gordon guo lai heen

Chef Gordon Guo of Lai Heen restaurant. (Photo: Marriott International)

Eat + Drink

Chef Gordon Guo on How Travel Inspires His Michelin-Starred Menu

Chatting with Gordon Guo is like binge-watching an adventurous Netflix cooking series. Easily and with obvious passion, the executive Chinese chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou can talk up his favorite Catalan cookbooks, recount his discovery of edible fungus in Northeast Asia and then reflect on the links between Cantonese cuisine and kung fu.

He was 15 years old and had few thoughts of becoming a chef when he first arrived in Guangzhou, about 150 miles south of his hometown of Shaoguan. Fast-forward two decades, and you’ll see Chef Guo receiving a Michelin star for Lai Heen, the hotel’s Cantonese fine-dining restaurant.

Chef Guo created a menu for Lai Heen that’s Cantonese, contemporary and innovative—in contrast to the restaurant’s interior design, which is steeped in Xiguan, or ancient Guangzhou, style. He draws on frequent travels to traditional markets and beyond for inspiration, searching for underexposed ingredients ripe for a culinary re-think.

gordon guo lai heen
(Photo: Marriott International)

In this interview, edited for brevity and clarity, Chef Guo shares with Marriott Bonvoy Traveler a bit of personal culinary philosophy—and what to order when you’re in Guangzhou.

Tell us about your earliest food memories and experiences.

When I was little, we lived near the mountains. My father would explore the forest for edible fungus and go fishing by the pond for wild fish—that was when he started his business. He would bring home the results of his harvest. So I had the chance, as a child, to try a variety of different ingredients coming from nature. Growing up in this environment was the start of my passion for food.

My earliest food memories are the dishes that my mother cooked. She would incorporate different techniques, but she kept the tastes simple. It was the simplicity and authenticity that made her cooking special. Watching my mother cook opened the door to my curiosity.

(Photo: Marriott International)

It’s a big leap from a small-town boy to Michelin-starred chef. Were kitchens always in your dreams?

Becoming a chef was not the original plan. It was a coincidence: My uncle helped me get a job as a chef in a hotel in Foshan when I was 18. It wasn’t as simple as it seems. There were many challenges. Chefs were more conservative. You wouldn’t be given a recipe to learn from. We weren’t allowed to take notes while our masters demonstrated their techniques. I had to remember all the steps while they cooked, then I would try making the dish myself immediately afterward, noting down the recipe.

Let me mention that Cantonese cuisine requires strong foundations. There are many skills that require time and practice to achieve. It’s like kung fu: You must spend enough time in practice to surpass the obstacles. You have to take the initiative and put in more effort. I worked very hard, spending more time practicing than the others.

Your rep is for culinary creations that draw on ingredients that are unusual, exotic or hard to find. Is this inspired by your father?

I still sometimes have the chance to search for ingredients with my father in Yunnan and Guizhou. These days, a lot of information can be found online. I look for new ingredients online, then go search the places where they’re located. I love to travel. I sometimes visit local markets, which is an outlet for finding new and local ingredients. I look out for food expos for introductions to new ingredients, for example at the Shanghai Food Expo.

One memorable ingredient I found during a trip to Inner Mongolia. I was eating at a local restaurant, and there was a white fungus they used that was innovative. But I didn’t like how they used it. I couldn’t taste the original “sweetness” of the fungus. In my opinion, they didn’t make full use of the ingredient, so I decided to bring it back to Guangzhou and see what I could create with it.

gordon guo lai heen
(Photo: Marriott International)

You’ve spoken about why wokhei (the art of wok frying) is key for Cantonese cuisine. Are there other principles diners should look out for?

Another signature element that I would love to share is “boiling”. This is a technique often used in Cantonese cuisine. It requires fresh ingredients and precise time management after placing the ingredients in boiling water.

It preserves the original flavors and highlights “freshness,” which is part of the unique flavor profile of Cantonese cuisine. After something is cooked by boiling, it’s served with a minimal amount of soy sauce, ginger or garlic as a sauce on the side.

How do you match (relatively) conservative Cantonese cuisine with changing contemporary tastes?

Cantonese cuisine can be more diverse. Chefs can learn from good cooking techniques and add new ingredients, and also alter recipes and techniques without losing authenticity. We should constantly be innovating and creating to meet the needs of those who are more cosmopolitan and younger.

For example, the younger generation has the habit of taking photos of their food before eating and sharing it on social media. Presentation might be what captures them the most, so we have to make sure the food looks pleasant and is presented nicely. Young people also like to be surprised and search for creativity. Thus, we make sure that we recommend different dishes to them every time and are innovative with our cuisine.

The younger generation has other preferences that we’ll have to adjust to. Maybe they do not require a dish to be healthy or made with minimal oil or salt. However, they still wish to be fit. Therefore, we might have to adapt by providing healthy food with fewer calories, but at the same time making it savory.

(Photo: Marriott International)

Winning a Michelin star for Lai Heen must have been intense. How has the Michelin Guide changed the local restaurant scene?

Stress turns into motivation. It’s motivating me to provide better service. I believe that a Michelin-star restaurant should have a standardized quality of food, service and presentation. I am proud of my team, working with them. Accomplishing goals together is what makes me most proud.

The Michelin Guide coming to Guangzhou has increased the reputation of this city, inviting more tourists to come. It has also become a motivation for the restaurants in Guangzhou: More restaurants would like to search for ways to improve their quality to meet the guide’s standards.

What are your not-to-be-missed local dishes for a visitor? What’s on the itinerary for your “cook’s tour” of Guangzhou?

I recommend two dishes: “white cut chicken” and “Cantonese style barbecue pork” for tourists. These dishes best represent Cantonese cuisine–and are very local dishes that are most authentically made in Guangzhou.

If I was to do a food tour, I would bring you to the Panyu food festival held at the end of every year. There are many stalls with an abundant variety of food. It’s a great opportunity to try local Guangdong street food.

What do you do outside the kitchen, after you hang up your apron?

During my spare time outside the kitchen, I go photographing. I love to explore the beauty of life and capture it with my camera.