32 Years of Friendship: FHA Culinary Challenge 1986 Taiwan Team
When Chef Yu Wen Shen first met Chef Peter Knipp in Taipei Hilton in 1985, he was 34 years old. As the former executive chef, he’d already represented the hotel once at Food Hotel Asia (FHA) Culinary Challenge in Singapore. “When the hotel asked about my interest in participating in the next edition, I decided to seek Chef Knipp’s opinion on it.” Knipp suggested forming a regional team. “Back then, nobody in Taiwan knew much about international culinary competitions; and for participation as a team, even less so.” With the support of then-Landis Taipei President Stanley Yen, the two gathered a team that included Chef Lee Yu Cheng and Pastry Chef Tom Wu of Landis Taipei, Chef Jimmy Chang of Sheraton Taipei, and Chef Lee Loong Sheng and Pastry Chef Bakel Wu of Taipei Hilton.
from left: Bakel Wu, Eddie Chen, Lee Loong Shen, Peter A. Knipp, Jimmy Chang & Yu Wen Shen
“As Chef Knipp had had so many competition experiences under his belt, he was strict with me, and had high expectations,” says Pastry Chef Tom Wu, who was 32 years old then. “After one year of training, not only did my skills improve greatly, my eyes were also opened to a level of artistry and finesse I’d not thought possible in the culinary arts before.” Chef Chang, who was 35 then, recalls how one particular practice session went.
Chef Jimmy Chang & Peter A. Knipp
“Many times, when I presented Chef Knipp with my completed dish, he always told me, ‘This can still be done better.’ One time, I replied, ‘Okay! I’ll do my best for you.’ However, Chef Knipp said, ‘No! Do your best for yourself.’ That was when I realised that I was the one who’d gain the most, if I overcame the challenge.” That way of thinking stayed with him through his culinary career.
dish from the 1986 competition
After discussing with Chef Knipp, who speculated that a distinct sense of place would more easily catch the eyes of the judges, as well as challenge their palates, Chef Yu settled on a theme inspired by the five elements – water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. “For ingredients, we picked beancurd, ginseng, pig’s blood cake, shark’s fin, and mee sua (wheat vermicelli).” When the team returned to Taiwan with the gold medal, they were received with great fanfare.
Chef Tom Wu & Peter A. Knipp
“Fellow pastry chefs started to recognise me, and my circle of friends within the industry broadened,” says Pastry Chef Tom Wu. “The competition taught me what it means to persevere in the face of difficulties.” Chef Yu noticed that fellow chefs started to take a greater interest in international competitions. “The sense of achievement stayed with each of us, and never really left.”
dinner at Chef Lee Loong Shen's home
This year, the members met up in Sydney, where Chef Lee Loong Sheng is now based. “Although he is busy running a business, he takes time out to visit each of us,” says Chef Tom Wu. Apparently, Chef Lee spares neither money nor effort when it comes to making a reunion happen. “Because of him, we’ve grown much closer.” Chef Yu agrees. “Because he wholeheartedly pours his all into keeping everyone in contact, each of us has felt moved to do the same.” It turned out that the first day of their reunion was also Chef Chang’s 68th birthday, and Chef Lee had arranged a yacht, on which champagnes were popped, and a feast of smoked salmon, cereal prawns, grilled lamb, and fresh salads was prepared.
“Being able to celebrate my birthday with old friends is such a blessing,” says Chef Chang. As everyone is approaching retirement, their conversations usually revolve around staying healthy, the children, and the grandchildren. The second day of the reunion was also the 40th wedding anniversary of Chef Yu and his wife, so a huge strawberry shortcake lit with candles was set before the couple. “How meaningful it is, that we can share in their celebration together,” says Chef Lee.
Chef Yu Wen Shen & his sweetheart
When Chef Lee first met Chef Knipp, he was 31. “The greatest gift that Chef Knipp had given me was confidence in myself.” Even if problems seemed insurmountable, his philosophy became, “Let me just jump into it first. If any issue comes up, I will face them as they arise.” As time passed, his boldness grew. “All that I have, I owe it to him.” On the third day of the reunion, everyone gathered at Chef Lee’s home to make dumplings for dinner. “It was fate that caused our paths to cross, 32 years ago,” says Chef Lee. “And the guidance I’d received from everyone over the years, I don’t take it for granted.”
Aside from reminiscing about the past, which had been such a glorious memory that it still ignites a fire in their hearts, the team members also think of ways to pass that torch down to the next generation. In fact, just two years ago, the members had gathered in eastern Taiwan for a charity event organised by Stanley Yen. In that same year, a new generation of Taiwanese chefs had also achieved the team gold medal at FHA. The only regret that they have is that they’d lost contact with one of the original team members, Chef Lee Yu Cheng. “When we were working, there had not been many opportunities to spend time together,” says Chef Yu. “Now, we have no worries about providing for day-to-day living, so we must treasure the time that we have together, and make up for what we missed.”
"The gathering of friends from 45 years ago to as recent as 25 years ago has been absolutely memorable and amazing," says Peter A. Knipp. "All of the Taipei team that won gold in 1986 are now accomplished in their own rights. Chef Chang still runs a restaurant, Chez Jimmy. Chef Yu is now based in Canada, while Pastry Chef Tom Wu is a professor at Hungkuang University. 1985 – 1987 were two of my most memorable working years, where the people were just fantastic, and committed to making things happen. While life within the industry can, at times, be tough, there are friendships that last a lifetime."
Adapted from the Sep Oct 18
issue of Cuisine & Wine Asia.