Taste Sensation

His devilishly good cuisine is famed the world over – but does this kitchen hard man have a softer side? GMT GCC talks dishes, destinations and a thousand-piece collection of Mickey Mouse watches with MasterChef judge and Demon Duck chef Alvin Leung.

“It’s my first time in Saudi, and it’s interesting,” says Chef Alvin Leung, en route to Jeddah airport. He’s a difficult man to pin down, with his fingers in so many figurative and literal pies. But fresh from a guest takeover one long weekend in June at the Shangri-La Jeddah, he’s relaxed and ready to chat. “Saudi is still at a very early stage but I can see a lot of things happening. It’s probably going to be very hectic eventually! But it’s still early days. That’s just what I’m observing – but I do see it coming on very quickly.”

Something of a global sensation, one is tempted to take the chef’s predictions very seriously. From the established foodie capitals of London and Singapore to developing scenes such as Shanghai, Alvin has tried his hand in a multitude of markets. So what led him to open his first Middle Eastern restaurant, Demon Duck, at Dubai’s Caesar’s Palace last year?


“I was looking for different opportunities, because I already have a presence in the Far East and China, in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and so on,” says Alvin. “I wanted to see what the market was like in the Middle East. I had an offer from Anthony Costa [regional president] from Caesar’s Palace Dubai, who I’ve worked with before and who I know well, and as I’ve learned from all my openings it’s important to have the right partner and the right support. I’ve had lots of openings and lots of closings as well. But really, I’m open to opportunities anywhere. Given the right opportunity I’d open in Antarctica!”

That’s easy to believe – after starting out as an engineer, the British-born Hong Kong-Canadian chef changed tack and opened his first eatery, Bo Innovation, in Hong Kong before blazing a trail throughout Asia and beyond. After receiving two Michelin stars in Hong Kong and Macau’s inaugural Michelin Guide in 2009 – later upgraded to three in 2014 – Alvin opened Bo London in 2012, with further restaurants in multiple cuisine styles popping up in Toronto, Taipei, Singapore, Malaysia and even further afield. So as a prolific creator unafraid to push boundaries and experiment, how has Alvin shaped his cuisine to help Demon Duck appeal to a Middle Eastern audience? 

“What differentiates it is that the menu was developed specifically for the Middle East – the flavour profiles and the offering was considered culturally as the number one priority,” comments the chef. “The taste involves a lot of flavours coming in from other parts of Asia, so there’s a lot of variety which I think Middle Eastern people enjoy. There are one or two dishes inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine, but to be perfectly honest those kinds of mixes aren’t always successful. ‘Hey, let me do a hummus but Chinese style’ – nine times out of 10 those things don’t work! So instead of trying to incorporate Middle Eastern ingredients into the meal, you should just incorporate the taste profile. That’s my technique all over the world. Find out what they like to eat in terms of the concentration of salt, sugar and acidity and try to give it to them!”

And it does seem that Alvin is successful at giving people what they want – both on their plates and on their screens. From The Maverick Chef to his MasterChef Canada success, as his profile has risen so has appetite for expanding into ever more markets. So did Covid put paid to his culinary dreams for a while?

“It’s been difficult for everyone,” says the chef. “The quarantines, lockdowns, the restrictions and the fear. The food and beverage industry suffered greatly and is recovering quite slowly. I have restaurants in the Far East, Middle East and North America, and it’s been challenging due to a lot of factors. It’s not just that we are in a recovery stage – we are in a rebirth stage.

“The whole industry has changed – things like the business districts no longer being so busy as people work from home, people eating out less and having more expenses due to cost of living. All these conditions have an effect – as well as a lot of people having left the food industry, so now we have a shortage of labour. Even the food has gone up in price due to inflation. All these conditions have to be taken into account to remain sustainable – and by sustainable I mean profitable. But in this industry we face challenges every day, whether they’re old or very new.”

Speaking of old and new – there’s another part of Alvin’s personality that isn’t as widely known as his enfant terrible image, once referred to by Anthony Bourdain as ‘a dark eminence’. For all his black chef’s ‘whites’ and rock’n’roll style, the chef’s tastes in watchmaking point to a softer side. After all, anyone who avidly collects high end Mickey Mouse timepieces must have a keen sense of whimsy.

Case after case of lovingly displayed backlit cabinets house Alvin’s massive collection, while in his head he holds an encyclopaedia of every officially licensed Disney timepiece. With watches including ‘holy trinity’ pieces on top of the multitude of Mickeys, it’s a collection to draw gasps – but Alvin doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“I am a watch collector,” says the chef, before uttering the understatement of the year. “ I wouldn’t say I’m a fanatic, but I do have good knowledge of what’s going on in the collection world .”

It’s at this point that Alvin goes into his unbelievable knowledge, built up over the past 40 years of collecting. Casually throwing names, dates and numbers around with gay abandon, this is the very definition of a fanatic, and it’s a pleasure to hear him talk. From how many watches the high-end brands produce each year to production quality, this is a man who knows his industry secrets – “I know a lot more than you thought I did, huh!” he laughs – and who clearly takes an interest in all aspects of watchmaking. But there’s definitely one style that he prizes above all others. 

“I have about a thousand Mickey Mouse watches,” confesses Alvin. “I have what’s probably the biggest collection of Mickey Mouse watches in the world.”

So wouldn’t that make Alvin a Gérald Genta fan? After all, the master designer had plenty of Mickey hits. But Chef Alvin is quick to point out that Mickey Mouse goes well beyond any one brand or designer: “Yes, I am a big Genta fan and I do possess quite a few of his very unique pieces. But the first Mickey Mouse watch was made in 1933 and launched at the Chicago Word’s Fair by Ingersoll, and another brand famous for its Mickey timepieces is Bulova Accutron – they have one of the earliest ‘adult’ expensive Mickey watches. In the 1970s a Bulova Accutron carried more or less the same price as a Rolex Daytona, so it was all relative. And the first brand to make what you could really call a high-end Disney watch was Baume & Mercier, who made them in the 1970s. Rolex don’t make a sanctioned Disney watch, but Bamford Watch Department made one from a Milgauss, which was sanctioned. All I’m interested in is what we call WDP – Walt Disney Production. If it’s not officially sanctioned by Disney then I don’t want to see it.”

It’s a very specific niche to become involved in, especially to the extent of being one of, if not the, world’s biggest collector. So what is it about Mickey Mouse watches that grabbed Alvin in the first place? It seems that his reasoning goes well beyond any cute factor: “I am a mechanical engineer, an enginer by trade – so if you were to ask why I collect Mickey Mouse watches in favour of, say, Rolex? If you look at the watch itself, its definitely a marketing tool that really got it started. Pure marketing. Probably similar to a brand like Richard Mille, where there’s a lot of marketing. You can ask – are those watches worth a million dollars? Again, I don’t want to be controversial but I do want to be logical.

“So am I collecting watches because of status, because of investment, or in terms of art? Why Mickey Mouse? First of all, it’s the most iconic watch in the world. I think everybody has seen one, everyone knows it. The most famous reference is from Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code series, while Johnny Caron and Karen Carpenter also famously wore them. I do have a Mickey Mouse that belonged to Karen Carpenter in my collection.”

So what’s on Alvin’s wrist today? Surely it’s got to be a mouse! 

“Yes, a Mickey Mouse Seiko made in the mid 80s, limited edition of 500, solid 14 carat gold, with a mother of pearl face – the first generation to have it,” says Alvin. “I do have other types of watches in my collection – Patek Philippes, APs and Vacherons. There are a few brands that I don’t have, but again, I don’t want to be controversial!”

From sharing memories of wearing his father’s gold Rolex to the prom, and receiving a Seiko with a manual alarm at 16 years old – he’s 63 now – to choosing a Cartier Santos over a Rolex Oyster with zero regrets after graduating high school, Alvin’s watch memories run deep in his psyche. And there’s one more timepiece moment that stays clear in his mind.

“Everybody of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard Elvis Presley had died,” says Alvin. “And where was I? In front of Swatch in Toronto!”

Speaking to this ‘demon’ chef is nothing short of a pleasure. Witty, fascinating and down-to-earth, it’s clear to see why his success has spanned both restaurant and TV. A magnetic personality with talent in spades, could it be that this kitchen devil is actually a bit of an angel on the quiet? Surely a trip to Demon Duck is in order to find out – just don’t forget your Mickey Mouse watch.