Originally hailing from the east coast city of Fujian, Jason Zhang travelled extensively throughout China before arriving in New Zealand ten years ago. Coming from a coastal Chinese city, his specialties are seafood and lots of spice.
Zhang started cooking at 12 and started in a kitchen at 16. He worked his way around some of the finest restaurants and hotels in China. Now executive chef at ARTWOK on Auckland’s North Shore, Zhang has adopted elements of molecular gastronomy in his cooking, albeit with a distinctly Chinese twist. His emphasis is still on seafood, because “a well-cooked crab meat dish is hard to beat!”
One of Zhang’s greatest influences was a man named Mr Qiang – “He is my cooking idol no matter what I am cooking.” Qiang’s signature dish was Fo Tiao Qiang, which means ‘Buddha Jumps Over the Wall’, explained Zhang. “It’s a traditional dish which was served to the Emperor during the Qing dynasty. It consists of a lot of really expensive herbal ingredients and even now it is one of the most famous Chinese dishes and takes up to two days to prepare.”
Zhang’s favourite cooking technique is quick wok frying, which he said gives the food a unique flavour which can’t be found in any other cooking style. His signature dish is Kou Shui Ji, a cold chicken dish served with Zhang’s own Sichuan pepper peanut sauce. “I created the recipe and everyone loves it!”
Zhang describes his kitchen as busy, fun and passionate. As well as teamwork, quality is key, and he keeps a close eye on the food every step of the way. “From keeping up standards with our suppliers through to the preparation of the food, up until it goes out on the pass. Cooking is an art, and you have to be passionate.”
It was the same passion for food and hospitality which once saw him help a restaurant in China, which was on the verge of closing down, turn itself around and become one of the busiest restaurants in Fujian. “That was one of the best things I’ve achieved in my life,” he said. He’s also proud of the people he has seen come through his kitchen who have gone on to start their own. “One of my favourite students now has his very own well-known restaurant in Fujian. He started as a kitchen hand back in the early 1990s and worked his way up.”
In the future, Zhang wants to help ARTWOK expand, not just in New Zealand but also overseas. Zhang himself wouldn’t mind a stint in Australia, given his passion for seafood and the abundance of it across the Tasman. Wherever he goes, though, he wants to keep bringing the best authentic Chinese from his homeland and educating customers across the world.