…And one you must constantly practice to refine your skills, so says Asian-fusion restaurant Sohe’s new chef, Wai Pang, a specialist in Japanese food. We were lucky enough to meet Wai, better known as Walter, for an exclusive chat about his extensive and colourful career in the industry and what he has in store for the Jesmond dining favourite.
Originally from Singapore, Walter dreamt of becoming a pilot but acknowledged it would mean a big sacrifice both time and cost-wise – an ambition which was quickly replaced after taking up his first job in the small town of Narita, near Tokyo.
While working in a restaurant there, he discovered he had a passion for Japanese cooking and saw an opportunity to make a better life for himself by taking this direction. At the age of 19, Walter began his training; dedicating sixteen hours a day over six months to learn the craft and build an understanding of the cuisine.
He was soon rewarded with an offer which whisked him a few thousand miles away on a plane to a Japanese restaurant in Miami. Despite not be able to speak English – or American-English as he now refers to his twang – the then 24-year-old knew the bold decision to move to the States could be his big break.
It wasn’t long before Walter realised that being able to talk to his fellow workers was less of an option and more a necessity. So a determined young individual used his imagination to solve the problem. He sat himself down to watch Grease, the current movie screening at his closest cinema, and recorded the entire thing (which was of course legal at the time!) with the intention of playing it back over to teach himself how to communicate in the American way. And, believe it or not, it did the trick!
Walter has come a long way since then. He is now multilingual, fluent in five languages and he tells us that he has had the pleasure of travelling the world with roles in prestigious restaurants from Toronto and Zurich, back home to Singapore, to London and finally settling in Newcastle. Some of the top names to mention include Nobu and Aqua Kyoto.
We were interested to know why England, and in particular the North East, was where he chose to end up 30 years on. Walter explains the reason he loves the region so much is because it’s peaceful and fast-paced in equal measure. He enjoys simple luxuries and traditions like the rest of us, visiting his local fish and chip shop twice a week to order an extra-large portion of fish!
The excitement in his voice is palpable and certainly something which hasn’t waned with experience. Once a high-end delicacy that has taken the world by storm, the way in which Walter describes his perception of why Japanese cuisine is so in demand is inspiring. He very convincingly reveals that we eat it for two reasons – to maintain a healthier lifestyle and to promote a longer life, which he also points out are both intrinsically linked.
Walter hopes to educate Sohe customers even more about the complex nature of Japanese dishes beyond sushi and plans to introduce the ‘perfect’ recipe that satisfies all five of our senses at once. His new menu will be based around the four areas of his expertise to reflect the four seasons – a combination of Japanese kitchen, pan-fried, deep-fried and dessert sensations each with the ultimate purpose of making people happy. And that, he signs off, is what it’s all about.