Q&A: Vicky Lau on the Harmony of Food & Art

Seyine Park

Crowned as Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2015, chef Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room & Bar has a story that’s different from most. After spending her initial years as a graphic designer, she then found a more liberating creative outlet following her passion for cooking. We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Vicky and discovered just how she employs her knowledge of design in her exquisite culinary masterpieces.

Congratulations on being named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2015. What does this award mean to you?
I’m very happy, surprised, and honored to receive this award. I never intended to be “Asia’s Best Female Chef.” I just wanted to do what I love. When you have this opportunity, I think every person can be best in their own way. Since I was raised in Hong Kong and educated in the West, I feel my work is infused with a variety of culinary influences, and I am honored that the respected industry experts voting on this award appreciate and recognize my efforts.

This award is also an invitation to more opportunities. Being recognized will allow me to meet more people who could inspire me and share their vision. It will help me explore more projects and collaborations in the near future.

Can you tell us a little about your background, where you grew up and your years studying graphic design?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong and then moved to New York for high school and studied graphic communications at New York University. After graduating in 2004, I worked at a local advertising agency in New York for several years and returned to Hong Kong in 2007.

Ever since I was young, I was always attracted to doing craftwork – especially origami. In high school, one of my hobbies was making pottery. As I grew older, the thought of taking an idea in your head and transforming that idea into something real was both interesting and exciting. For that reason, Graphic Communications was the obvious choice.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Bonito | Marinated katsuo, bonito dashi gelee, daikon roll, datterino tomato confit by chef Vicky Lau. © Tate Dining Room & Bar

How does your background as a graphic design artist influence your work as a chef?
As a Graphics Communications graduate and creative director, I spent several years learning how visual cues like colors or textures could be used to trigger a memory or spark the imagination. Attending culinary school, I realized that food as a medium of expression was a far more liberating canvas to explore creativity because of the added dimensions of taste and smell. You also have the instant gratification of seeing someone enjoy your food.

For me, cooking is a harmony of art, craft and science. I am always driven by my passion to tell a story. Therefore, the dish that best defines me is one that incorporates all of these factors. One of the dishes I created was “An Ode to Tomatoes”, inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda. It details a busy market scene and describes the life of the humble tomato. In this dish, I depict tomatoes in different textures of panna cotta, confit, crisp, consommé and gelée, accompanied by a simple pommery mustard ice cream – a perfect pairing for this fruit.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Ode to Tomatoes | Panna cotta, confit, crisp, consommé and gelée, pommery mustard ice cream by chef Vicky Lau.

What is your philosophy for plating?
For me, cooking is a harmony of art, craft and science. I am driven by my passion to tell a story. With Edible Stories, the dishes are inspired by a theme. A theme, itself, could be inspired by a story or a simple abstract thought.

We visualize and internalize the theme or memory and imagine how we can convey this. We think about the sounds, smells and colors this might evoke. Have we seen this be­fore? What are the sensations that anchor our representation of this scene? Once we’ve distilled everything down, we then re­-construct everything to create the theme using food. The presentation of the dish provides the narrative where each ingredient is its own character and the interplay between the nuanced flavors, the aromas, and the textures reveal the plot.

Where or whom does your most unusual source of inspiration come from?
The biggest influences would be ingredients around me and flavor profiles, either from a memory or from exploring something new. As for inspiration, I think it can come from anywhere if you seek with an open mind and pay attention to what is going on around you so that you can catch that moment and think about it. Sometimes a movie or a piece of music can provoke a feeling or spark an idea – it just depends on how you interpret it and how it relates to you. And sometimes interpretation can evolve over time. Your own dish can serve as a source of inspiration and evolve into another dish. This is when you create the best possible dish, because you’re always trying to beat your previous best.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Rosé Bresse Pigeon | Breast of pigeon, savoy cabbage wrapped fermented mustard green thigh of pigeon, roasted baby beetroot, pigeon jus by chef Vicky Lau.

How do you want people to remember your food and their experience?
I hope all diners at Tate can really feel the passion we have for our work through the dishes that we serve. From planning to execution, we strive to perfect every small detail. We always aim to offer good friendly service, a comfortable environment, sincerity and efficiency. Very often customers come for a birthday or special celebration and it’s important for us to help make that day special for them.

Tell us about BUTLER – the start of it and where you want to take it.
I was thinking about the idea of a restaurant with no permanent address. The thought of creating a one-off dining experience and menu appealed to me. Also, when you’re catering for events, you need to create a unique theme, so the menu is never the same and there are no boundaries to my creativity. Because you’re working to a theme, the menus are always examples of Edible Stories. Sometimes I have more flexibility in creating a menu since it’s a one off event. If I were to do these complicated menus every day at Tate, my staff would kill me.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Wreth | Lightly poached gillardeau oyster, Chinese licorice, root oxtail consommé, kimchi pickled daikon, sweetcorn kernels, braised wagyu beef tongue slice by chef Vicky Lau.

What are your thoughts on the future of the culinary world? In Hong Kong, specifically?
Generally speaking, going back to nature and understanding the meaning of real, whole and natural foods is now more and more important. and I think chefs these days pay more attention to that.

As for Hong Kong in particular, Hong Kong’s restaurant scene has always been eclectic, vibrant and changes faster than you can blink, and there’s no sign of slowing down judging from last year. Some of the changes are more refined Chinese restaurants with luxury setting. Also, there seem to be more small restaurants that are focused on specific foods. There also seem to be more celebrity chef-run restaurants. Since the HK government has recently implemented a scheme to have more local farms, it would be nice to see more quality local produce-focused restaurants. I would also like to see more original concept restaurants instead of importing popular foreign food chains.

Anyone you’d like to work with in the future?
I don’t have anyone in particular in mind at the moment, but I would like to explore Kaiseki cuisine in the future, because the Japanese cuisine has a deep history connected to tea and the renowned masters of the tea ceremony. The high caffeine content of powdered green tea was too intense to drink on an empty stomach, so tea ceremony practitioners began serving snacks to enable guests to better enjoy their tea. Simple dishes evolved to become increasingly elaborate. The flow and signification of each course is intricate and really captures the four seasons.

(Want to learn more about the Art of Kaiseki? Watch our video here.)

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Autumn Dreams | Choux pastry, hazelnut pastry cream, pumpkin ice cream, honey ice cream, yogurt meringue by chef Vicky Lau.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Ornament | Passion fruit curd, chocolate snow chrysanthemum, tonka bean sorbet, mikan gelée, yogurt meringue by chef Vicky Lau.

What are some of your favorite dishes from your restaurant?
It’s hard to identify which dishes are my favorites. One of the earliest dishes I created was “Zen Garden,” which I usually serve as the last course of a meal. It evolves from time to time, but currently it consists of matcha opera cake, jasmine macaroon, passion fruit marshmallow and coconut dark chocolate. It’s represented as a mini Zen garden that prompts self reflection. This dish is a tribute to the masters of the Zen garden and the art of teamaking. Another dish would be “An Ode to Tomatoes.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Zen Garden | Matcha opera cake, jasmine macaron, passion fruit marshmallow, coconut dark chocolate by chef Vicky Lau.

What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
French butter, because the quality comes from the cream. The butter is also made from slightly soured or cultured cream, which gives it a nutty, mellow tang and reacts differently when baked.

Three words to describe your personality and why?
Creative, passionate, mischievous.

What do you do outside of your work?
Calligraphy, camping, pottery and farming.

Five things you cannot live without?
My notebooks, knives, tea, home foot massager, and pillow.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Foie Gras Terrine | Duck foie gras terrine, spices & curry tuile, pommery mustard ice cream, blueberry sauce by chef Vicky Lau.

Tate Dining Room & Bar

Interior of Tate Dining Room & Bar.