Passion for food: taking five with Larkin Cen

From Masterchef finalist to owner of Bristol’s beloved Woky Ko restaurants to Great British Menu chef, Larkin Cen is proving himself to be one of Britain’s finest culinary talents. We take five with Larkin to find out more about his GBM journey and more…

How did it feel to be selected to represent Wales on Great British Menu? Can you describe your initial reaction?
It was an honour to represent Wales for the Great British Menu. I grew up helping my parents in their Chinese takeaway in Cardiff and it’s where my passion for cooking began, so to be asked to represent Wales was an amazing moment. There are some great chefs from Wales and so I wanted to make sure I made Wales proud, not forgetting Bristol of course, which is now my adopted home. I’ve spent most of my adult life here so it is home to me as well.

Can you tell us about how you prepared for the week?
I’d been tinkering with ideas for the menu for a while. Coming up with the links to the brief that also had that Welsh connection was a lot of fun to play around with in the kitchen. There were a few long days in the weeks before! For a while I was hesitant about joining because of everything that was happening to the hospitality sector because of Covid, which still brings its challenges, but in the end I thought that this opportunity might not come again so I decided to do it.

Everyone in the competition is at such a high level, what did it mean to you to join the ranks and cook alongside Tom Phillips, Mark Threadgill and Nathan Davies?
Cooking alongside those three chefs in the GBM kitchen was one of the highlights for me. They are without a doubt some of Wales’ top chefs and I can’t wait to head to their restaurants to try more of their food. I really enjoyed cooking against Michelin-level chefs and I have always enjoyed competing at a high level as it pushes me.

What was the atmosphere like in the kitchen? How do you stay calm under pressure?
I’m actually pretty good at keeping calm in the kitchen but obviously there are some tense moments… like when you have to restart something because it’s not quite right. The atmosphere is great though and everyone helps each other out. My experience on Masterchef helped prepare me for the cameras and the way TV operates, which was a big help for my nerves.

What was it like to receive feedback from Andi Oliver and Angela Hartnett and to hear Angela say your dish was the best main course she’d ever judged?
It was such a surreal moment and it was the dish that meant the most to me. I am obsessed with noodles and I loved the presentation with the lazy susan. I loved the story too, where I focused on a positive message which was that with small lifestyle changes even as simple as eating less meat (which I embodied with 50 grams in the dish) would mean a huge positive impact towards climate change and protecting our oceans. Watching it back you obviously pick up lots of things that are said behind closed doors and Angela saying it was the best main course she’d tried in any competition was a massive complement. It was a challenging course to deliver in the time allocated but the Sichuan gods were with me.

What was your highlight of the week?
It has to be getting a 10/10 for my Blue Planet HotPot and probably finding out during judging that my canape had come first. That gave me confidence for the next round.

What did you learn on your Great British Menu journey?
Stepping away from Woky Ko for a while and concentrating on cooking something completely new was a great refresher and fuelled my creativity. We have so many new ideas through the dish creation process. We don’t specialise in fine dining and Woky Ko is all about Michelin-level flavours but making it accessible for everyone, so I was nervous how that might translate in the show. I think given the feedback though, they love our cuisine.

How did it feel to have Bristol’s full support throughout the week?
On social media I had loads of messages from people I haven’t seen for years as well as my team and lots of people who have helped me throughout my career. Bristol is always big on supporting its own independents and seeing people do well, which is why I love living here. The Wales contingent definitely came out in support of us too.

How did your time on Great British Menu compare to your time on MasterChef in 2013?
When I entered Masterchef I was still a solicitor with a passion for food. The success there gave me the push I needed to follow my dreams and make it my full time career. Nine years later, Woky Ko is expanding and carving its own signature for Asian food, which meant I had a completely different feeling going into the kitchen. I have always been blessed with a palate that is very advanced given my technical ability. When I first turned pro, and for the last five years, my technique has caught up with my palate, which means I can now articulate my ideas and concepts properly. There is always nervousness about filming, but I knew once I was in the kitchen it would be my happy place, all nervousness would disappear and instinct would take over. One thing I really enjoyed was the camaraderie with the other chefs, and a mutual appreciation of each other’s skill set and great food.

Where did you develop your culinary skills?
The Chinese master stocks that make up so much of the flavour of my style of Asian cooking is definitely taken from my roots and is one of the things that sets the Woky Ko dishes apart. My grandfather’s Cantonese-style roast pork belly was my absolute favourite. To this day, it’s my ultimate comfort food – and is a dish that I love to make for my family. Other than that I guess cooking is an obsession for me so over the years I have accumulated a lot of technical knowledge.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given that you would pass on to young aspiring chefs today?
Find something you are passionate about. Persistence and consistency are so important to achieving success in any kind of food business. During the pandemic it took a lot of resilience for everyone to keep going but if you work with people you like and you believe in the project then it will be great. I am a firm believer in the fact that most people who “make it” are the ones who are passionate and therefore persist at their craft and come up with all the intellectual solutions to problems on the way. You can only do this if you have a passion for what you do, so focus on finding your passion.

What’s your favourite dish at Woky Ko that everyone in Bristol needs to try if they haven’t already?
We’ve just added the Monkfish Katsu Curry from Great British Menu as a special which is definitely one to try. It’s Robata grilled monkfish served with our katsu curry and a golden breadcrumb and it’s incredible. Other than that, it’s got to be our signature ground pork Tantanmen Ramen. It’s rich, creamy and the ultimate comfort food and a big flavour hit.

What’s next in the pipeline? Any exciting plans for Woky Ko?
We are working on lots of projects. We just opened Lunch Bar on Queens Road, which is a brand new concept for lunch time – the poke bowls are one of my favourite dishes at the moment. There will also be some Great British Menu events, showcasing the Blue Planet Hotpot. We’re also looking at opportunities to bring Woky Ko to new cities.

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All images credited to: BBC/Optomen Television/Ashleigh Brown