By David Nelson
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
In 1991, long before Dubai morphed into its urbane role as the combined New York, Paris and Shanghai of the Middle East, Peter Shu Fong Cheung was there, steadfastly preparing epicure-quality Chinese cuisine at the InterContinental Hotel.
At the time, the chef focused on preparing haute versions of classic Chinese dishes, the recipes for which are mostly engraved in stone - sometimes since centuries ago. Now that he's running the kitchen at Convoy Street's recently and sumptuously remade Emerald Chinese Cuisine, he adds flair to his menu by using microgreens and other boutique-farm produce he never knew existed when living in China.
"I no longer use just traditional Chinese vegetables," says Cheung, who rose quickly through InterContinental Hotels Group, working in Dubai, Honolulu and Los Angeles before landing at Emerald in 2009.
(As the Cantonese-speaking chef speaks little English, restaurant owner Susan Lew and her friend Euphemia Ng assisted with the interview.)
Since Emerald generally is regarded as top among the city's Chinese eateries, the job of chef is a plum role. But, says Cheung, there are challenges to cooking for San Diegans.
"I'm trained in traditional Cantonese cuisine, and here in San Diego there's this 'fusion, East-West' cooking, with ingredients that are new to me," he says. "Also, customers are requesting healthier food and less salt, which is a change from what I'm used to."
A native of Hong Kong, Cheung entered one of the city's top kitchens in 1968 as an apprentice cook. He was 12, a typical age to begin this profession revered in China. Starting in Hong Kong gave him a considerable advantage, since it shares the style of neighboring Guangzhou (Canton) province.
"My cooking is Hong Kong-style, a form of Cantonese, which is the best regional cuisine," says the chef. "Because of Hong Kong's exposure to the international community, it has crossover to the great cuisines of the world."
That crossover granted him the license to create new dishes within the strictures of traditional Cantonese cuisine, in which, for example, there are exactly 20 ways of cooking lobster.
"I've learned new ways here," says Cheung. "I'm stimulated by the fusion cuisine."
At Emerald, some of the stylish plates Cheung has designed for the new menu revel in textures and flavors that delight the tongue. One example is the Silken Fried Shrimp on Sticky Rice Cake, which gives the mouth a real workout. Another is Shredded Chicken in Spicy Citron Sauce. Vegetables and vegetarians also get plenty of respect from the chef, whose creations in this department extend to Sweet and Sour Mock Chicken. It's a bird of another feather, and delicious.
"I get the most pleasure when customers say they enjoy the food," says Cheung, who likes to roam the dining room and greet guests. "Pleasing every customer is what counts, so it doesn't matter if we have one guest in the dining room, or 100. We cook from the heart."
Emerald Chinese Cuisine
3709 Convoy St., Ste. 101, Kearny Mesa