Food

From graphic de­signer to lauded chef to new mother, Vicky Lau has seen some dra­matic changes in the past few years. On the eve of re­open­ing her fine-dining res­tau­rant in new premises, she tells Char­maine Mok how it’s the purest ex­pres­sion of her­self

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents - Photography Amanda Kho

From graphic de­signer to lauded chef to mother, Vicky Lau has seen some dra­matic changes in the past few years. We chat with her on the eve of the re­open­ing of her fine dining res­tau­rant, Tate

Af­ter five years serv­ing its dis­tinc­tive brand of French­japanese cuisine on El­gin Street, tiny Tate res­tau­rant (snug at just 26 seats) has as­sumed a prom­i­nent new space on Hol­ly­wood Road. Chef-owner Vicky Lau meets me at the site just shy of two weeks be­fore the grand open­ing, when the air is still thick with saw­dust. She apol­o­gises as a fine layer set­tles over our glasses, which are filled with wa­ter pu­ri­fied and fil­tered in-house us­ing a special sys­tem im­ported from Korea. You see, as part of the new res­tau­rant, Vicky is shak­ing things up a lit­tle. “We’re not go­ing to have any bot­tled wa­ter. We don’t need to fly wa­ter all the way from France or New Zealand. It’s just not eco-friendly.”

She walks me through the space, which was quite lit­er­ally The Space be­fore she took over the events venue last year. Be­cause of the build­ing’s split-level lay­out, she de­cided to use the ground floor to launch Poem Patis­serie, which will sell af­ford­able mousse cakes and desserts in­spired by Asian flavours. “With the patis­serie, I re­ally hope to reach out to more peo­ple,” she ex­plains. Up­stairs are the res­tau­rant and two kitchens: one for But­ler, the cater­ing busi­ness Vicky set up in 2014, and the other for the main res­tau­rant, which now seats 40. To me, the square footage of the res­tau­rant kitchen seems al­most the same size as the orig­i­nal Tate res­tau­rant. When

I make this ob­ser­va­tion, Vicky lets out a re­lieved chuckle. It’s cer­tainly re­fresh­ing to have more space to cre­ate, she says.

Think­ing back to when she opened Tate in 2012, she ad­mits she was buoyed at the time by bliss­ful ig­no­rance. “I didn’t know much about the res­tau­rant busi­ness, but it also gave me the power to do things out­side the box,” she ex­plains. “Be­cause of this ig­no­rance, I cre­ated some­thing that was quite special for Hong Kong.”

I wouldn’t call it ig­no­rance per se; per­haps a dif­fer­ent point of view. Af­ter all, Vicky was not al­ways a chef, though she has al­ways loved good food. She spent the first six years of her work­ing life as a graphic de­signer af­ter grad­u­at­ing from New York Univer­sity, even set­ting up her own firm af­ter mov­ing back to Hong Kong. But charged by Ken Gar­land’s de­sign man­i­festo First Things First, she de­cided to do a com­plete U-turn.

“Gar­land talked about how de­sign­ers should em­brace more of so­ci­ety and not just do com­mer­cial work for sham­poo bot­tles and stuff,” she says. “It taught me to ques­tion why we do the things we do. And food is very in­ter­est­ing in that it con­nects to all of your senses, and there are so many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. More than ever, it’s im­por­tant we re­think all of these things.”

She re­calls a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend one day over the topic of food. “We talked about it non-stop ev­ery day, but one time we just went, ‘Let’s just take a break and go to Le Cor­don Bleu’.” That friend was Nancy Fung, who even­tu­ally founded life­style PR firm Sig­na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which rep­re­sents Vicky’s res­tau­rant. What was planned to be a fun three-month course at the Bangkok cam­pus of the pres­ti­gious French culi­nary school led Vicky to pur­sue the nine-month full-time Grand Di­plôme—the high­est qual­i­fi­ca­tion avail­able—in patis­serie and cuisine. Straight from there, she landed a job as com­mis chef at Cé­page, the French fine­din­ing res­tau­rant in Wan Chai’s Star Street, where she worked for a year be­fore de­cid­ing to launch her own venue on El­gin Street.

The com­bi­na­tion of her mod­ern de­sign sen­si­bil­ity and clas­si­cal French train­ing ex­pressed at Tate de­liv­ered crit­i­cal suc­cess for Vicky right from the open­ing of the res­tau­rant. She was named Asia’s Best Fe­male Chef in 2015 by Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Duang­porn Songvisava of Bangkok’s Bo.lan and Lan­shu Chen of Le Moût in Taichung, Tai­wan.

The pretty pas­tel, mar­ble and cop­per in­te­ri­ors of the new Tate—de­signed and ex­e­cuted by ris­ing star James JJ Acuna— pro­vide a beau­ti­ful dining en­vi­ron­ment. But Vicky’s favourite de­tail is the small draw­ers built into the ta­bles that are meant to hold mo­bile phones. “It’s a lit­tle re­minder to be more present, to en­gage with your guests and en­joy the food fully,” she says. “I’ve had guests at Tate who have spent the en­tire meal watch­ing videos with their ear­phones on. And, no, they weren’t dining alone.”

In a cam­era-eats-first so­ci­ety, it would be hard enough to keep your phone hid­den in a tem­po­rary cub­by­hole, but the in­cred­i­bly pho­to­genic na­ture of Vicky’s cre­ations makes it even more dif­fi­cult. Her dis­tinctly visual style is re­flected de­light­fully in her dishes—for ex­am­ple, a minia­ture zen gar­den ar­range­ment fash­ioned from ground sesame upon which pe­tits fours are placed, and ap­pe­tis­ers that turn sim­ple in­gre­di­ents such as Dat­terino toma­toes into ed­i­ble works of art.

The new menu is an ode to the things Vicky holds dear. Its in­spi­ra­tion is Pablo Neruda’s com­pelling All The Odes, a vol­ume of lyri­cal po­ems ded­i­cated to ev­ery­thing from the mun­dane to the ex­tra­or­di­nary, from clouds to ar­ti­chokes. At Tate, din­ers will ex­pe­ri­ence a de­li­ciously cere­bral menu that cel­e­brates the in­gre­di­ents and their ori­gins, from the lo­cal bees that pro­duce honey for the ice cream dessert, to the dragon well tea that adds aroma to a su­pe­rior broth.

The in­gre­di­ents are fresh and sea­sonal, and or­ganic wher­ever pos­si­ble, some­thing that has be­come more im­por­tant to Vicky since the birth of her daugh­ter, Kory, late last year. Steam cook­ing, nour­ish­ing in­gre­di­ents and slow-sim­mered soups have re­cently caught her at­ten­tion, too, thanks to the con­fine­ment nurse who filled her days with dishes such as braised sea cu­cum­bers and vine­gared pork trot­ters. Vicky has also re­cently taken up ca­sual ap­pren­tice­ships with dim sum chefs to learn the art of fold­ing dumplings and craft­ing turnip puff pas­tries. And even the topic of rice, right down to the grains, has been oc­cu­py­ing her mind.

Clearly Vicky, widely renowned for her fi­nesse in ex­e­cut­ing French-ja­panese cuisine, is mak­ing a re­turn to her Chi­nese roots. It’s mov­ing to see her pay homage to so many el­e­ments of her cul­ture and her­itage on the new menu: Ode to a Chiu Chow Clas­sic is foie gras royale with mar­i­nated goose, and a hat-tip to her fa­ther’s east­ern Guang­dong up­bring­ing; Ode to Scal­lop fea­tures three vari­a­tions on the shell­fish, one de­signed to evoke the in­tense umami whiff of the city’s hoi mei (dried seafood) shops; even more overtly, Ode to Hong Kong is a dish of lo­cal abalone served with a tuna jus.

“I ac­tu­ally started study­ing Chi­nese food more af­ter vis­it­ing Hangzhou for a TV doc­u­men­tary, where we picked tea leaves and I got the chance to see the in­side of a Main­land Chi­nese kitchen,” Vicky says. “It made me think more about what the core of Chi­nese cuisine is, my roots, and how I should ex­plore them. Af­ter all, this is what grounds a per­son. And this is what makes me me.”

Tate, 210 Hol­ly­wood Road, She­ung Wan; +852 2555 2172

PO­ETRY ON A PLATE The for­mat of Tate’s new menu takes in­spi­ra­tion from All The Odes by Pablo Neruda. Ode to Tea in­cor­po­rates Dragon Well tea in a su­pe­rior broth served with tur­bot. Op­po­site page: Ode to Scal­lop fea­tures vari­a­tions on the shell­fish

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