills, other times it’s the other way around. Training is a core task of my job and it’s a time-consuming one.
Chef Alex Lau: One of the main challenges is to maintain the product’s consistency. Moreover, since Cantonese food relies highly on the freshness of produce, dealing with fresh produce quality control is more effortful.
With MGM’s brand image at center stage, through an exhibition as well as food and beverage offerings, Awakening is more like a multi-sensorial experience. How do people react to this curated kind of experience?
Chef Neo Ng: The “Lion Party” exhibition takes up the focal location of the property, the Spectacle, which is seamlessly linked to Anytime and Chún. On the weekends, we offer kids’ face painting workshops so that families have more to do on-site after enjoying lunch or afternoon tea at our restaurants. People really enjoy the whole experience and we see quite a number of returning guests which gives us more encouragement to be more creative in upcoming offers.
Would you say people come for the art and stay for the food and drinks or rather the other way around?
Chef Neo Ng: I think people come first for the art and stay for the food and drinks. We also have the Sea Odyssey show at both MGM properties going on and kids love it! The idea is that the whole family enjoy their time at the resort throughout the day!
What lion-themed desserts can guests expect to find on the MGM Awakening Lion Sugar Crush set at Anytime? How did you incorporate the Leo zodiac sign elements in these?
Chef Neo Ng: Every week I create a different lion-themed display for the Awakening Lion Sugar Crush special at Anytime but the common aspect of the setup is that everything is by the meter. We meticulously set out all the sandwiches and desserts within a specific distance so that the total length of the circle-shaped spread is one meter long. The end result is a perfect circle of sweetness! The macarons are decorated with a lion face, we have lion-inspired design cakes and chocolate bars, not forgetting the large chocolate lion-shaped sculptures. We show the lion in different items through careful and intricate pastry design work. Coincidentally, late July and August are Leo-sign months, so it all comes together to enhance the whole Leo atmosphere.
Has any of the artworks from the Lion Party public art project by sculptor Hung Yi on display at the Spectacle inspired you in creating these desserts?
Chef Neo Ng: Lion dance tradition was my main inspiration, however, I did bring some color elements present in the “Lion Party” public art project into the sweets’ design. There is harmony between the sweets’ design and the exhibition.
How about the MGM Awakening Lion afternoon tea set at Anytime? What kind of sweets and snacks can guests expect to enjoy?
Chef Neo Ng: We serve both desserts and savory items in the Awakening Lion afternoon tea set at Anytime. Sweets include chocolate mango mini cake, lemon tart, strawberry madeleine, matcha strawberry swiss roll, chocolate cake, and raspberry amaryllis. Savory dishes offered are ham and cheese brioche, white bun with cucumber crème fraîche, and smoked salmon on nut wheat bread. Guests may choose to have coffee, tea, or even bubble tea!
How long did it take from concept to completion to create these dishes? What was the most challenging part of the process?
Chef Neo Ng: For the Sugar Crush, it required some time. We had the display tables and stands custom-made for it. The table styling took about two weeks and then the food design itself took us one. While designing the Sugar Crush offering, we simultaneously outlined the Afternoon Tea set design and menu. However, we’re currently in the process of preparing a fine-tuned afternoon tea presentation which will be based on the chocolate fountain that we have at Anytime so we’re asking our guests to please stay tuned.
Experience artfully made dim sum and other dishes with Palate-Awakening specials at MGM Cotai and MGM Macau