Hong Kong swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun has a myth to dispel: not all athletes have a strict diet or watch what they eat.
“I actually don’t have any restrictions,” says Au, the flag-bearer for Hong Kong at the Rio 2016 Olympics. “I can eat whatever I want. To be honest, with the amount we swim, we eat as much as we can. I know it’s weird and against everyone’s perception, but every day we’re swimming about 5km or more, so that’s a lot of calories.”
To witness, she’s already had a quick lunch before meeting us to try out some dishes at The Chinese Library, Aqua Group’s new aristocratic pan-Chinese concept in the East Wing of the Central Police Headquarters in Tai Kwun.
“A nutritionist told me I have to hit 4,000 calories a day. That’s a lot. A bowl of rice is barely 200 calories, so to reach 4,000, I end up eating almost four meals per day. That’s why I do a lot of smoothies and milk shakes. I’m not lying. I don’t want to say I only eat healthy food.”
It’s almost jarring to realise this gregarious young woman is already a three-time Olympian. Just 26, she holds numerous Hong Kong records in freestyle and backstroke, in different events and in both short and long course events.
In August, at the Asian Games in Jakarta, she helped Hong Kong win a bronze as part of the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team, and a silver in the women’s 4x100m medley relay. After taking all of last month off, Au is excited to work towards her next goal and her career finale, Tokyo 2020.
“This will definitely be my last (Olympics),” she confirms. “My target is to qualify for the 100m backstroke and to reach a personal best. The first qualifying (round) is next April. My coach was lenient in allowing me to take a month off, because I’m considered a ‘mature’ athlete, especially in swimming. I’ve been training since I was nine years old.”
The tasting starts with a turmeric-coloured laksa xiaolongbao (the plate of three dumplings costs HK$88). The broth inside hits all the flavour profile of a Singaporean laksa with sambal, coconut milk and a hint of chilli.
“It’s very interesting,” Au says, in a way that suggests this is a pleasant surprise.
Au is not just a prodigious eater, she’s an adventurous one, too. “I’m almost too adventurous sometimes,” she says. “I order a lot of dishes and sometimes they turn out not to be as good as I expect. But there’re so many new things I want to try. Recently, my guilty pleasure has been French fries. Sometimes it’s chocolate, and not dark chocolate but the really sweet stuff. And bubble tea.”
She also admits her Asian palate is just one reason she returned after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 2014. Despite being enrolled in one of the top training programmes in the US, she choose family, friends and food over any professional advantage the Trojans system would have offered. “It definitely helped me become a better swimmer. However, there is a strong mental aspect to being an athlete. It’s not just the swimming or the gym work, it’s about your whole being and your state of mind. Physically, I can be great in the US but the mental part of training with my home coach and being closer to my family is important, too. I don’t regret coming back to Hong Kong at all.
“I like Chinese and Asian cuisine, especially after returning from studying in the States. I now know how much I miss food from home. Since then, Chinese has become my favourite cuisine. Japanese is a close second. I like to eat. With my teammates, we like to find good restaurants and hang out. We’re like a big family. We even play mahjong and have hotpot.”
The next dish to arrive is crispy Wuxi eel with 15-year-old aged vinegar (HK$118). The delicious snack, fried until crunchy then lacquered in a sweet and sour glaze, is one of Au’s favourite Shanghainese dishes. The Chinese Library’s version of the eel is beautifully done.
“This is so good,” Au comments. We think there might be a hint of mala spice, too, but it turns out to be the plate of aromatic, chilled jade flower in green Sichuan pepper essence (HK$78) just brought to the table. It, too, has a wonderful texture and bite.
However, the most impressive of our dishes is the chrysanthemum “Thousand Cut” silken tofu in chicken broth
(HK$108), visually stunning due to the delicate knife-work that transforms a piece of tofu into a flowering chrysanthemum. The expertly carved tofu and soup are light enough to float off the table.
“I know the taste is savoury but the feeling is it’s like a dessert,” Au observes. Indeed, the clean and smooth tofu brings out even more sweetness in a broth rendered pure and clear.
Beyond the twilight of her athletic career looming on the horizon, Au says she is excited for what may come next. “I’m excited to find out what I will do after swimming,” she contemplates.
It’s especially interesting because her public profile has grown significantly in the past two years, and has led to new opportunities she’s never expected, including modelling and acting. But Au emphasises that her celebrity status has never been a priority. “It’s fun but I never treat the entertainment industry as a job or career. It’s a side job that is fun and relaxing. I probably have more fun with it than others because I don’t care about it. I see it all as a bonus. My career is still swimming.”
The last dish, barbecue pork loin glazed with New Zealand manuka honey (HK$228), arrives, and Au’s taste buds are sharp and astute: “I won’t say it’s the best char siu I’ve had but it’s very tasty.” She’s right – the meat could have been caramelised a little more for that extra sinful appeal.
Au may not know what the future will bring after 2020, but is fully committed to promoting sports in Hong Kong and helping youngsters reach or surpass their goals.
“I am very passionate about the young athletes of Hong Kong. I do want to do something for the local sports community. Whatever I achieve in swimming, I hope other kids can do the same in this or other sports.
“I want them to have a better future in sports in Hong Kong.
“My ultimate dream is for people to support all athletes, not just the medal winners.”
Stephanie Au, three-time Olympian