Following in the footsteps of Duangporn Songvisava of Bangkok’s Bo.lan and Lanshu Chen of Taichung’s Le Moût, Vicky Lau of Tate in Hong Kong has been freshly crowned best female chef in the 2015 edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. It comes in just at a time where debate over the gross gender imbalance in the professional kitchen and the media has been re-ignited, and while the necessity of saying ‘female chef’ is something that will always be controversial, the award is a huge coup for the young Hong Konger who has impressed critics with her artistic dishes and culinary finesse.
This week, we go back into the archives where, during the launch of Butler, Lau’s creative catering project, our social editor Florence Tsai sat down with the chef to talk about her past as a graphic designer, her vision of the future of dining, and how she communicates through food.
Florence Tsai: Your food is intricately presented, which hints at your past as a graphic designer. Tell us about life before Tate.
Vicky Lau: I was born on a day in the Chinese calendar that is dedicated to food, so my mom always told me that there’s an “God of Eating” that has always followed me. I’ve always liked food a lot – when I was a kid I liked making things with my hands, so it’s obvious that I like cooking. Eventually I went to Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok, but before this culinary life, I was a graphic designer. I went to NYU where I did a graphic communications major and I worked at an ad agency as an art director for a few years before I moved back to Hong Kong and founded my own design firm. I chatted with a friend one day about how we both love food – we talk about food non-stop everyday and we love cooking, so we just went “Let’s just take a break and go to Le Cordon Bleu.”
FT: What has been the single most important influence on your cooking style?
VL: I think it’s understanding your own style. I’m from an Asian background, but then I’ve also lived in the States so I have an east-west philosophy going on. I think, why don’t just do your own style of food? There’s no point in forcing things.
FT: So you think this east-west influences you a lot?
VL: Yes. I also like to study things outside of its genre. So if you do design, or food, or anything, just study things that are outside of its genre. For me, it doesn’t make sense if you just focus on one genre because you would just be following what other people are doing. What I mean by that is, if you’re in the food industry and you only just eat out at a lot of restaurants and read a lot of books. Obviously, that’s important but you should go outside of the genre and see how people design cars. If you don’t like cars, go study some architecture.
FT: You seem to seek inspiration in graphic design when it comes to your work. What inspires you outside of the kitchen?
VL: Recently, just getting back to roots. I think all chefs go through that stage of wondering where that nice product comes from and you want to understand how it grew up. So now I’m growing things on my rooftop. It’s hard to grow in Hong Kong, but then it's very interesting at the same time.
FT: So tell us more about your journey from when you decided to become a chef, to today. How long has it been?
VL: It’s been, maybe, five or six years. But then for me it’s not a huge difference, it's just adding that technique to it, which is important too. I think as a chef-owner, it's important to have a vision, more than anything, because you see things, and then you learn it. You find your way to learn it. Maybe sometimes it takes some mistakes, but if you have the passion and you want to succeed, you just do it. Even if you make a mistake ten times, it's okay, you learn through it.
Tate was in the 2014 Hong Kong Tatler Top 20 Best Restaurants video. Watch it here.
FT: And you need to have vision.
VL: Yes, you have to have a concept, and you have to know your audience. You have to be very detailed in everything. I think one can also communicate through food because food is actually very personal. It's making things with your hands, and the techniques that you learn are also very personal. How it's being presented to you is all very personal, it’s a matter of communicating.
FT: What food trends do you predict, and how might they influence your menu at Tate?
VL: I think getting back to your roots is definitely one of the food trends. And a very necessary trend as well because of epidemics and everything that goes on in this world. It’s just necessary also for people to give back to where they came from. It’s just a natural human process.
FT: So how do you plan to give back?
VL: I think by starting to just grow your own things, that’s a way of starting. Even though if it’s just a small thing, but then you understand it more, you appreciate it more, and you won’t waste it as much. It’s just a start; everyone needs to understand that because everyone needs to eat everyday so it’s important to have the education.
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