Celebrity Chow with TV chef Derek Chen

When I met Taiwanese TV chef and food show host Derek Chen for dinner last Friday, I was star-struck.

And it wasn't just because of his strapping 1.85m frame and tanned, boyish looks.

Three years ago, when I was going through a rough patch - due to pregnancy complications, I was given hospitalisation leave and ordered to be on bed rest - I flipped TV channels aimlessly and discovered 31-year-old Chen on a gourmet competition programme.

For some odd reason, the sight of him in a dapper chef's outfit, whipping up dishes and out-cooking his older, more experienced rival made me feel less depressed. He was like the underdog who never gave up.

I didn't think I would get to meet him in the flesh, so you can imagine my heart fluttering as we sat down at Spuds & Aprons, a beautiful casual eatery located on top of Mount Faber.

Chen, a graduate of National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism with three cookbooks to his name, was in town to promote his new travel food show, Cooking My Way. It airs on STAR Chinese Channel (StarHub TV Ch 822 and SingTel mioTV Ch 507) every Sunday at 10pm.

As he tucked into his picks of Wicked Fries and Gravy (the restaurant's speciality), chilli crab stuffed in potato skins, and crispy pork belly, the rising star of Taiwan's culinary scene shared his favourite dining places and entrepreneurial dreams.

You have been cooking for almost your entire life. Can you share about your journey in the kitchen?

I started cooking when I was 10.

At 16, I started an apprenticeship in a Cantonese restaurant. The initial days were the toughest, I had to catch rats and clear drains! Slowly, I was allowed to do fried rice and fried noodles.

I left the industry to model, act and host. But over the last couple of years, my passion for cooking returned.

I now hold professional certification in Asian and Western cuisine.

Last September, I joined forces with Taiwanese chefs to join Culinaire Malaysia, an international cooking competition.

Cooking is like painting, you just have to focus 100 per cent and you'd do it well. The entertainment scene, on the other hand, is more complicated.

What are your favourite Taiwanese delicacies?

To me, Taiwan's street food best represents the warmth and friendliness of us Taiwanese.

Smelly tofu, oyster mee sua, ba-wan (meatball dumplings) are must-try dishes. There's also a famous Tainan delicacy called Coffin Board, which is deep fried toast stuffed with seafood ingredients.

You travelled to many countries for Cooking My Way, including Singapore. Any local fare you enjoyed immensely?

I love the chilli crabs at Melben Seafood and barbecued sting ray at Satay by The Bay. I also had kaya toast for breakfast when I was here, it's so yummy.

Indian curry is great too. I also find rojak unique.

What are your trademark dishes?

Wow, I have many. (Laughs)

I do prawns with green asparagus and lily bulbs pretty well. It's an easy dish to whip up, and extremely healthy.

I can do Japanese dishes too, like seafood udon and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake).

Among the different types of cuisine, desserts are my weakest. So lately, I've been doing puddings and trying to improve on my skills.

What are some of your favourite dining places in Taipei?

Rama Thai, a Thai restaurant and lounge, has great food and ambience. It overlooks Taipei 101 and is incredibly scenic.

I also like Qiao Tou Hotpot; its mala hotpot is spicy, yet it doesn't sting your tongue. You'd feel very comfortable eating it.

For a romantic date, I'd highly recommend Marco Polo, an Italian restaurant located on the 37th storey in Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. The night view is amazing.

If you're looking for delicious food, the Cantonese cuisine at Ambassador Hotel comes out tops.

Is it your dream to open a restaurant?

Yes, definitely! My dream restaurant is one that is cosy with wood-based furniture, serving Chinese dishes with Western plating, for example, tapas style.

It should be affordable and suitable for the whole family.

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