Despite the institutional status bestowed by her double Michelin star, Vicky Lau says the battle to improve gender parity in the male-dominated world of professional kitchens is a long way from won — but small victories bring her hope.
In the fiendishly competitive arena of Hong Kong’s fine-dining scene, few have had as remarkable an ascent as Lau.
In little more than a decade she has gone from opening a small cafe to running one of the finance hub’s most lauded restaurants.
Earlier this year Tate Dining Room was awarded two Michelins, a belated breakthrough first for Asia’s all-too-overlooked female chefs.
Many chefs love to insist in interviews that awards don’t mean much. Lau, 40, is refreshingly upfront.
“I didn’t get in the industry because I want to have all these accolades. But over time, it did become a goal,” she told AFP.
Asked whether the gender watershed moment of the double Michelin mattered, she replied: “I think it does make a statement, because it encourages a lot of people in our industry to power on.”
A former graphic designer who switched mid-career to retrain, Lau said she “really didn’t think twice about being a female and a chef” when she entered the trade.
“It’s kind of ignorance was bliss at that time,” she smiled, recalling how many at her Cordon Bleu training in Bangkok were women.
Once in the business, she saw how men dominated, especially when it came to ascending ranks or owning top establishments.
As she won attention for her dishes, she initially found it exhausting to continually be asked about her gender, the example she was setting, the role model she had become.
But over time she said she came to embrace the reality that her success could encourage others.
“It actually 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 Hong Kong chefs who have become examples of successful and vocal entrepreneurs.
Global culinary award programmes have long been overly fixated on both Western cuisine and male chefs.
It’s a charge brands are now alive to. Slowly, winners’ lists are starting to look a little more representative of the world itself.
The “Me Too” movement also brought some limited reckoning over the type of alpha-male behaviour once lauded by food critics and television shows.
But improvement can feel frustratingly gradual.
“The culinary industry is a male-dominated industry, as everybody knows, but it also expects women to behave like men,” said Chan, who carved out a space as one of Hong Kong’s first fine-dining vegetarian chefs.
“You either fit in or you get out.”
The slow growth of women both in professional kitchens and in owning restaurants, she said, is starting to make an impact.
“There’s a lot more room for different types of personalities,” Chan said.
Lau says her kitchen is now more than 50 percent female. Chefs with children are an asset, not a headache. Those with egos can leave them at the kitchen door.
“We don’t just celebrate Gordon Ramsay-style screaming in your face,” she said.
– Chinese techniques –
Lau’s dishes combine French and Chinese cuisine and are achingly beautiful — each presentation painstakingly plated in a vivid display of her design background.
And she’s determined to get wider recognition for often under-appreciated Chinese cooking techniques.
One example she cites is “double steamed” or “superior” broths — the time-consuming stocks of Chinese cooking that could give any consomme a run for its money.
Her business has stayed afloat during the coronavirus pandemic with catering, a take-away service and a patisserie shop.
It also opened for lunch for the first time, offering a less pricey tasting menu set around one single ingredient.
“We’ve done rice, tofu, tea, soy sauce,” Lau explained.
Each course of her latest menu is built from different parts of a plant — seeds, leaves, bulbs, stems, fruit, roots and flowers.
Lau says the pandemic forced her into a more creative and self-reflective space.
“I think Covid will put globalisation on a bit of a pause,” she predicts, saying fine-dining restaurants are being forced to source more locally, something consumers were already pushing for.
Why fly in French turbot, she posits, when there are perfectly good alternatives on the local wet markets?
She describes fine dining as “ego cooking” — “because you are kind of expressing yourself on a plate”.
“And a lot of times you can be lost a little bit,” she added.
“That’s why it’s time to make more humble ingredients like soy sauce or rice the star of a dish.”