Prose, and now poetry – Hong Kong chef Vicky Lau, 36, has captured hearts and imaginations with her endlessly inventive edible tales at Tate Dining Room & Bar, since its inception in 2012.
In 2015, that same spirit of inventive story-telling – manifest in her cuisine which celebrates French technique, and marries it with Asian ingredients and influences – saw her named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015.
This award was in conjunction with that year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, only the third chef to receive the award, after Taiwan’s Lanshu Chen of Le Mout and Duangporn Songvisava of Bo.Lan in Bangkok, Thailand.
This year, Lau opened Poem Patisserie, along with pastry chef Nocar Lo, which serves delicate desserts inspired by dim sum and Chinese dessert soups, but created with French technique; their flavours are built around a revolving door of themes, beginning with nostalgia for old Hong Kong.
“We combine osmanthus and peaches, dried flower teas in pastries, chocolate cake with red dates,” said Lau. “We call it Poem Patisserie of Flour and Honey in full, referring to the cake itself as a poem that you share with someone you love.”
August marked her very first time cooking in Malaysia, as RHB Banking Group flew her in to curate a unique dining experience at the St Regis Kuala Lumpur, for top corporate clients.
“Curate” tends to be one of those words over-used in a bid to market just about everything – but in Lau’s case, every dish presented is a multi-dimensional work of art, so it does seem apt.
The stint marked her first time cooking in Malaysia, and she had no qualms about incorporating local produce into her dinner. “I visited the Pudu market just this morning, and bought some mini jackfruit to use in my dessert,” said Lau, at a special media preview.
The eight-course dinner was a collection of culinary tributes to things important to Lau – from produce like sakura ebi and Kagoshima beef tenderloin, to home-spun dishes like chicken rice, the concept of Zen, even the sun itself.
This act of paying tribute was inspired by the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. “He paid tribute to things that seemed small and trivial,” she said. “That, in turn, opened my eyes in the kitchen to things like beetroot roots and scallop wings, to see their potential.”
Her menu, called All the Odes, was also carefully structured to work as a harmonious whole. “A menu is like a musical album, with each dish a song,” said Lau. It incorporated some of the signature dishes that Lau has become known for. Among these, the Ode to Sakura Ebi, a dish which Lau says clients always request. An elegant tangle of tagliolini in a concentrated, slow-cooked lobster broth, it was topped with crisp, translucent sakura ebi (a type of shrimp), konbu and fragrant dill.
Ode to the Sun, was a dessert paean that included a gateau of Alphonso mango, with coconut pandan ice cream, pearls of pomelo and sago and that fresh jackfruit she had scored on her market visit.
“For this event, we wanted an Asian chef, someone young yet accomplished, with good energy – and we found that, plus the passion and creativity we were looking for, in Vicky,” said Christopher Ng, executive director and head of group client coverage, private sector, RHB Banking Group.
A culinary story-teller’s beginnings
Lau grew up in Hong Kong, with a family who loved both food and story-telling. “Most of our home-cooked meals were traditional Chiu Chow cuisine, with some Cantonese dishes thrown in. I remember that a particular favourite of mine was a traditional Chiu Chow dish: braised goose wings with tofu,” she said, in a 2015 interview with food magazine Flavours.
And while those family meals were being prepared, Lau listened eagerly to the stories behind each dish, and learned about the ingredients which formed their building blocks.
When it came time to enter high school, Lau went to the United States. “Those were the years in which I really learnt to cook,” she said. “Cooking shows were becoming really popular at the time. They made me want to give different recipes a go, and I would cook everything from lemon chicken to pastas to Chinese soups and cakes.”
Turning that into a career didn’t occur to her at the time though; passionately artistic, she studied graphic communications at New York University, then worked as a graphic designer in the ad industry in New York and Hong Kong for six years.
Her love of cooking came to the forefront when she took a sabbatical, enrolling in a Le Grand Diplome in pastry and Cuisine course at the Le Cordon Bleu Bangkok. What was meant to be purely recreational soon took on a different cast. Her love of food was further stoked, and soon roared into blazing life.
“It was there that I discovered that food, as a medium of expression, was a far more liberating canvas to explore creativity,” she said. In addition to food being used to create visual excitement, scent, taste and texture added greater dimension.
Lau was now determined to pursue a career in food. Climbing the kitchen ladder, she ended up working under Sebastien Lepinoy, as the chef de cuisine at the now-defunct Cepage in Hong Kong, before opening Tate.
The tiny, 26-seater Tate on Elgin Street evolved into a larger restaurant in 2016, on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. A year after its opening, Tate received a Michelin star, for its distinctive French-inspired food with Asian influences.
“Michelin stars have in fact driven the level of cuisine in Hong Kong very much upwards,” she said.
Lau finds much inspiration in her new location, which she says is full of character. “It’s an area full of old dried seafood shops along with newer buildings, art galleries and antique shops.”
Her kitchen style has evolved from when she first started out as a chef. “I’ve gone back more to my roots, and I use more Chinese ingredients, spices like Sichuan peppercorns, and exploring the importance of bitter and spicy notes in my food,” she said. “I am still not a wok-user though!”
Perhaps a return to roots is also signified in little details like encouraging good, old-fashioned conversation over dinner. “We built the tables at Tate with little drawers, for diners to put their phones into!” she said.
She is determined to celebrate true craftsmanship and creation, which she feels is a bit underappreciated nowadays.
“Too much in the world of modern design is about reproduction according to typology, rather than original creation,” said Lau.
She’s also always aware of the constant challenges that female chefs face in a world still dominated by men. Her message? Hold on. “You have to be adaptable, have grit, just hang on and have a long-term goal,” she said.
“Just as a chef also [regardless of gender], if you can hold on, you will do something good – in the first year that I switched from designer to chef, my legs were sore every day. You just have to hold on.”
Lau’s personal bigger picture extends beyond just having a Michelin-starred restaurant. “I want to help people in the industry, to do good as well as be good,” she said.
To that end, she often extends an invitation to culinary students to dine at Tate, to get a feel for and perspective on fine dining, and ask questions of her. She has also cooked for several charity dinners.
At the same time though, “doing good” extends to how she lives her life.
“I never thought too much about this until I won the Asia’s Best Female Chef title,” she said. “I got a lot of questions, a lot of female chefs coming to see me, saying that they were inspired. And so I am inspired by them in turn, and I want to help fuel that passion in people – but it’s important to have the right mindset, because if you are doing the wrong thing and people follow you, they will also go wrong!
“In the end, we need to realise the importance of every single thing, and to be humbled by the realisation,” she said. “The role of a chef is very humble, but I think sometimes we might be a bit too glorified. We need to be appreciative and not wasteful.”
And to always remember, she says, that chefs stand in between the farmer and the customer, and translate the life work of the former for the latter.