Vicky Lau is the founder and chef behind Tate Dining Room and Bar. She has been named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015, an award under the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants program. She tells Andrea Lo about growing up with traditional foods, working in a male-dominated field and gives her views on celebrity chefs.
I was raised in Hong Kong. I grew up living with my grandfather, who is a foodie from Chiu Chow province. Most of the meals cooked at home were a mix of Cantonese and traditional Chiu Chow cuisine.
I would always hear stories about how dishes were made and the differences in the variety of vegetables.
I went to boarding school in the US. I wasn’t used to the food—all of a sudden I was having salads instead of cooked vegetables. That was a cultural shock. I didn’t learn to cook until then.
When I was studying in New York, food TV shows had just become popular—I would watch hours of shows on the Food Network. I would often attempt these recipes.
As a graphic communications graduate, I spent several years learning how visual cues like color or texture can be used to trigger a memory or spark the imagination.
Before I set up Tate, I was doing freelance graphic design. I had some experience in running a business.
It took about half a year from the inception of Tate until it was up and running.
At the beginning, I wasn’t used to reading reviews. I would get quite upset.
I’m past that now. Even McDonald’s, which everyone loves—people criticize it.
I don’t want to please everyone. I want to do something interesting. I understand fully that some people won’t like it. I’m fine with that.
Women have made great strides as cooks, but there are few working in professional kitchens.
This could be due to the fact that chefs aren’t valued for their craft, or it could be because women are discouraged from pursuing this career because of the physical conditions of working in a professional kitchen.
People think that cooking is physically more challenging for females, but you learn to adapt. Instead of carrying a huge pot of stock, I’ll divide it into smaller portions to reduce the load. You’re always finding shortcuts to make it easier.
Regardless of gender, the dining industry is tough for anyone.
Aside from the pressure, you’re always striving for precision and consistency. This leads to long hours and sacrificing your personal life.
I can’t think of any factor that would make this harder for women—other than the fact that being in charge tends to scare some boys away.
Over the last few years, though, I’ve seen an increasing number of female chefs working in traditional Chinese kitchens. At Tate, we have a female-to-male ratio of 3:1. Female chefs are well regarded in Hong Kong.
A chef is the median between where the food is grown and the customer.
The job of a chef has been glorified a little bit. Some people walk out like they’re rock stars. I don’t really agree with that.
Maybe things have shifted. Maybe the fashion world has died down and food has come up to be the more fashionable and innovative industry. That’s how I feel the whole idea of the celebrity chef has come about.
I’m not planning on opening more restaurants, but I might move to a different location. I need a bigger kitchen!
Hong Kong is home, but I’m open-minded. I think it’s important for a person to adapt to whatever changes you have in front of you.
It’s hard to say if I’d be as successful elsewhere. There are so many countries. If you threw me into Fiji it might be a little harder.
My favorite thing about Hong Kong? I like that it is a culture that has a lot of traditions, but it also has the “new” mentality.
People are practical in Hong Kong. They tend to forget to do the things that they really like. Not to blame the people of Hong Kong—it’s a society-wide thing.
I wish I had gone to more countries to learn about different foods. I’m trying to do that now, but I don’t have as much time.
One of my dream jobs has always been to be a photojournalist. I really like James Nachtwey. I watched a documentary on him and I’m very moved by how he documents war zones and different situations.
The power of uniting a lot of people is an important lesson to learn in the F&B business.
You can actually achieve a lot more if you hire people who are smarter than you.
Some people linger around the past and worry about the future too much. But for me it’s about the present.
Need to Know…
After starting out as a graphic designer, Vicky Lau underwent a stint at Bangkok’s Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute. Following a spell cooking at Cépage in Wan Chai, she went on to open Tate Dining Room in 2012, gaining acclaim for her themed “Edible Stories” tasting menus.
59 Elgin St., Central, 2555-2172.