Michelin-starred chef Alvin Leung dishes on the man who helped him substitute his shyness for a savoury sense of humour.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk; Hair & Makeup : Buffy Shields, Judy Inc.
Celebrity chef Alvin Leung is on a roll. With four Michelin stars to his name, two top-rated international restaurants and a new mouth-watering hot spot in Toronto, it’s hard to believe it was only 12 years ago that he stepped up to the stove professionally. In fact, everything about the self-taught cook oozes a calculated confidence, paired with a healthy serving of no-nonsense. Although these traits make Leung the fair but fearsome judge on CTV’s MasterChef Canada, somewhere behind the blue-tinted glasses resides the timid boy from Scarborough who once struggled to find his way in school.
As a newcomer in 1965, suburban life was not a simple one for Leung to settle into. “We were the only Asian family in our neighbourhood,” he recalls. “And, when I moved here from Hong Kong, I couldn’t speak English — so communication was a big problem.”
Leung would soon discover that he wasn’t the only one navigating new territory that year; some would even argue that fate intervened when he was placed in Wayne Ellis’s Grade 5 class. Their first year at Toronto’s Highland Heights Junior Public School would prove to be a pivotal one in both of their lives — though neither would realize it until years later.
Fresh out of teachers’ college, Ellis remembers starting out at the beginning of the Hall-Dennis era — a time that called for broad reforms in education across the province. Since the now-retired principal taught one of four classroom pods and occasionally different units in a busy school, you wouldn’t blame him for losing track of a few names or faces, but Ellis swears he can still picture one child in particular: “I wouldn’t call Alvin an outgoing student — he was somewhat reserved due to his level of English — but he had a sparkle in his eye that you couldn’t miss.”
It was the young teacher’s boisterous nature that left an indelible impression on Leung. “He was different from the other teachers,” says the culinary innovator. “He was very popular because he was very funny. He used to do this horn trick — ask him to tell you about that!”
“My horn trick?” Ellis says, initially puzzled. Then it dawns on him, “He means my imaginary trumpet! I would blow on it to get the students’ attention.” And, 43 years later, he demonstrates how he did it, creating a very plausible riff with his lips reverberating through his hands.
“You know, I think I got my sense of humour from him,” Leung jokes. “I learned that being funny could help ease tension and make people like you.”
“There were times when [Ellis] was tough on me when I needed it. But I always felt that he had my best interests at heart.”
Thrilled to hear that his comical side may have rubbed off on the self-proclaimed “Demon Chef” (derived from the Greek word Daimon, meaning playful spirit), Ellis likens it to a similar experience of his own. “I came from a very poor but loving family in Newfoundland. My sense of drive came from my dad, who was a hard worker and extremely funny. He taught me how to use humour as a way to connect with people. I’m glad I passed that lesson along to Alvin.”
Before entering the food world, Leung worked as an engineer for 20 years. The technical skills that he picked up during that time paired with his sense of adventure in the kitchen no doubt helped to inspire his “X-treme Chinese” approach to cooking. In fact, you could say that his cutting-edge experimentations started to simmer back in school.
“I will never forget the day Mr. Ellis performed a science experiment with a balloon, a milk bottle and a lit candle,” says Leung. “It created a vacuum and sucked the balloon right in.”
“It was an old trick but, no matter what, it always managed to stump the students,” explains the former Grade 5 teacher.
When Ellis asked his class how to get the balloon out of the bottle, Leung immediately raised his hand and triumphantly responded: “I would use a vacuum cleaner!”
It may not have been the answer Ellis was looking for but he’d certainly have given Leung extra points for creativity and an A for the good chuckle.
As much as Ellis loved a laugh, he knew when to get serious. When he had his first parent-teacher conference at Highland Heights, it came with a caution from his principal at the time, Don MacKenzie: Alvin’s dad could be challenging.
Ellis appreciated the tip and kept this information top of mind: “So when the day came, I chose my words carefully. I told Mr. Leung that Alvin was a quick-witted boy who had to be drawn out, but that he certainly showed a lot of potential. “Then I cleared my throat nervously and said, ‘Now I would like to talk about the areas where Alvin could improve. You see, from time to time, Alvin can be a bit lazy.’”
Ellis’s voice rocks with merriment as he recalls what happened next.
“Mr. Leung sat upright in his chair, leaned forward, put his elbow on the desk, shook his index finger and said, ‘Oh no, Mr. Ellis. You’re wrong. He is lazy all the time!’”
The star chef’s father seemed to be a strong personality. “That helped me to understand why Alvin was so shy, but I knew I could bring him out with some encouragement.”
The time and passion Ellis put into his practice was not lost on Leung. “There were times when he was tough on me when I needed it, like when I was being lazy or forgetful,” says the restaurateur. “But I always felt that he had my best interests at heart. He really influenced me.”
“You can’t be friends with your students, but you can be friendly,” says Ellis. “I was never the autocrat or the mean teacher. I never yelled or lost my cool — there’s no point in that. But I was no pushover either
“I remember saying to Alvin, ‘Nobody here’s an angel. We’re all going to make mistakes, including me. But there’s a fine line when it comes to good behaviour and if you cross that line, there’s going to be consequences.”
Once Leung moved on to middle school, the student and teacher lost touch — as many do. But fate wasn’t done with this duo’s story; it took its time but brought them back together this year. “When I first noticed that there was an Alvin Leung on television, I wondered if it could be the same little Alvin I knew,” recalls Ellis. “He looked like the student I taught but he was so different, so confident — I thought, it couldn’t be him.”
Then came the phone call in February — the one that not only notified Ellis that a former student wanted to honour him, but confirmed his suspicions about the man on TV. Thrilled doesn’t begin to describe Ellis’s reaction to how lasting his lessons had been. And, not two months later, Ellis was sitting in a hip new restaurant in downtown Toronto, across from a student he taught more than four decades ago, sharing a few good laughs and swapping stories from their school days. For Wayne Ellis and Alvin Leung, success never tasted so sweet.
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity.