Wednesday 13 December 2017

Kwanghi and Michelle are hot stuff

Chef Kwanghi Chan met his fiancee Michelle O'Doineannaigh 15 years ago, and she helped him to find his mother

Michelle O'Doineannaigh and Kwanghi Chan met while working at Citywest Hotel. Photo: Arthur Carron
Michelle O'Doineannaigh and Kwanghi Chan met while working at Citywest Hotel. Photo: Arthur Carron
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

For most people, meeting the in-laws is nerve-wrecking, but Kwanghi Chan met his fiancee Michelle's mother before he met her. They were both working at Citywest Hotel where Kwanghi was head chef, and then Michelle started work there as a part-time waitress.

They got talking at the Christmas party - well more than that really, They had "a little dance and smooch". Michelle was 20 and Kwanghi was 25, and they went out a week later. "I thought she was hot and it was kind of an opposites attract kind of thing," says Kwanghi.

Michelle was attracted to Kwanghi because he was shy and modest but very genuine. He didn't drink as he has an allergy to alcohol, and that worried her initially because she loved to go out. "I didn't think it would work between us but it turned out fantastic," she says. "My friends envy me now we're older because I always have a designated driver."

Michelle also found Kwanghi's past really interesting, and indeed he is slightly unusual as a Chinese man who was raised by his aunt and uncle in Donegal without contact with his parents. "I was impressed at how well he had come out of a situation like that, and was so motivated and career-driven," says Michelle.

Kwanghi (now 40) was born in Hong Kong and was his parents' only child. His mother left when he was very young and he went to boarding school in Belgium, where the family lived. When he was eight, his dad moved back to Hong Kong and sent him to live with his aunt Mura and uncle Sam in Buncrana - Mura is Irish and Sam is Chinese and they have a Chinese restaurant called Sam Chan's.

Kwanghi says his aunt and uncle were very good to him, and he grew up with their children, Ceevagh and Damian. He didn't speak English when he first arrived and was bullied at primary school, but secondary school was fine. He did a three-year international culinary arts degree in Derry one day per week while training at some of the best restaurants in Dublin, including l'Ecrivain under Derry Clarke, and most recently he worked as head chef at the Cliff House Hotel.

Michelle (35) grew up in Firhouse, and is the second-eldest of Bernie and the late Vincent's five children. Her dad passed away 18 years ago. She studied business and marketing at Crumlin College. After they started dating, Kwanghi's granddad became ill so they moved up to Donegal and lived there for eight years. Michelle went back to college there and studied early development, and worked with children who had autism.

The pair loved living in Donegal and still go back there at weekends as they have a house there, but they moved to Dublin because of Kwanghi's career. They are engaged and have a three-year-old daughter Lily, who is the light of their lives. When Lily was a few months old, Michelle started searching online for Kwanghi's mum Gwen as she knew he had a longing to know what happened to her. Within five weeks, she had a contact and they began speaking on FaceTime. Gwen lives in Hong Kong, and Kwanghi discovered she had remarried and he has a half-sister and brother, Veronica and Ricci. They travelled to Antwerp for their first meeting, which was very emotional as two of his aunts live there so there was a big family reunion.

"It was overwhelming," Kwanghi admits. "My mum came to our hotel room, and it was very emotional when I opened the door. They all cried and made me cry, and we spent a week there and they told me lots of stories. I go to Hong Kong every year now and my mother comes here too."

While Kwanghi is delighted to have been reunited with his mother, he has yet to reconnect with his father. "Kwanghi is so forgiving," says Michelle. "It wouldn't have been that easy for many other people, but that's his personality. His best quality is his loyalty, and he has this genuine and sweet personality. He is very career-driven, and is always busy."

Kwanghi was chosen for the Irish team in the Culinary Olympics three times and has a silver medal. He now works as a development chef for catering company BaxterStorey, and also has his own line of Chan Chan products. His hot sauce, Hong Kong Street Sauce, is made with koji miso and seaweed. It is sold by SuperValu and is just about to go into the Iceland chain. His spice bag seasoning is going really well too.

He is looking forward to Taste of Dublin, where he will be giving a talk on Thursday and a hands-on cooking class on Friday. "I think I will do a Hong Kong street cart style noodle," he says. "I'm really getting back to my roots now that I'm going back to Hong Kong and trying all the flavours. Meeting my mother has allowed me to find my identity and has given me more confidence."

Michelle has also just launched a business with her sister Lisa. It's an online forum called CareFuffle for parents and childcare providers. Providers can advertise their business, so parents can check out their local childcare providers and get prices and reviews without having to individually visit them all.

"Michelle is very kind and family-orientated," says Kwanghi. "I wouldn't be the same person and wouldn't have met my mother if it wasn't for her."

Taste of Dublin is at the Iveagh Gardens over June 15-18. Tickets €15

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