How Hong Kong’s two Michelin star chef Vicky Lau became a culinary icon – Tate Dining Room’s Chinese-French fusion made her Asia’s first woman to bag a second star

Hong Kong chef Vicky Lau of two-Michelin-star Tate Dining Room, one of the female chefs pushing back against an industry too long dominated by men. Photo: Handout

Despite the status bestowed by her double Michelin star, Vicky Lau says the battle to improve gender parity in the male-dominated world of professional kitchens is a long way from won – but small victories bring her hope.

In the fiendishly competitive arena of Hong Kong’s fine dining scene, few have had as remarkable an ascent as Lau.

The culinary industry is a male-dominated industry … but it also expects women to behave like men – you either fit in or you get out
Peggy Chan, Hong Kong chef
Chef Vicky Lau of Tate, with her favourite knife, in her restaurant in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, in July 2020. Photo: SCMP

In little more than a decade, she has gone from opening a small cafe to running one of the finance hub’s most lauded restaurants.

Earlier this year Tate Dining Room was awarded two Michelin stars, a belated breakthrough first for Asia’s all-too-overlooked female chefs.

Many chefs love to insist in interviews that awards don’t mean much. Lau, 40, is refreshingly upfront.

Sample dishes from Tate Dining Room. Photo: Tate Dining Room/Instagram

“I didn’t get in the industry because I want to have all these accolades. But over time, it did become a goal,” she said.

Asked whether the gender watershed moment of the double Michelin mattered, she replied: “I think it does make a statement, because it encourages a lot of people in our industry to power on.”

A former graphic designer who switched mid-career and retrained, Lau said she “really didn’t think twice about being a female and a chef” when she entered the trade.

“It’s kind of ‘ignorance was bliss’ at that time,” she smiled, recalling how many at her Cordon Bleu training in Bangkok were women.

Vicky Lau Wan-ki makes warm scallop with scallop caviar sauce and crispy baby shrimp at Tate Dining Room in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Once in the business, she saw how men dominated, especially when it came to ascending the ranks or owning top establishments.

As she won attention for her dishes, she initially found it exhausting to continually be asked about her gender, the example she was setting, the role model she had become.

But over time she said she came to embrace the reality that her success could encourage others.

“It actually became one of my motivations to go to work,” she said.

Vicky Lau from Tate Dining Room in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, in June 2020. Photo: SCMP

Alongside contemporaries such as Peggy Chan and May Chow, Lau is part of a new generation of successful and vocal female chef/entrepreneurs.

Global culinary award programmes have long been overly fixated on both Western cuisine and male chefs. It’s a charge brands are now alive to. Slowly, winners’ lists are starting to look a little more representative of the world itself.

Chef Peggy Chan created a “leaves and liberty” burger at Hong Kong’s Beef & Liberty in January 2021. Photo: SCMP

The #MeToo movement also brought some limited reckoning over the type of alpha-male behaviour once lauded by food critics and television shows. But improvement can feel frustratingly gradual.

“The culinary industry is a male-dominated industry, as everybody knows, but it also expects women to behave like men,” said Chan, who carved out a space as one of Hong Kong’s first fine-dining vegetarian chefs. “You either fit in or you get out.”

Peggy Chan was previously the founder and chef of Nectar, and is seen here with fresh produce grown at the Zen Organic Farm in Ta Kwu Ling, Hong Kong, in 2019. Photo: SCMP

The slow growth of women both in professional kitchens and in owning restaurants, she said, is starting to make an impact.

Lau says her kitchen is now more than 50 per cent female. Chefs with children are regarded as an asset, not a headache. Those with egos can leave them at the kitchen door.

“There’s a lot more room for different types of personalities,” Chan said. “We don’t just celebrate Gordon Ramsay-style screaming in your face.”

Inside Vicky Lau’s Tate Dining Room in Sheung Wan. Photo: Handout

Lau’s dishes combine French and Chinese cuisine and are ornately prepared – each presentation delicately plated in a vivid display of her design background.

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And she’s determined to get wider recognition for often underappreciated Chinese cooking techniques.

One example she cites is “double steamed” or “superior” broths – the time-consuming stocks of Chinese cooking that could give any consomme a run for its money.

Chinese yam at Tate Dining Room. Photo: Tate Dining

Her business has stayed afloat during the coronavirus pandemic with catering, a take-away service and a patisserie shop.

It also opened for lunch for the first time, offering a less pricey tasting menu set around one single ingredient.

“We’ve done rice, tofu, tea, soy sauce,” Lau explained.

Tate Dining Room’s Vicky Lau makes various dishes with tofu produced by Kung Wo Beancurd Factory in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Each course of her latest menu is built from different parts of a plant – seeds, leaves, bulbs, stems, fruit, roots and flowers.

Lau says the pandemic forced her into a more creative and self-reflective space.

“I think Covid-19 will put globalisation on a bit of a pause,” she predicts, saying fine-dining restaurants are being forced to source more locally, something consumers were already pushing for.

Why fly in French turbot, she posits, when there are perfectly good alternatives on the local wet markets?

Chef Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room & Bar and winemaker Gäelle Goossens. Photo: Handout

She describes fine dining as “ego cooking” – “because you are kind of expressing yourself on a plate”.

“And a lot of times you can be lost a little bit,” she added. “That’s why it’s time to make more humble ingredients like soy sauce or rice the star of a dish.”

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  • Other groundbreaking female chefs in Hong Kong include Peggy Chan, formerly chef at fine dining vegetarian restaurant Nectar, and May Chow
  • Lau’s kitchen is more than 50 per cent female and doesn’t tolerate Gordon Ramsay-style histrionics – although she still dubs fine dining ‘ego cooking’