Larkin Cen

Larkin Cen

While Woky Ko Cargo might have started off cooking better quality versions of Chinese takeaway dishes, it was the more creative, inventive dishes that made it (and Larkin’s other restaurants) such a success. While the majority of casual pan-Asian restaurants tend to serve tasty yet often quite similar dishes, Larkin began pushing the boundaries. ‘At Jìng Xū we’re more about authenticity as we’re serving those classic dishes of Peking duck, char siu and soy-poached chicken, and while authenticity is important with everything we do, I like to get a lot more creative when I can. Originally it was all about taking authentic or familiar recipes and elevating them into something beautiful, which is what a lot of restaurants focus on, but we’re now in a place where we’re starting to play around with Asian cuisine as a whole.’

Larkin’s latest obsession is ramen – a dish that’s been popularised by Japanese chefs but actually originated in China. ‘There’s a real cross-cultural fusion with ramen, as it combines Chinese and Japanese ingredients, techniques and flavours into something that’s become world-famous. While Chinese noodle soup dishes are pretty rough and ready, they still have an amazing flavour. What the Japanese did is take these dishes and elevate them into something really refined, and I think Chinese chefs have learned a lot from that. And because ramen has evolved so much over the years and it’s quite a modern thing, you can get really creative with it.’

Playing around with traditional dishes whilst ensuring a vein of authenticity runs throughout the menu is a tricky balancing act, but it’s a skill Larkin has mastered. He’ll happily play around with the flavours that go into a ramen, for example, but the base stock will be made with the trotters and bones from legs of Serrano ham, as traditional Chinese broths are made with sun-dried pork bones. He works tirelessly to perfect his recipes for traditional chilli oils, base sauces and marinades, but might then use them in not-so-traditional ways. The result is incredible food that marries Eastern and Western food (think bao buns stuffed with hash browns and gochujang sauce), inventive takes on classic noodle soups and rice dishes filled with creative flair – all backed up by some serious skill in the kitchen.

While Woky Ko is an established favourite in Bristol, Larkin has ambitions to expand outside of the city, and he’s well aware that his research into Chinese cuisines has only scratched the surface. But as one of the chefs responsible for pushing Chinese food forward in the UK, he’s keen to keep the tempo up. ‘There’s so much opportunity for creativity in Chinese cooking,’ he says. ‘You can’t beat the skill of a classically trained Chinese chef, but they can lack in innovation a bit. If you look at places like BAO in London they’ve done such a good job in making their food fun and exciting, and that’s exactly where I want my focus to be. I’m British-born Chinese, so there’s so much I don’t know, but it’s great to see more mainland Chinese cuisines like Sichuanese becoming popular instead of the Cantonese-influenced dishes we’re so used to. I’ve got so many plans and ideas for Woky Ko – I feel we’re only really just getting started.’

Three things you should know

Larkin would love to open a Woky Ko dim sum restaurant someday, but hasn’t yet found a way to make it commercially viable and feels they’re dying out in the UK because of the lack of skilled dim sum chefs.

The annual Woky Fest held during Chinese New Year is a hugely popular event in Bristol and was launched by Larkin to celebrate Chinese culture in the city.

Larkin focuses on training and nurturing the chefs that work at Woky Ko, many of which do not come from Asian cookery backgrounds and are looking to learn new skills.