Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Vicky Lau
“I think urban exploration is about challenging the world that we live in. To me, Hong Kong is a very urban place because of its unique history and the people’s mentality through the course of time. Chinese culture is very much bounded by history and tradition, and it is through its people, or urban explorers if you will, that constantly reinvent traditions by traveling and constantly exploring. When these urban explorers return, they take back with them other cultures that contribute and shape these traditions.”
Chef and Entrepreneur
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
I’m Vicky Lau and I’m the owner of fine dining restaurant TATE Dining Room, located in the heart of Sheung Wan and we serve French-inspired dishes with an Asian twist. Just beneath TATE is Poem Patisserie, a unique pastry shop of mine which specializes in the creation of Chinese-inspired mousse cakes and celebration cakes with a dash of French decadence. In addition to these two streams of business, I also run a luxury catering service called Butler which we provide culinary services to various clients, customizing food and drinks for all occasions.
When did you first realize you wanted to pursue the culinary arts?
I really do believe that everyone is born to play their role in life and for myself, I have always enjoyed creating beautiful things and I knew early on that this was my calling. I first started out creating ceramics where I would take a slab of clay and just let my creative senses take over. I would find such enjoyment in sculpting something beautiful yet functional at the same time. At that point, I knew I wanted to utilize my skills so I went into Graphic Communications in university, opting for a more practical approach. During this time, I found myself particularly drawn to the conceptualization aspect of design which dives into the rationale and reasoning behind the creative process. After I graduated, I utilized my skillset working in various creative roles within the publishing and advertising sectors but deep inside, I felt there was something missing. With a fascination for cooking, my friend and I decided to enrol in a three month culinary arts programme at Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok. I anticipated to enrol for only three months, but I serendipitously fell in love with cooking and the adrenaline of being in the kitchen that I ended up staying for the full programme! After the programme, I worked at French restaurant Cépage in Wan Chai, which is closed now, but during that time I learnt the hard skills of running a proper restaurant. This was really the fuel that steered me down the path of culinary arts.
Cooking is an art form in and of itself. What does it mean to you?
If you boil it down to the basics, cooking is the harmony of art, craft and science. “Art” is what you are trying to convey with your dish. It may be the culture and history behind it, as well as the way you present it. The “craft” part refers to the craftmanship behind the dish. The science is a combination of how the produce is grown, what equipment and techniques are used in the process of cooking the dish. For me, cooking need not always be fine dining every day. The gamut is quite wide.
What does a day in the life of Ms. Vicky Lau look like?
On a typical day, I would spend some time with my daughter in the morning up until noon, before I head off to the restaurant. I generally focus on the development and operational side of the restaurant, overseeing the service, our customers and improvements made to the restaurant. The creative part of my job comes in when I am developing a new menu or dish for TATE, which is something I really enjoy. With that said, for the Butler catering service, my team and I also have the pleasure of creating tailor-made dishes for our clients’ special night.
Where does your culinary inspiration come from?
For me, it’s all about tradition. Every new dish sparks from somewhere across a kaleidoscope of cultures, so I have a fascination with studying what people used to eat in history. For instance, in France the locals really enjoy the rich texture and taste of cheese, whereas the equivalent of this in China is tofu. Inspired by these two unique foods, I created a brioche with fermented tofu butter!
What does”Urban Explorer” mean to you and how do you think you fit into this term?
I think urban exploration is about challenging the world that we live in. To me, Hong Kong is a very urban place because of its unique history and the people’s mentality through the course of time. Chinese culture is very much bounded by history and tradition, and it is through its people, or urban explorers if you will, that constantly reinvent traditions by traveling and constantly exploring. When these urban explorers return, they take back with them other cultures that contribute and shape these traditions. Being an urban explorer is about being interested in culture and that is why I resonate with this term.
Destined For Culinary Success
TATE Dining Room is renowned for its avant-garde cuisine inspired by the city of Hong Kong, and a marriage between French and Chinese cuisine. How do you take these two very unique styles of cuisine and fuse them together in your cooking?
By closely studying the history of food, particularly Chinese and French cuisine, it has taught me that dishes across various cultures are ever-evolving. Our creations at TATE is about fine tuning the details and if you take a deeper look, you will notice that certain cooking techniques from two different cuisines actually have a lot in common and marry well together.
Each one of your dishes is an “Edible Story” and a true work of art with a very intriguing story behind it. Can you tell us how you come up with these creative narratives behind your dishes?
As said, I really do have a passion for creating beautiful things and telling a story through each and every one of my creations. For the Edible Stories menu, each dish is inspired by a theme. For the “Ode To” menu, it really focuses on giving thanks to different ingredients that nourish us. The presentation of each dish provides the narrative, each ingredient is a character of its own and by intertwining the unique elements of flavour and texture, the plot of each story is revealed. My intention of creating these edible stories is that after the meal, the guests can take something away from it.
When putting together your menu, an overarching theme beautifully shines through. How do you continuously change up your dishes without having to comprise the overall theme?
At the moment, my menu is inspired by Pablo Neruda’s beautiful “Ode To” poems. With each plate being an ode to a specific ingredient, my intention is for the diner to understand each dish and the ingredients behind it. Only then can they fully appreciate it.
Do you ever feel like you run out of ideas or hit a road block? How do you overcome it?
When I hit a roadblock, I like to read, travel, and meditate. It is hard to explain but I tend to do a lot of background thinking where ideas just sort of come through. I strongly believe is that if you shall seek, you will find.
What is more important to you as a Chef – taste or presentation? Or perhaps both?
Both are very important to me, but if we are to compare taste against presentation, taste always takes precedence. This essentially boils down to the ingredients sourced and with our current situation; it poses some challenges for us to source quality produce. At the moment, we try to source more local produce that is within our parameters which means we will also need to change our menu contingent upon what ingredients we have. As for presentation, it is also something we take a lot of consideration in because a dish to me is like a presenting a gift to someone. You will put a lot of effort into wrapping it, making it aesthetically presentable to who you are giving it to and thoroughly explaining the thought behind it.
With that said, your dishes are strikingly beautiful.
Thank you! However, the beautiful presentation can also be a problem at times because diners then refrain from taking the first bite because they don’t want to ruin the pretty aesthetic. When you think of food porn, it’s the drips and messiness that entices the diners to want to dig right in, so here and there I like to squeeze in one or two dishes that are not so pretty in the menu so it does not seem too pristine.
If you had the opportunity to do a cross-collaboration with any fashion brand, celebrity or organization, who would you, like to work with?
This is a tough question because there are so many people I want to work with! I really admire chefs that master their craft, focusing on one thing that they are really good at and being able to learn from them. I would love to work with a traditional French chef that specializes in Papillon Puff!
What is your advice and inspiration for those who want to learn this trade?
My journey was a bit unique, coming from a design background, so the words of advice I can give to others is to really think outside of the industry and learn about the world around you. Many people tend to get consumed with the industry they find themselves in that they tend to forget there is a whole world outside for them to explore. I encourage others to go out and learn about other fields, to see the world and experience different things. By doing so, you become a much more well-rounded person.
What do you like most about your job?
What I love most about my job is definitely the creative aspect!
Before you started your career in this field, did you ever imagine you would be where you are now?
Most certainly not. Passion is the key to success and that is what really spearheaded me to do what I am doing now. It is all about hard work and following your dreams. If one thing does not work in your favour, try something else and never give up.
As the Chef of a beloved one Michelin-star restaurant in Hong Kong, where do you find the time to travel? Do you travel more for work or for pleasure?
For the past three to four years, the majority of my travel has been for work as a guest chef to other countries. This year, I have been to Vienna and Paris that is not work-related, but it is definitely the restaurant that drives me to travel to other places. The great thing about traveling for work is that I get to immerse myself in the culture when I am working in the kitchen with the locals.
What other destinations are on your bucket list?
One of the destinations I would like to travel to is Slovenia because I would love to try the different restaurants there. In fact, last year, we had guest chef Ms. Ana Ros from Slovenia over at TATE where we had the chance to cook together! When I travel, I really find enjoyment in visiting the different street markets because I can always find some very unique produce that I can take back home with me. I also have a fascination with art and history so whenever I travel; I always try to visit all the amazing museums in that city.
Do you think Hong Kong has influenced your cooking?
Hong Kong is set up as a playground where you are open to explore different things. I really appreciate that people in the city are very open and accepting of new ideas, tastes and cuisines. In return, this allows me the freedom to explore different avenues in the kitchen and create more unique dishes.