How Hong Kong chef Vicky Lau embraced her ‘role model’ label
Despite the institutional status accorded by her double Michelin star, Vicky Lau says the battle to improve gender parity in the male-dominated world of professional kitchens is far from won – but small victories give her hope.
In the devilishly competitive arena of Hong Kong’s food scene, few have seen such a remarkable rise as Lau.
In just over a decade, she went from opening a small café to running one of the financial centre’s most beloved restaurants.
Earlier this year, the Tate Dining Room received two Michelins, a late breakthrough for the over-overlooked female chefs of Asia.
Many chefs like to stress in interviews that awards don’t mean much. Lau, 40, is refreshing from the start.
“I didn’t enter the industry because I want to have all these accolades. But over time, it has become a goal,” she told AFP.
When asked if the double Michelin gender pivotal moment matters, she replied, “I think that makes a statement, because it encourages a lot of people in our industry to get going.”
A former graphic designer who switched mid-career to retrain, Lau said she “hadn’t really thought twice about being a woman and a boss” when she entered the business.
“It’s a kind of ignorance, it was a bliss back then,” she smiles, remembering how many women in her Cordon Bleu training in Bangkok were.
Once in the business, she saw how men dominated, especially when it came to climbing the ladder or owning the best establishments.
As she drew attention for her dishes, she at first found it exhausting to be continually asked about her gender, the example she was setting, the role model she had become.
But over time, she said she came to accept that her success could encourage others.
“It became one of my motivations to go to work,” she said.
– Different personalities –
Alongside contemporaries such as Peggy Chan and May Chow, Lau is part of a new generation of female chefs from Hong Kong who have become examples of successful and vocal entrepreneurs.
Global culinary awards programs have long been too focused on Western cuisine and male chefs.
It’s a load that brands are now aware of. Slowly the winning lists start to look a bit more representative of the world itself.
The “Me Too” movement has also brought some limited recognition of the type of alpha-male behavior once lauded by food critics and television shows.
But improvement can seem frustrating and gradual.
“The culinary industry is a male-dominated industry, as everyone knows, but it also expects women to behave like men,” said Chan, who has carved out a niche for himself. gourmet vegetarian chefs from Hong Kong.
“You fit in or you go out.”
The slow growth of women in both professional kitchens and restaurant owners, she said, is starting to have an impact.
“There is a lot more room for different types of personalities,” Chan said.
Lau says his cuisine is now over 50% female. Chefs with children are an asset, not a puzzle. Those with an ego can leave them at the kitchen door.
“We don’t just celebrate the screams of Gordon Ramsay in your face,” she said.
– Chinese techniques –
Lau’s dishes combine French and Chinese cuisine and are painfully beautiful – each presentation painstakingly plated into a vivid display of its design background.
And she is determined to gain wider recognition for often underestimated Chinese cooking techniques.
One example she cites is “double steamed” or “superior” broths – Chinese cooking stocks that take a long time and could give any consumer a chance to have some for their own. silver.
His business remained afloat during the coronavirus pandemic with food service, take-out and a pastry shop.
It also opened for lunch for the first time, offering a cheaper tasting menu around a single ingredient.
“We made rice, tofu, tea, soy sauce,” Lau explained.
Each dish on his latest menu is made up of different parts of a plant – seeds, leaves, bulbs, stems, fruits, roots and flowers.
Lau says the pandemic has forced her into a more creative and self-reflective space.
“I think Covid will put globalization on hold,” she predicts, saying gourmet restaurants are being forced to source more locally, which consumers have already been asking for.
Why fly in the French turbot, she postulates, when there are very good alternatives in the local wet markets?
She describes gastronomy as “ego cuisine” – “because you kind of express yourself on a plate”.
“And a lot of times you can get a little lost,” she added.
“That’s why it’s time to make more humble ingredients like soy sauce or rice the star of a dish.”
jta / leg / gle