One of Asia’s top chefs tells “edible stories”
Recently awarded Veuve Clicquot’s 2015 Best Female Chef in Asia, Vicky Lau is quietly making a name for herself amid a sea of celebrity chefs and high-concept restaurants that seem to pop up everywhere. Having established her minimalist Tate Dining Room & Bar in Hong Kong’s Soho district, with its eclectic mix of French and Asian cuisines, she has been awarded a Michelin star every year since opening in 2012. In addition, she has her newly minted catering service. Lau is motivated by her desire to expand the concept of a ‘meal’; she equates it to creating an album, with harmonious dialog between all the tastes. To this end, she creates what she calls ‘Edible Stories’, each dish conveying an overarching theme that lights up the imagination and takes the palate on a trip through nostalgia, fantasy, memory and back again to the table.
As a graphic designer, I understood how visual cues like form, color, tone and texture can be used to trigger a memory or evoke a response. This understanding helps me pay attention to all the detail.
I grew up living with my grandfather, who is a foodie from the Chiu Chow province, and most of the meals cooked at home were based on traditional Chiu Chow cuisine with a mix of Cantonese. I would always hear stories about how dishes were made, and the differences in vegetable varieties. On weekends, my parents would take us out for meals, and very often it would be Japanese food, because that’s my mum’s favorite cuisine. I never learned how to cook until high school, when I had to cook for myself at boarding school in the United States. With dining-hall food the only type available, the foreign students would crave home-cooked food, so on weekends we would gather in each other’s dorm rooms and cook up a storm with a mini electric stove and rice cooker. The dishes mainly consisted of steamed rice with curry, and we’d get very creative with our bowls of ramen noodles. After I graduated from New York University in 2004, I worked in an advertising agency there for several years, returning to Hong Kong in 2007 to set up my own design company; but I always felt there was something missing. That gap was filled when I went with two friends to do a basic cookery course at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok in 2010. When it finished, I wanted to do more, and so I enrolled for the Grand Diplôme. I learned that food, as a medium of expression, was a far more liberating canvas to explore creativity because of the added dimensions of taste and smell. You also have the instant gratification of seeing someone enjoy your food.
Where do you go for culinary inspiration? Does travel play a part?
The biggest influence is the ingredients and flavor profiles around me—either from a memory or exploring something new. As for inspiration, I think it can come from anywhere if you seek with an open mind, and pay attention to what’s going on around you so that you catch that moment and think about it. Sometimes a movie or a piece of music can provoke a feeling or spark an idea, it just depends on how you interpret it. And sometimes interpretation can evolve over time. Your own dish can serve as a source of inspiration and evolve into another dish. This is when you create the best possible dish, because you’re always trying to beat your previous best.
Travel does inspire me. One of the earliest dishes I created was ‘Zen Garden’, which takes its inspiration from the tea ceremony in Kyoto. I usually serve it as the last course of a meal. It consists of matcha mousseline, white chocolate mousse, dacquoise, sake kasu sauce and yoghurt crumble, and it’s presented as a mini Zen garden that prompts self-reflection. This dish is a tribute to the masters of the Zen garden and the art of tea making.
What is it about French cuisine that lends itself to traveling beyond its shores and harmonizing with Asian influences?
French cuisine has a very rich history that evolved from the Middle Ages through to today. Modern French cuisine has always played an influential role in how we perceive Western food.
Since I was raised in Hong Kong and educated in the West, I feel my work is infused with a variety of culinary influences. I’m currently exploring the Chinese way of preserving ingredients, from century eggs to lap cheong sausages. There are a lot of common theories between French, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, and I’m always fascinated to discover the connections.
Is there any dish (either French or Chinese) that you wouldn’t want to change in any way from its traditional recipe?
I’m not afraid of changing things: I interpret each dish in my own way, so there’s no right or wrong, and there’s nothing that I feel I shouldn’t change.
What drives your style of cuisine?
For me, cooking is a harmonious blend of art, craft and science. I’m driven by passion to tell a story: with Edible Stories, the dishes are inspired by a theme or a memory. The theme could, itself, be inspired by a story or a simple abstract thought. We internalize the theme, and then we visualize how we can convey it: We think about the sounds, smells and colors it might evoke. Have we been there before? What are the sensations that anchor our representation of its setting? Once we’ve distilled everything down, we then recreate the theme using food. The presentation of the dish provides a narrative in which each ingredient is its own character, and the interplay between the nuanced flavors, the aromas and the textures reveals the plot.
Which chefs were influential for you in finding your own style?
Chef Sebastien Lepinoy, with whom I worked at Cepage in Hong Kong, inspired me a great deal and taught me cooking techniques, the importance of detail, and being aware of what is around you. His cooking philosophy—and it’s one that’s shared by all the arts—is that simplicity is a sign of perfection, which I strive to achieve every day.
Favorite meal ever?
The most perfect meal of my life was at Per Se in New York. Every dish was executed flawlessly and very much to my liking. I really love Oysters & Pearl, which is a sabayon of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and white sturgeon caviar. The incredibly rich, buttery, hollandaise-like sauce just worked perfectly with the cold, briny caviar and plump, juicy oysters.