Vicky Lau wants to watch you eat


HONG KONG – Vicky Lau says that although she has always had a passion for food, it was a sense of sheer necessity that led her to cook for herself.

Lau was a college student in New York – hungry and far from home – when she first tried to recreate the tastes and textures of Hong Kong. It was the start of a journey that will see Lau become earlier this year the first Asian woman to receive two Michelin stars, for her work in the kitchen of the Tate Dining Room, the “French Chinese” restaurant that Lau runs on. historic Hollywood Road.

“It all really started when I moved to the United States and started to want to eat at home and started experimenting,” says Lau, 40, on a recent visit. weekdays at the Tate Dining Room.

“I had moved to New York where the food is really diverse. The Food Network was really booming. It was constantly on my TV and I was experimenting. Some things worked, some didn’t. When they did. weren’t working, I wanted to know why. It’s pretty close to design, that’s what I was studying at the time. You take raw materials and you create something and I like it to be very sensual . “

Lau was studying graphic communication at New York University at the time and says she felt a connection between these two worlds – that of creative design and that of cooking. Later, after working in design in Hong Kong, she flies away with friends for a three-month course at Cordon Bleu Dusit in Bangkok which evolves into nine months and a diploma, and the decision to formalize the career change. .

From left to right, zucchini flower with snow chrysanthemum, diplomat cream, guava sorbet and local honey mousse; Braised hedgehog mushrooms with roasted potatoes and peanut and mushroom sauce; and Crispy tofu leaves with tomato, eggplant caviar and pepper sabayon. (Photos courtesy of Vicky Lau)

Time was then spent in what was the gourmet restaurant Cepage in Hong Kong – under the direction of chef Sébastien Lepinoy, whose culinary lineage can be traced back to French master Joel Robuchon.

In 2012, Lau was ready to chart her own culinary journey and therefore opened the Tate Dining Room with the ethic of following an “exploration of culinary expressionism” with an emphasis on “flavors and textures”.

And Lau’s dishes are certainly also a visual experience. The recently released “An Ode to Earth” lunch menu features a dish dubbed “Bulbs” and featuring a 9-year-old quiet crunchy sweet lily bulb, eaten raw with bamboo marrow, Japanese turnip and onion broth with mushrooms “.

“For me, another thing that attracted me to cooking is that it’s very cunning,” says Lau. “I like doing things with my hands, like ceramics. I like all of that. Today you don’t have a lot of them because a lot of things are factory made. But food is still a part of things. which must be made by hand. “

Lau admits that he often peeks out from the kitchen in the Tate Dining Room to observe the reaction of diners when their dishes are served.

“It’s the ultimate,” she says. “In the world I was in before, you design things but you could never see the reactions of people. With food, you always see the reaction.

“With a restaurant, it all depends on who we share the food with. Food enhances that experience. So having good food helps create a conversation and I love that. I love that people share this story, food and seeing them have that experience. “

“Everything I want to express is on the plate,” Lau says. (Photo courtesy of Vicky Lau)

As for the recipes the Tate Dining Room relies on, they all come back to Lau – and she admits to feeling the pressure that comes with expectation, as the restaurant was an immediate hit, and now that more has come. with a second Michelin star, on top of the first, awarded in 2013. Lau says his dishes reflect his personality – creative and goal-oriented and, far from cooking, very private.

“Everything I want to express is on the plate,” she says.

Friends and repeat customers will often say of a particular dish, “Oh, that’s very Vicky”. Lau says it always makes her laugh.

“But that’s the hard part,” Lau explains of the process of creating new dishes. “I think that’s one of the reasons chefs have such ego issues. It’s because every day feels like you’re on stage. You have to do your best and if you don’t. don’t trust yourself, you fight and there is a downward spiral.

“But to me, a dish is like giving someone a present. It has to be eye-catching, to make it feel like someone has taken care of it, thought about it. I’m quite spiritual. , so I think I’m channeling something with my recipes. “

The folks at Michelin rightly made much of Lau being the first Asian woman to receive a two-star rating, a fact remarkable on so many levels.

Dr Siu Yan-ho, Department of Chinese, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, lectures on the link between food and culture. He says Chinese kitchens have long been trapped in a “1950s male monopoly”, but in recent years they have shifted towards “a less feudal concept of” putting men before women. ” It’s chefs like Lau who keep time moving. — quickly.

Harmonious white and green asparagus, chartreuse of bamboo shoots, fermented tofu sauce, Chinese focaccia with olive leaves and small vegetables. (Photo courtesy of Vicky Lau)

Lau says she must have made her voice heard, at first, when she was learning her trade and learning in male-dominated kitchens.

“I think in Asia there has been a cultural perception that a woman’s place is not in a professional kitchen,” she says. “It has to do with the idea that this job is a job, it has long hours. But that is changing. There is absolutely no difference between a male chef and a female chef, so I really think we should. just think of it this way.We are all cooks.

“Those kinds of awards help. They’ve raised the profile of chefs a lot since the days when parents could have said not to go to the kitchen. The idea was that people who hadn’t studied or were not going not well in school go to the kitchen. Now people are more open to going into the kitchen and people can see where it can take you. “

There is also a shift in the way the world views food, and how it is prepared – and sourced – and Lau sees this evolution as the next step in his journey.

“With me, it’s always the ingredient first,” says Lau. “I like very humble ingredients like tofu. I like the cultural part of it and how, like on our vegetarian menu, we can quote a recipe from the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

“I believe that the world of food is changing and will evolve over the next 10 years. I am happy to follow this movement which sees that we have to change the way we think about food. How we treat food. I want to push these limits It’s my dream to open a vegetarian restaurant People think I’m crazy, but that’s where I want to go.

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