Chinese New Year: Never Too Late For Reunion Dinner

Unlike most families, executive Chinese chef Liu Ching Hai of Summer Palace at Regent Singapore tucks into “reunion dinner” at 11pm after he knocks off from work on the eve of Chinese New Year.
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For the past decade, executive Chinese chef Liu Ching Hai of one Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Summer Palace at Regent Singapore is always hard at work on Chinese New Year's Eve, toiling behind the fire with his kitchen crew to dish out reunion dinners. “Working in the F&B industry involves long hours,” he shares. “While most people are enjoying themselves, we have to be on duty.” 
Chef Liu Ching Hai (middle) and his staff make it a point to have a lo hei before they commence dinner service on Chinese New Year's Eve. Photo: Han Pin
Chef Liu Ching Hai (middle) and his staff make it a point to have a lo hei before they commence dinner service on Chinese New Year's Eve. Photo: Han Pin
Over time, chef Liu has cultivated a strong camaraderie with his staff - a result of spending long hours together in the kitchen. “On Chinese New Year Eve, we have a tradition of having our lo hei at 4pm before dinner service commences,” he says. “Tossing yusheng together fosters a strong team spirit and allows us to soak up in the festivities.” Chef Liu, who hails from Hong Kong, also adds that he also whips up a scrumptious spread of his staff’s favourite dishes for the celebratory feast. 
Chef Liu shares a tight bond his kitchen staff.
Chef Liu shares a tight bond his kitchen staff.
“Chinese New Year is such a significant event, so I need to have two “reunion meals” - one with my staff and another one with my family.”

Asked if he is regrets missing out reunion dinners with his family, chef Liu says softly: “Whenever I see diners savouring my labour of love in the restaurant, it gives me a great sense of job satisfaction.” He adds: “At times, I feel guilty about missing reunion dinners with my family, but I know that they understand the nature of my work.”

Reunion “supper” with the family

Come every Chinese New Year's Eve, chef Liu works in the kitchen till 10pm and reaches home an hour later to start cooking his second “reunion dinner”.

His wife, Madam Yap Su Fern, points out that her family has a unique festive tradition. She quips: “Instead of reunion dinner, we sit down for a reunion supper.” She shares matter-of-factly that she has her first reunion dinner at her mother’s home at 6pm and a second round of feasting commences when her husband returns home.
Chef Liu having a meal with his wife, Madam Yap Su Fern and two sons (from left), Clement, 18 and Nicholas, 17.
Chef Liu having a meal with his wife, Madam Yap Su Fern and two sons (from left), Clement, 18 and Nicholas, 17.
The couple have been married for close to 30 years and they have two teenage sons, Clement, 18 and Nicholas, 17.

On his father’s no-show during dinner time on Chinese New Year's Eve, Clement says: “When I was in primary school, I felt indignant about this arrangement. While my friends could post photos of their reunion dinners on social media, I had to wait till 11pm to do so.” He has since become accustomed to his family’s “quirky trait”.
Chef Liu shares a tender moment with his younger son, Nicholas.
Chef Liu shares a tender moment with his younger son, Nicholas.
However, chef Liu’s younger son, Nicholas, offers a different perspective. He beams: “I feel proud that my father works hard to make other people’s reunion dinners memorable.”

It is evident that chef Liu shares a tighter bond with Nicholas. Although the boy is well in his teenage years, the doting father stills hugs him regularly and says “I love you” to him.
A happy family that eats together stays together. Photo: Hong Hu.
A happy family that eats together stays together. Photo: Hong Hu.
Chef Liu is grateful that his children are “obedient and sweet”. “Besides having late reunion dinners, they understand that family holidays can only take place after Chinese New Year. “My wife would justify this arrangement by saying that air tickets are cheaper after the peak festive season,” he says with a smile. “My family has been a great pillar of support.”

A family’s heirloom dish

One of chef Liu’s must-cook Chinese New Year dishes is his family’s heirloom recipe for pen cai, which he calls “abundance of wealth”. For the Lius, this dish is the definitive symbol of family unity.
"The Abundance of Wealth" is the Liu family's heirloom Chinese New Year pen cai dish.
Nicholas shares that this dish reminds him most of Chinese New Year as he only gets to savour the time-honoured dish once a year. “Our entire family, even my grandparents, would come together to cook this dish,” he gushes. “It brings out the spirit of family unity.”

The “abundance of wealth” pencai comprises slow-braised pig’s trotters that has been simmered for an hour before mushrooms, abalone, fat choy (black moss) and sea cucumbers are added into the hearty concoction. After simmering for another 45 minutes, the dish is ready to be served.
Chef Liu and his wife prepare the food for their second round of reunion dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve.
Chef Liu and his wife prepare the food for their second round of reunion dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve.
To whip up this labour-intensive dish, chef Liu and his wife split the workload. Madam Yap cooks the pen cai, while he cooks the dish for another 20 minutes after he returns home - so that the herbs and spices from the pig’s trotters are more prominent.   

He notes that his grandmother and mother never fail to prepare this pen cai for Chinese New Year every year when he was growing up.

Chef Liu says: “Cooking this dish has become part of my family’s Chinese New Year tradition, and I hope that my two sons will continue and preserve this tradition for a long time to come.”
This story was originally written by Chen Ngee Ann and translated by Kenneth Goh. Click here to read the original version of this story.
Reunion At Supper

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