Chef to Watch: Dan Lee, private chef: 'Chinese food in the UK is not Chinese food. It is Chinese food adapted for a UK palate'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Chef to Watch: Dan Lee, private chef, MasterChef: The Professionals 2021 Champion 

Daniel Lee isn't your typical chef's chef. He isn't drawn in by the appeal of Michelin-starred kitchens; for him, a restaurant is a means to an end, a convenient way of telling a story and conveying his belief that food is a universal language. 

Growing up, dinner wasn't a massive event in Dan's house, whose half-English, half-Irish mother, he reluctantly admits, was not a proficient cook. But even when he talks about the predominantly beige, processed meals he used to eat, he lights up.

"It was just standard stuff like lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, mac'n'cheese."

"Pizza fingers, the little frozen pizzas you'd get that were that long - I loved them. Little sausages with loads of ketchup. Nothing exciting, nothing exotic. Just really basic food."

The 'exciting' stuff came at the weekend: Dan's paternal side of the family is Hakka Chinese, from the outskirts of Hong Kong, and moved to the UK in the 1970s. The chef's auntie owned a takeaway in Birmingham where his family met up every Sunday.

The food was flavoursome, complex and adventurous - a far cry from anything he ate at home.

Despite these regular visits, and occasional trips to temple, at the time, Dan didn't have a conscious drive to tap into his heritage. "I knew it was there," he said, as "always at school, I was the Chinese one," but he was young, alone, and like most kids, focused on fitting in.

Later, when he moved to Singapore, "then all of a sudden I got there and it was like, 'oh you're the British guy.'"

"I wasn't expecting that."

The travel bug

It was this rootlessness, and a sense of never quite belonging in any one place that, after completing a Professional Cookery course at UCB, drove him to pack his bags and go.

Aged 19, he moved to New Zealand, travelling the country working as a chef for a hotel group. He returned to spend five years in the Alps, first in hotels, then in a private capacity in chalets, before moving back to the UK, where he helped cater for large events like the rugby and cricket world cups.

Accruing as broad a range of experience as he could, he deliberately avoided the Michelin route.

"I did spells at fine-dining restaurants, I did summer seasons, I did brasserie restaurants, I just mixed as much as I could to take in different knowledge."

The chef kept on travelling, taking months off at a time to go backpacking, working agency jobs to save money in between.

"It wouldn't be the best places," he said, "microwave kitchens, anything I could to save up the money, do the work and then I'd be like, 'okay, I'm taking two or three months off, I'm going to travel and learn everything I can about food.' So I did. All across Southeast Asia - Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam - anything I could, I'd do it all. That's how I learned." 

During his trips, it became quite apparent to him "that food is a universal language. It's relative anywhere you go.

"People always have their favourite food, their least favourite food, food memories, ways they eat food, the favourite times they eat food - and that's how you connect with people." 

"That's why I love food so much, it just brings everyone together."

MasterChef: The Professionals

The chef was set on opening a restaurant in Singapore when the pandemic struck, grounding him in the UK. That's when he applied for a place on MasterChef: The Professionals.

Even though he won it in the end, his success on the programme didn't come straight away: first, he had to dismiss his idea of what he thought the judges wanted - that is, classical fine-dining - and focus on cooking tasty food.

Once plagued by the question of how he defines his food style, his answer became "I cook food I like to eat," drawing on his Cantonese background, as well as flavours and techniques from his travels across Asia.

"It was a big thing, trying to shake off the fear of being judged for what I like to eat," he said.

"That built my confidence, to go through it that way." 

BirminghaM, Britain's Great Food Hub

As any chef who has been on MasterChef will tell you, winning the competition opens up many opportunities - and for Dan, the plan is to open a restaurant within 18-24 months. As he has spent the past two years in his home city, that is where he heart is set.

"It's a great place to be," he said. 

Whereas in his memory, Birmingham only had a handful of award-winning restaurants, which sat alongside chains, left right and centre, now, "the list is becoming endless of places where you can just pop in and you're more or less guaranteed a good meal."

And that fact has little to do with awards and accolades. "It's because there's just a couple of guys in there who love food, turning out to create what they like to eat. It's just a nice chilled environment," and, crucially, "it's not too expensive." 

Street food is for the people

The affordability of food is a cause very close to Dan's heart. And while the plan for the future is to open a restaurant, he wants to invest in a food truck, too.

Inspired by the hawker centres of Singapore, which are subsidised by the government to keep prices down for both operators and diners, the chef doesn't buy into the ticketed, overpriced street food concepts that have taken hold in the UK.

"The whole point of street food is that it is accessible to everyone."

"That's where street food originated. It would be on a side road, you would go up and get it - it's about sitting down, it doesn't matter if you're a chef, if you've not got the best job in the world or you're sat next to a multibillionaire, because we're sitting down eating the same thing and you can appreciate that."

'I like to cook for people. that's pretty much it'

As for what to expect from his restaurant, Dan is inspired by the likes of Andrew Wong and Jeremy Chan, whose food is a study of cultures and history, the pursuit of excellence in execution, and pushing the boundaries between the traditional and the modern.

"That's why I look to them for such inspiration - not only because of the Asian-British connection, but also the way they look forward, the way they approach food, it just blows my mind," he said.

Focusing on his own heritage, the chef wants to show that there is more to Chinese food than the unhealthy fare many people across the UK associate it with.

"Don't get me wrong, a Chinese takeaway is banging, sometimes it just hits the spot, it's exactly what you need, I love it," he said. But "that is not Chinese food. That is Chinese food that has been adapted for a UK palate. We don't have greasy, stodgy, deep-fried food."

"I just want to emphasise the differences between it. I want people to be more aware of Chinese food."

Ultimately, his aims are simple. "I love what I do, I want to keep enjoying it, I like to bring happiness to people through food, I like to bring people together through food, and that's all I want to do - keep doing that."

"I'm not fussed about being well known, being this and that. I don't want one, two Michelin stars, I'm not fussed. I like to cook, I like to cook for people. That's pretty much it."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 3rd May 2022

Chef to Watch: Dan Lee, private chef: 'Chinese food in the UK is not Chinese food. It is Chinese food adapted for a UK palate'