Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room Discusses How Design and Food are Similar and the Relevance of Aesthetics in Cuisine

April 13, 2017

2015 Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef Vicky Lau was awarded the accolade for her One Michelin Star restaurant, Tate Dining Room and Bar in her hometown of Hong Kong. Though she studied Graphic Communications in New York University, she discovered that her creativity pulled her elsewhere as she sought to create work that was more hands on. She decided to take a 3-month course in Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok, Thailand, then went on to take a 9-month course in Le Cordon Bleu Dusit. The rest naturally followed as her background in the arts drew her to fine dining.

We sat down with Vicky Lau following her talk on The Life of Food, where she discussed her father’s experience with witnessing the decline of fish populations that he attributed to the rising ocean temperatures, how this affects dining today, and touch on her personal design history.

In what ways did you witness how global warming affects the food industry? I think it’s a lot to do with what’s not available now. It’s definitely very drastic, the change. As I mentioned [during the talk], before walking through the wet market, you’d see so many varieties of seafood, and now you go back and it’s always the same type, and it’s so boring. You just want to find something new. Why is it that there’s only that? It’s because a lot of the fish are extinct. The fishermen have a hard time finding the type of fish or farming it, and just whatever fish [are] farmed easily will be on sale, and that’s a problem in Hong Kong because there’s not a lot of attention on that at the moment still. People’s knowledge of that is quite low.

Are you also a diver? Do you like to dive? Yes. Not as much as my dad.

Did you witness this same change that your dad spoke of? Well, I started quite late, so I don’t have his comparison.

What are the challenges of trying to be sustainable as a chef in a city as developed, populated and scarce-of-land as Hong Kong? As a chef in Hong Kong, it’s quite hard. We rely on a lot of imports. That’s already a big no for being environment-friendly, but over the years, Hong Kong has also experienced a lot of influenza, bird flu, things like that, and people are more aware now and more willing to try and make the environment better. Chinese cooking is good with using diff parts of the animal and the whole animal and not just wasting so I think a lot of home cooks do that, and in terms of my own kitchen, I’m still trying. It’s definitely not 100%. Lamb in Hong Kong is very scarce and very expensive so that’s one of the reasons why farming and building a farm is very hard. The [sustainable] fish farm that I was talking about—they actually don’t make much money. It’s more of a hobby because it’s something that he feels [is] important in Hong Kong. That’s why Mark is doing it. And it’s not a business thing. So it would be hard to encourage a lot of people to do that.

There is such a scarcity in fish that breeds are disappearing that you see the same fish in the market. How do you honor finding a rare fish? I definitely use every part of it. I would also mix it up, ’cause I use quite a lot of Japanese ingredients as well. So I respect the season that it’s in. I don’t try to push it. So if it ends and it’s [no longer] the season, just stop it from the menu and pick something else, and not just put something on because you’re too lazy to change or whatever reason. These things need to be in a good cycle so that you can use it next year.

What’s your favorite fish to work with and why? [Sighs] There’s so many. I’ve worked with so many fish. Like the amadai, I really like it ’cause the crispy scale, you can eat it. Steaming the grouper is really nice and also deep frying it. I used to import French seafood like turbot and plies, but actually my favorite is skate. But it’s hard to get a lot and it’s definitely not sustainable.

What brought you to cooking from design? The reason why I got into design is because I have for creating things. Slowly, being in design has [changed for me] maybe [from] me being in the advertising industry . . . It became commercialized for me, and I started thinking about that, and that was not the reason I got into design. Like, selling someone else’s shampoo, designing logos for this and that. There’s not much meaning in it, at least for me. I was looking for something that was more expressive. Food is still one of those things that we need out hands to make [over] just printing something out from a computer and I appreciate that, and that’s how craftsmanship is very important—when you create things—and it’s something we must preserve as well, at least until 3D food printing becomes popular. [chuckles]

What do you want to say with your art? I really hope that my diners come in and [the food] ignites something in them. Everyone walks in with different expectations, different thoughts on their mind, different agenda, but maybe you’re eating with your friend or eating with your lover or family. Everyone has something different. But in the end I hope to ignite some kind of passion in them, no matter what it is. Maybe it’s that—they’ve been wanting to do this for a while but they forgot that they wanted to do that, and they’ve seen the food, they feel the passion, and in return they go and do that.

You said in your talk earlier today that your goal is to incite emotion. Are there particular emotions that you are aiming for? It’s the passion part. Nowadays, I just see people eating with their phone.

What’s an example of a dish you created and how it reflected the emotions you wanted to incite? One of our signature dishes I’d say from the beginning was the sand garden is actually just a petit fours, but it actually got plated into a sand garden feel, and the reason why I serve it at the end of the meal is because it calls for a reflection, and also there’s the story of… when you go eat Kaiseki cuisine in Japan, they serve you a cup of green tea at the end, and that’s there tradition, and that’s how Kaiseki came about. It started out as snack for green tea. Something to pair with the tea, and it slowly developed into something more elaborate cuisine. that’s why they still honor that. And for me, that dish is important because at the end of the meal, there’s an ode to the Kaiseki cuisine and also calls for reflection, because you get to walk through a little sand garden and you enter a room of where the green tea is served, so it’s a good circle finish for the last course of the meal.

As someone who studied communications, what do you think food can communicate? I think stories, maybe something that has inspired me or a tradition. Mainly stories. It could be my stories, someone else’s stories . . . anything.

How are culinary arts and design the same and different? I think the thinking part is a lot of times the same bc you start off with a root and it slowly evolves into something, may it be a design or a plate of dish. It’s the same. But you just work through the technique-wise, differently. Design is a lot about choosing the right texture and paper and all that, what you’re trying to say, and as well as food, but just change that raw material into something that’s edible.

How is food a unique platform for expression? Flavor can be very expressive. It’s relating to certain cultures, and everyone has a diff relation to food. Like, ‘Oh, I had this peach before, 10 years ago when I visited France,’ and then it brings back memories. So that part is interesting and sometimes with just design, it’s hard to bring that out.

What is the point of aesthetic in cuisine? Aesthetic is important. A lot of people try to downplay that but I don’t believe that, because in order for you to be attracted to something it must be beautiful, so the initial attraction is important. You must want to eat it and feel happy eating it, so it must be taste and visual together.

How has global warming affected your ability to express your creativity through cuisine? Definitely a lot of effects. Just taste-wise, you would hear someone say, ‘This lotus root doesn’t taste like before.’ It’s not because of the technique is different. It’s because the root has changed. The vegetable itself, the flavor itself has changed. It’s been diluted and it’s just not the same. It’s hard to get vegetables with flavor. I have a vegetarian menu and sometimes it can be hard to find herbs that have it’s own flavor, the flavor that it claims. Mint must taste like mint. But a lot of times, it might not be the case. It’s diluted. It doesn’t have the strong flavor. Maybe it looks really nice because it’s got big leaves in big bunches, but the flavor is gone.

Bea Osmeña SEE AUTHOR Bea Osmeña

Bea Osmeña is a healthy-ish eater who is just as likely to take you to a vegan joint as she is to consume a whole cheese pie to herself. A former picky eater, Bea has discovered the joys of savory fruit dishes, but still refuses to accept pineapples on her pizza. On the rare occasion you catch her without food in her mouth, you are likely to find her looking at books she can't afford, hugging trees, or talking to strange animals on the street.

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