Ask the Foodie: David Lai
Born in Hong Kong, and trained in the San Francisco Bay Area, David Lai of On Lot 10 is an unlikely ambassador of French cuisine. Not that that has slowed him down. He has another restaurant, Bistronomique in Kennedy Town, and opened a bakery, Boulangerie Bistronomique, a few months ago. A private kitchen, butcher's shop and lounge space are also in the works.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I studied art history and fine arts at Berkeley and started working at a restaurant. The Bay Area is so restaurant obsessed and this was back in the early 1990s when the whole scene really took off. You had all of these destination restaurants and famous chefs. Becoming a chef was a natural transition because I was in fine arts and I worked a lot with my hands. I've always enjoyed cooking. I started cooking full time and working my way up.
Without a professional culinary education how did you work in some of the world's best restaurants?
I worked all over for a couple of years. Then one place went bust and I was on unemployment so I could work for free and I did that at Masas. It was regarded as the best restaurant in the area. I worked for free without knowing if I'd get a job. Two months in the butcher broke his arm, so they gave me the job.
And you've worked for Alain Ducasse?
I would see pictures of his kitchen in magazines, and it was my dream to, if not work there, at least spend some time there. After Masas I moved to The Ritz-Carlton. Sylvain Portay had just come from Le Cirque in New York and had been Alain Ducasse's chef de cuisine at the Louis XV in Monaco when they received their first three Michelin stars. It was my first time in a really French kitchen. I thought I knew quite a bit already but I had to start over from the lowest station. When Ducasse decided to open Spoon at the Intercontinental, through my connection with Sylvain, he invited me to work at Louis XV for a few weeks over the holidays and then as a cook at Spoon. I did achieve my dream.
You seem like a laid-back guy. How was the French kitchen environment?
Sylvain was not such a great communicator. He was known for throwing stuff. He was a Frankenstein trained by individual monsters who were famous for being monsters. That's how they were trained. They started at 12 or 13 years old in that environment. I've learned that getting angry can be a power trip but it's not constructive.
How do you find working here?
In Hong Kong, restaurants tend to hire chefs from abroad instead of locals. Maybe it's a holdover from colonial times but it's unfortunate because there is a glass ceiling. You can work from the bottom up until maybe sous chef, but then they hire someone from abroad.
How about the food?
People say there's a lot of farms and local produce in Hong Kong but if you've seen a farmers' market in the US, you know they're light years ahead. Sometimes it is sad to go to a farmers' market here. On the other hand the seafood here really shines. We have some of the best seafood in the world, but now all the best things go to China. In Hong Kong, you never see the best seafood at the market. Mainland buyers have these boats that are like agents and they collect from various fishing boats. The best never reaches the shore.
So is sourcing local ingredients really important to you?
I source locally when it makes sense. I think for some people, without naming names, the whole thing becomes a gimmick. For me, it's about respecting the sources: the ranchers who raise the cattle, the fishermen who catch the fish, and the farmers who grow the produce.