Erchen Chang, 32, is creative director and co-founder of Bao, which popularized Taiwanese steamed buns in the UK. Bao started as a street-food stall and moved to its first permanent location in London in 2015.
What was your childhood or your first ambition?
To be a designer of school uniforms. I found the uniforms in Taiwan so ugly. I wanted people to be beautiful for the first 18 years of their lives.
Where did you go to school? Where did you train?
The Slade School of Fine Art in London. During college, I started cooking a little – self-taught.
What is the first dish you learned to cook?
I learned a lot by watching my grandmother. She’s like a one-woman team, an octopus that does it all.
Who was or still is your mentor?
Brighid Lowe, my tutor at Slade. The way she thinks really resonates with me. At Bao, we don’t just think about the dish, but about the whole experience: how you interpret it, how you culturally connect – it’s a bigger picture.
Are you in good physical shape?
I feel fit, even though I’m not athletic. But I can go on for a long time.
Breakfast or dinner: which one?
Breakfast. I came to London when I was 14, but used to go back to Taiwan every school holiday and my mom and I were looking for the best lunch spots.
What technique did you struggle to perfect?
Some chefs are incredibly intuitive, their kitchens are like theaters. I like to know where I’m going and take my time to design and cook, and connect the story behind a dish.
Which flavor do you always like?
Lu wei: a dish braised with soy. Soy-braised pork is famous, but you can cook a lot of things in this braising liquor. Charred star anise is so nostalgic to me.
What flavor can’t you stand?
I feel about lovage the same way that some people don’t like cilantro – there’s something sticking out at me.
What equipment could you not do without?
My clay pot. A clay pot takes on flavor and gives so much warmth and depth to a dish. Earth distributes and maintains temperature evenly. It makes cooking tastier.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently own?
A wok burner, so I can cook with crazy fire. Even in Taiwan, a wok burner is not a thing in a home kitchen.
What is your biggest extravaganza?
Return to Asia at least once or twice a year to be exposed to the culture and flavors.
Do you consider food waste?
Yes, but I think I can do better.
What is your guilty culinary pleasure?
Whenever I travel to Europe or go on vacation, I sit down and eat fries, drink beer and people watch. It must be thin fries and very cold beer. Time is the guilty element.
Where are you the happiest?
At home, listening to music and drawing, drinking whiskey. I do the illustrations for Bao, so it’s fun as well as hard work. And make bao carvings, shape the dough into an edible piece [of art]. The physicality of repetition makes me happy.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Currently Larry David of Calm your enthusiasm. I love how sarcastic and funny he is; 10 years ago I wouldn’t have understood it, now I’m really into it.
What ambitions do you still have?
To continue creating images and making food. I would love to have my own solo exhibition – with bao sculptures, or whatever. And the whole idea of Bao and how it all started – the image of the lonely man eating a bao. My secret ambition is to help everyone find that perfect moment of solitude.
What is the luckiest aspect of your life so far?
All aspects. I am grateful.
What was your biggest culinary disaster?
When we first opened, our walk-in fridge broke several times. Everyone was grumpy. It was so hot it was like a wet t-shirt contest in the kitchen. We have air conditioning now!
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?
“Wow, what are you doing? ” – in the right direction. It would never have occurred to me that I would be using my taste buds as a skill set.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
Yes — first and foremost.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would your score be?
Six. It’s a very good score, and it means there’s room to grow, to do more.
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