Franky Yeung Pui Kee was dazzled when he first saw his shifu, or master, skilfully manoeuvre a paring knife to carve a Chinese deity out of a piece of carrot.
The eye wrinkles and grandfatherly smile on the face of the dome-headed figurine brought to life the traditional God of Longevity.
After that in-awe moment in his native Hong Kong, the teenager would sneak a carrot out of the restaurant kitchen and practise with a tiny knife in the dim light of his workers’ quarters after doing the dishes, cleaning up the stoves and mopping the floors in the wee hours.
“I was just mesmerized,” recalls Yeung, now 70.
Franky Yeung is an immigrant fruit/vegetable carver from Hong Kong. He talks about the traditional craft, how he got into it and the art itself. He has won many awards for his work and shows us how he carves a beet into a basket catching carved crabs.
Yeung, who moved to Toronto in 1984, is one of the masters of the waning art of traditional fruit and vegetable carving.
The art form has a culinary history in China that goes back centuries, featuring deities such as the Sanxing (the Gods of Fortune, Prosperity and Longevity) and prosperous creatures such as the dragon and phoenix — as part of the plating process to visually whet a diner’s appetite. Sometimes, they are even used to tell legendary stories.
Born to a large working-class family with eight children, in which his father was an unskilled labourer and lone breadwinner, Yeung followed the steps of other child labourers and left home to start working in a Chaozhou restaurant when he was 13.
“You just wanted to find a place where someone would give you food and shelter so you wouldn’t be a burden to your family,” says Yeung, who would work year-round (except on Chinese New Year’s Day), starting at 10 a.m. and finishing at 4 a.m., with a two-hour break.
Starting as an underling responsible for cleaning, he slowly moved up the ranks to preparing staff meals and occasionally being allowed to make simple fried rice or noodles for patrons, before ultimately becoming a master chef himself.
Back then, says Yeung, fruit and vegetable carving was a symbol of “class” for the hosts of a banquet, whether it was for a birthday dinner or wedding.
“There were many chefs but not too many knew how to carve, because learning to cook is much easier than learning to carve, which requires a lot of patience and time,” he says, admitting that the extra money he could make from carving was another incentive for learning the art form.
With no textbooks or formal classes, the award-winning chef and carver says he had to imprint in his memory how the master would work the knives while juggling with other chores around the kitchen.
Some of the most common fruits and vegetables used for Chinese carving include winter melons, carrots, daikons, radishes and coconuts, anything with a harder surface, which allows the end piece to stand even when it’s hollowed out.
A novice would usually start carving objects such as a pagoda and progress to creating animals in motion, such as a sprinting horse, then ultimately human beings with facial expressions and emotions, such as a smiling Buddha.
Outside of work, he would borrow books and study the shapes and motions of objects around him.
One of the sad things about his art pieces, says Yeung, is that they don’t last for long, even if kept under salt water to retain their shape and freshness.
Over the years, he says, the art of fruit and vegetable carving began to get lost in a commercialized market. Fewer restaurants were doing the labour-intensive centrepieces that didn’t directly translate into extra profits.
“These food pieces do get rotten quickly and are hard to recycle,” says Yeung, who was among the first wave of Chinese restaurant professionals recruited by international corporations to immigrate to Canada in the 1980s to work in then new-styled gigantic restaurants that featured “authentic Chinese food.”
The refreshing carvings he created — and his Chaozhou cuisines — wowed the Canadian patrons who at the time were more accustomed to chop suey at the local mom-and-pop shops.
But the heyday for these giant restaurant chains soon passed, too, thanks to keen competition from a range of international cuisines brought in by other newcomers as well as the drive for profit margins.
“Today’s Chinese restaurants don’t do those sophisticated carvings anymore even though you may still see them displayed if you go to hotel banquet halls and sometimes on cruise ships,” says Yeung, who taught Chinese cooking and carving at community centres and at George Brown College at one point before ending his career as a chef at a nursing home three years ago.
For nine years now, he has been running Kee’s Kitchen, where he teaches people — some professional chefs, but mostly amateurs — Chaozhou and Cantonese cuisines, and carving twice a week, and sometimes makes online videos in hopes of passing on the traditional art form. (Classes are currently suspended due to the pandemic.)
Although the basic skills for carving are timeless, Yeung says the objects of his creations have evolved to stay relevant.
“It’s hard for someone to learn to carve a dragon or phoenix if they do not understand the culture,” says Yeung, who has carved characters such as Hello Kitty; Ronald McDonald, the restaurant mascot; and hockey players. “We need to modernize so we can share our tradition.”