British Chinese / Interviews / Let's talk

Interview with Lorcán Kan

Updated 26th November 2022

Lorcán Kan is a former chef from Stockport’s famous Where The Light Gets In, but I actually came across him via the world of Instagram and became intrigued by his ability to create fusion food utilising local ingredients. His personal project, Thing Palace, was a tribute to this, as well as instilling that hawker vibe I loved about East and South East Asia.

Here, I catch up with him before his planned move back to Melbourne

Things Palace x Isca Wines - Kat Wood

You’ve had quite an international upbringing. Tell me about yourself and how you ended up in Manchester of all places?

Yeah, it’s pretty mixed. So I was born in Donegal in Ireland, my mum’s Irish. My dad is from Malaysia, he grew up in Malacca. My parents met in London while studying, and then moved to Ireland, had me and my two brothers, then we immigrated to Melbourne, Australia when I was 1 year old. I stayed in Australia until I was 24, and then I’ve been living overseas for about 8 years.

I then met a girl from Bolton and I lived in Germany so we moved back and forth between there and Manchester for a bit. We eventually settled in Manchester because I had gotten tired of not speaking the language and Manchester was a really refreshing place to be in. Everyone’s really friendly and nice. I’ve been living here for 4 years now.

I was thinking it was odd that you settled in Manchester rather than London. Especially because that tends to be where most people outside of the UK want to be.

Yeah, I agree. I think a lot of people are surprised. I don’t feel like I meet many people similar in my circumstances. I don’t know many Australian people here, they are few and far between. I did go to London and it was too big. I used to live in New York for a while and it felt like you were working all the time and you could never really afford to do anything. London felt the same and it was just not the lifestyle I was interested in.

Manchester is similar to Berlin in that there are lots of abandoned buildings and people repurpose those spaces. There’s a lot of new businesses and things coming up, which I really liked.

Have you always wanted to be a chef? Were your parents supportive of that decision?

Yeah, I’ve always wanted to be a chef. I remember being 7 years old and my mom was a nurse at the time and asking her “How did you know when you wanted to be a nurse?” and I said I wanted to be a chef then. It was really a blessing, especially in high school during that very stressful time where everyone’s trying to pick courses and choose subjects and apply for things and I was just removed from that. I just knew what I wanted to do, which was nice.

My mom didn’t really enjoy cooking, but she made all my siblings and I cook dinner for the family one day a week. I did that from when I was 12 years old. My mom always says that she’s the reason I’m good because she made me cook at a young age. My dad is an amazing cook and he would make curries and noodle dishes growing up. They have all been very supportive of me.

When I started it wasn’t a very prestigious thing to be a chef. A lot of people would ask “Why would you want to do that job?”, but since then it’s kind of changed. I think a lot of people are more interested in cooking. There was the first season of MasterChef which was the highest watched television show in all of Australia at the time. So I remember after that, people were very invested in cooking and instead of people saying “Why?”, when I was a chef, it would be more like “Let me tell you about this recipe”. People really just kind of changed almost overnight after that.

I did try do other stuff that I thought I wanted to do, but then I came back to cooking because it’s the one thing I could do for 14 hours a day and still go to bed thinking about and wake up and want to do it. I tried to be an artist and moved to Berlin where I had a studio and I tried to paint. People talk about art as, a compulsion in that you don’t just make art. I think I’m like that with cooking. It’s very much that I need to. If I don’t cook, I get really stressed and then I can spend a whole day cooking and it kind of zens me out because my brain works really well in that way, which is good, but it’s taken me a while to recognise these patterns and appreciate it.

Tell me about Things Palace

It’s inspired by takeaway restaurants that are scattered across the UK. The names of these places tend to be like Chopstick Kingdom or Golden Sun. I just really found that aesthetic so beautiful. It’s almost jarring but also authentic. The way people came to this country and expressed their own heritage through food is what I’m obsessed with. I just always loved it.

Whenever I first came to England and we drove around to the Lake District or the Peak District, you’d go down to some beautiful town and see all these stone walls and stuff and it was just this one Chinese restaurant. It reminds me so much of my dad’s being in London or moving to Donegal and like this kind of “What is your culture when you’re removed from it?” And “How do you express that?” And that’s kind of the basis of the cooking ideas behind Things Palace.

It draws inspiration from all parts of Asia, not just Malaysia,  doing it in England. I used to say “Is this a thing?” a lot in my job e.g. “Is carrots soaked in spent coffee grounds a thing?”, or “Is fermenting pig’s blood a thing?”. The idea for Things Palace was a place for all of my ideas to exist without having to question them. They could just be there.

A vehicle separate from my jobs for me to explore what I would like to cook and my cooking style. Complete creative control on the project. So I can do whatever I want, which I think everyone should do, as soon as they possibly can. I’ve gone into job interviews where people offer creative control as an incentive for you to take the job. it’s not something that someone else should give you, you should have it for yourself. It’s something you need to figure out and that is what Things Palace has been all about for me.

Things Palace x Isca Wine - Simon Teasdale
Things Palace x Isca Wine – Simon Teasdale

When you talk about Asia, do you mean all of Asia or specifically East and South East Asia?

All of it! I think there are so many interesting parts of Asia and I’m more interested in when these kinds of cultures blend or when they mix. Or when it exists in two places and the history behind that. My heritage in Malaysia is Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan and the characteristics of that culture are rooted when Chinese sailors married Malaysian women and that’s a mixing of cultures. So I’m really interested when that happens or when there’s one dish that’s made differently all across different places.

I was looking into Chinese onion scallion pancakes and looking at each region and how they’re different. There is so much diversity in it that it’s not like anything really belongs to anywhere.

Yes, and I suppose even within that, every family will have its own recipe as well.

Yeah, absolutely. it is infinite which is kind of a comforting fact for me because it means I’ll never run out of things I can learn. But then also there’s the overwhelming stress of  never knowing anything.

What are your cooking influences?

I find loads of interest in Chinese food because I was trained in a classical French European-style, so discovering Asian cooking techniques is really interesting to me. Rediscovering things my family or ancestors would have done.

And again that mixing of cultures. An example of this would be how Japanese curry exists because the British Navy brought the idea of curry to Japan, as opposed to it coming directly from India.

Yeah! I actually wrote a blog post on this called Katsu is Not a Sauce, that briefly covered this and more!

I like the idea of how food travels around the world. It would make sense that it just expands. You can come across it and it gets rediscovered or moves across through strange means. And good food comes through all of this.  That’s kind of the basis. The stuff that’s left over is the good stuff. We don’t keep making bad food.

We used to go to Malaysia a lot as kids to visit our family and eating street food is so incredible. It’s just so easy, delicious and on such an amazing level and it’s not difficult. You don’t have to spend loads of money or get specifically dressed. You don’t need to act a certain way. You can just sit on a plastic chair and eat. I just always want to cook food like that. For it to be easily accessible, lots of sharing, out in the open.

Another massive influence was when I worked in a restaurant called Attica. That was kind of the most life-changing job. I got the job, which was not expected, then I worked there for two and a half years. It was my dream job, so I didn’t really know what to do afterwards. It was just a great place and it was a globally recognised restaurant and it showed what a high-end restaurant can be. Ben Shewry was such an incredible role model that  was really invested in our success, which was polar opposites to previous chefs I’ve worked with that were very challenging.

Things Palace x Isca Wines - Kat Wood
Things Palace x Isca Wines – Kat Wood

I see you are keen on fermentation. How were you introduced to this and why should other people get into either fermenting their own foods or eating it?

Fermentation is such a weird thing because it’s such a massive trend happening now. It ticks a lot of boxes. It’s really good for food waste.

It’s good for creating condiments that balance meals and fermented foods have many health benefits. Back in the day, I knew of kimchi but I didn’t know anything about fermentation. This sort of stuff I was really interested in and kind of wanted to explore more.

Then I worked at Where The Light Gets In and that was where I was given free rein to do anything. It was a natural progression from sourcing the best ingredients to eventually wanting to understand and make all these ingredients. For example, soy sauce isn’t from the UK, so we tried to make it ourselves using local ingredients.  This process of use fermentation to create foreign products great.

It’s an interesting thing because, bread, cheese, alcohol and vinegar. These were the cornerstones of human food sources. Learning how all of these things are made is such a great way to kind of appreciate the triumphs of human food culture. Everyone should do it! It’s just cool.

As a kid, would leave food in my room all the time and it would just go really gross. It just seemed like the perfect job.  I naturally did this and now I get paid to do it. It was just kind of mad because I found it really interesting. Looking at something going mouldy was not stressful to me. It was just super interesting A morbid, fascination with decay and fermentation it’s like controlling or preventing decay.

Using fermentation to create complex delicious foods is more fashionable than sourcing the best produce from across the world because it kind of feeds into sustainability.

How important is sustainability to you?

It’s massive! It’s really hard to talk about because sustainability has got such a bad rep or it’s kind of weaponized or diluted by companies. Like food in itself, creating food is, you know, sustains us. So the whole process of cooking or creating food is sustainable. And if you’re good at cooking, then you’re good at sustainability.

If you are considering the seasons when you’re cooking, if you’re using local produce, if you’re minimising food waste, if you’re considering how you’re cooking the food through energy-efficient methods, reducing single-use plastics. You are kind of already doing it.

And that’s just sustainability with produce. There’s such a massive thing about working in a sustainable way, for ourselves. Considering the experience of those who work under us as well as our guests. A lot of restaurants will talk about sustainability and do all of that sort of first stuff, but the chef’s life is secondary. The trade-off for those hours that are taken away from that person to feed a certain amount of people.

That is unsustainable and not many people work a job for a very long time. You get kind of rinsed and I think that’s the challenging thing when I can see restaurants talking about sustainability and it’s not. They just use some part of it.

Things Palace x Sadlers Yard Summer Jam - Fiona Finchett
Things Palace x Sadlers Yard Summer Jam – Fiona Finchett

That’s interesting because you are right. Whenever people talk about sustainability, it tends to be about the environment, about the soil quality, the produce, but it is important to highlight people.

It’s so easy to think we have this amazing product. But what is the cost? What is the human cost of this? And how many hours and how many people do we need to do this? It can be an inefficient use of human time. Is peeling these vegetables in a certain way a good use of time? Is this how we want to be sustainable?

Sometimes I’ll come up with a dish and it would be amazing if I could do this process, but I can’t afford to pay myself to do it and I’m not willing to pay someone to do it. The customers are not willing to pay the price increase of my food just because it will be good. It’s not worth it in some way. Trying to be efficient with the energy we use isthe biggest thing in sustainability for me.

But it’s so difficult. I mean, I use rice and I use coconut milk a lot in my cooking. These products come from the other side of the world. So I don’t want to preach because there are those associated food miles. We all need to eat more locally.

I know what you mean. A good quote from Anne-Marie Bonneau is that “we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.

Yeah, exactly. It’s the biggest problem that we have, I think because if we can answer that, you can fix a lot of things. So we do need to think about it, but we also need to allow ourselves to enjoy things.

Things Palace x On The Brink - Elle Brotherhood
Things Palace x On The Brink – Elle Brotherhood

What was your worst kitchen disaster?

There was this one time where I didn’t make a terrine and only had two portions left and then the chef asked me when I was going to make it. The whole process takes two days. He made me stay back and make it after service and he kept everyone else back and made them clean the kitchen while I did it.

So, I end up peeling, pistachio nuts and marinating meat, then mincing it, and then cooking it very slowly and then pressing it. This took me two and a half hours, maybe three. This was after a dinner service, so it was a pretty big disaster in that I had to manage it and deal with it. And then everyone else was kind of sucked into it in this weird chef environment where everyone is punished. So that was a massive disaster and since then, I have tried to not run out of stuff.

It’s a hard one because in its pressure you learn so much, but then was it worth it to learn it. And was there a better way? Can we appreciate the experience I got from that without encouraging other environments like that?

If it were me, I would not do that to someone. I would just change the menu or figure out another way. It just seemed to be over the top. It’s just one of those defining moments where I don’t want to be that sort of chef. That’s not the environment I would like to create.

What would be your final meal if you were on Death Row? Specify at least 3 courses, but feel free to add more.

Starter – Congee

Main – Fried chicken, coleslaw, soft white roll

Dessert – Watermelon

Drink – Negroni

Is there any food you are not too keen on?

I am not a big chocolate fan. When I was younger I found it overwhelming in its richness and texture. But now I have been able to appreciate it for what it is.

What about durian?

So my dad used to eat them all the time and my mum used to go crazy at him and he had to take it all the way down to the bottom of our garden, cut it up, then, wrap it very intensely with loads of plastic, and then put them a little tubs and then freeze them. He used to eat it with ice cream and other stuff. It was just too horrific for me to consider eating then so I’ve never really tried it. And I’ve never really had the chance to since then.

I’m totally keen to try it. I do really want to make sambal, like a traditional Malaysian curry sauce using durian.

Things Palace x Isca Wines - Kat Wood
Things Palace x Isca Wines – Kat Wood

Are you more of a savoury person, or sweet?

Savoury 100%. Not so much desserts, but I do like fresh fruit, I ate a lot of fresh fruit as a kid. I was blessed with being on the same continent as many tropical fruits.

Put these carbs in order of preference: Potatoes, bread, pasta, rice

Rice, potatoes, bread, pasta. I ate rice at every meal growing up

Are you Team Rice or Team Noodles?

Definitely rice. I’m not very good at cooking noodles. Rice is just easy and there’s loads of consistency in it. With noodles are so many different types of noodles and different cooking methods. It’s not just as simple as putting it in water. I was working with a Korean girl once and she was cooking noodles. And then she poured in cold water three times during the cooking process. And I was like what, what the hell, what does that do? So, yeah, don’t really get noodles enough. I do love eating them, though.

Things Palace x Mackie Mayor - Andy Hatton
Things Palace x Mackie Mayor – Andy Hatton

What are some of your favourite places to eat in Manchester?

Dosa Express in Withington, amazing dosa and it’s super cheap and delicious
Flawd in Ancoats
Isca in Levenshulme

Where can people find you online or offline? Any upcoming events you wish to promote?

@lorcankan on Instagram for my cooking processes 

Things Palace supper clubs, next one is at Isca on 12th October (Sold out!)

Things Palace will be doing a special pizza collaboration with Honest Crust at Mackie Mayor from the Tuesday 19th – Sunday 24th

Please do catch Lorcán before he leaves the UK!