It’s one of the most important accolades a chef can receive – to be voted for by peers across the restaurant industry and recognised by those who really know what it takes to succeed. Vicky Lau, chef and owner of Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong, is the recipient of the first of these accolades for 2015, as the newly crowned Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef. The award, which celebrates and promotes female talent, is voted for by the 300 industry experts from across Asia who create the annual list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Lau’s journey to becoming a chef was far from typical – after graduating from New York University, she embarked on a career as a graphic designer, but a passion for the culinary arts soon led her to take on the prestigious Grand Diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok. She honed her skills at the Michelin-starred Cépage in Hong Kong before opening her own restaurant, Tate Dining Room, in 2012. Here the 34-year-old talks about her influences, recalls her childhood foodie memories, and offers advice for aspiring young female chefs.Tweet
Congratulations on winning the award. What does it mean to you to be voted for by your peers?
I’m very happy and very honoured – it all came to me as a surprise. As an independent chef in Hong Kong and in Asia, it’s a huge validation. I never intended to be Asia’s Best Female Chef, but I just do what I love. Having been raised in Hong Kong and educated in the west, I feel that my work is an infusion of different varieties of culinary influences and I’m honoured that the industry experts have voted on this as well.
Do you think it’s important to recognise female talent and help encourage women in this industry?
Of course. There’s been a huge change in the industry over the years, as I’ve seen in Hong Kong. There are more females working in the kitchen nowadays, even in traditional Chinese kitchens, which used to have no women in them. For instance, at Tate, I have maybe a 3:1 ratio of women to men, so it’s definitely very important to recognise this in the culinary world.
Are there specific challenges facing female chefs?
The fine dining industry is especially tough for anyone, due to the pressure and the consistently long hours and also giving up your personal life, but for me there isn’t a huge factor of it being harder for women particularly – there’s always a solution.
Do you think you cook differently because you’re a woman?
Yes, definitely. In general, my cooking is maybe more subtle, and I also put a lot of attention into creating things and making it more presentable. It’s hard to say why, but it’s quite feminine, which attracts a lot of female customers as well.
Can you talk us through the idea of Edible Stories?
It’s really about creating dishes while having a story in mind. When something inspires me, I grasp that and try to translate it into a dish. One of my recent dishes from the winter menu is aged mandarin skin. In the market I see a lot of old ladies selling all these aged mandarin peels, and traditionally we pair it with garoupa, for example, but I’ve created a new dish using a powdered form of that mandarin skin paired with seabass and fennel. I try to depict that by hanging some mandarin skin at the side of the dish. It makes me think of the old ladies at the market – the mandarin skins hang there for years.
Do you explain the stories to your customers?
Not so much. With some dishes I’ve written a poem and slipped it in on the side of the dish. That’s more subtle because not everyone is interested in knowing the story – some customers just want to eat.
How did you get into cooking?
I was born in Hong Kong and went to the US when I was 15, to a boarding school in Connecticut. Afterwards I went to New York University and studied Graphic Communication, then I worked in an agency for a while as a creative director. After that I was going to come back to Hong Kong to start up a project with my sister but it didn’t quite work out so I felt like I just needed something different in my life – a different aspect of design.
Two of my friends were applying to the Cordon Bleu in Bangkok, so I joined them. We’d always been foodies together and talked about going to culinary school, so that finally happened. At first I was only going to do three months but I completely fell in love with it, so I did the whole Grand Diploma – nine months. Afterwards, I was just so curious about how a fine dining restaurant worked, so I went to Cépage. Then I just wanted to combine everything I knew about design and food and my knowledge of the business side of things, to start up Tate. It’s been two and a half years since it opened.
Do you have a favourite dish to create?
I really believe cooking is a harmony of art, craft and science, and I’m also passionate about telling the story behind things, so one of the earliest dishes I created is the Zen Garden, which I usually serve as the last course of the meal. It’s a dessert made out of macha mousseline, white chocolate mousse, dacquoise and sake kasu cream, and it’s presented as a mini garden, which calls for self-reflection at the end of the meal. This dish is a tribute to the masters of the zen garden and the art of tea.
Do you have any particular childhood food memories?
As a kid I always liked bread. I loved baguettes and my sister wouldn’t understand why I would eat that hard bread, because it’s quite unpopular in Asia. But also I grew up with my grandfather living with us, and he’s from Chiu Chow province in China, so the food served at home is mainly made out of a mix of Cantonese and Chiu Chow food. They would always talk about how they would dig up some really fresh vegetables back in China, so all of that plays a huge factor. My Mom loves Japanese food and she would take us out to Japanese restaurants all the time too.
What advice would you give to aspiring young female chefs?
Accept and embrace the repetition of the job, and also perfect what you’re doing each day so you can bring it forward and use it as a solid foundation to build your career. It’s also important to keep an open mind and learn about the world around you and not just within the industry. Nowadays as a modern chef, to develop a style and personality of your own cuisine and restaurant is very important.
Would you like to open another restaurant?
We’ve kind of outgrown the current kitchen at Tate – we need more space to do the dishes that we want. So in the next year I’ll be focusing on maybe moving to a bigger location. But Hong Kong can only accommodate one Tate!
What are you most looking forward to about the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards night?
I’m most looking forward to seeing the whole awards ceremony in person rather than just hearing about it, and also meeting like-minded people – new and old friends in the industry. I’m also looking forward to trying some local restaurants in Singapore.
Vicky will receive the Veuve Clicquot Asia's Best Female Chef award at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants ceremony in Singapore on Monday 9th March.
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