As Vicky Lau’s culinary adventures reach a key milestone, the chef and restaurateur behind Tate and Mora – and, now, the Soybased collection Ān – tells us how her evolution is taking her to a new lifestyletopia.
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLIST ALVIN GOH
PHOTOGRAPHY ALEXANDER YEUNG
HAIR AGNES YEUNG | MAKE-UP SHAN SHAN
STYLIST ASSISTANT ALEX LOONG
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT CHUNG
In conversation with Vicky Lau
Vicky Lau is preparing to go on holiday when we speak. And she’s deciding what she might take to read. She podcasts most days and nights in Hong Kong when she’s working but reverts to the printed page on vacation. We discuss a series of recent titles by Asian authors – Japan’s Sayaka Murata and Mieko Kawakami, and mention a recent Prestige story subject, Korean-American Michelle Zauner, lead singer of indie-pop band Japanese Breakfast and best-selling author of Crying in H Mart. Lau hasn’t read it, and wants to. We expect the book’s evocative culinary insights, among other vibes, to resonate with her. And then, in an unexpected riff to rival any of Zauner’s on stage, Lau gets her creative groove on.
“You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I would love to create a place like the poetry cafes in New York, where someone’s on stage reciting or talking about their poetry. It would be so beautiful – and something that’s lacking in Hong Kong. I’ve thought about such things many times. Also, we could have a Tate exhibition of art [by which Lau means in her own two-Michelin-star Tate Dining Room restaurant, not in collaboration with London’s venerable art institution, though both are celebrating respective 10th and 125th anniversaries this year], with musicians, dancers, like a gallery space with LED projections on tables, performance art, a live band; I think it could be a very emotional kind of experience.” Lau pauses, as if already appraising the experience in her mind’s eye and even feeling it. “That would be a dream.”
Lau’s flights of fancy aren’t confined to her high-key plates of gourmandise, it seems. She may be Asia’s Female Chef of the Year 2015, and riding a higher orbit on the trail of starry success with Tate and the recent opening of Mora restaurant in Sheung Wan, but despite the rarefied air of her galaxy, she’s still realising, and aspiring to, dreams that keep delivering.
To wit, Lau’s currently debuting Ān, a homemade soy-based collection of gourmet and lifestyle products, selling at the “date by Tate” lifestyle and pastry shop, inside Tate. Ān marks the evolution of Lau’s journey into the world of soy, with which she fell in love after creating an Ode to Tofu single-ingredient menu at Tate in 2020, and followed up with Mora in January. “ Ān is a continuation of our work at Mora, which is first and foremost a study of soy,” says Lau.
The name Ān is derived from Western Han Dynasty Chinese prince Liu An, grandson of Emperor Liu Bang, who invented tofu more than 2,000 years ago. As legend has it, Liu’s mother being unable to chew food, Liu An invented soy milk by grinding soy beans into milk, and then accidentally mixed soy milk with gypsum powder, thereby enacting the first tofu-like substance.
So Ān’s offerings combine classic and contemporary; thousand-years-old Chinese soy-milk tradition with Japanese soy milk-producing technology using non-GMO organic soybeans across a range of soybean products – Extra Thick Soy Milk in five flavours, Soy Milk Flan Parisien, Soy Sauce Caramel Soy Milk Pudding and even a Tofu DIY Kit. “Ever since I discovered the joys of soy, there was no turning back. I’ve been on an endless pursuit of finding the best ways to showcase its myriad forms, from fine dining and parties to everyday products,” says Lau. And those products also include Soy Blend Wax Candles and Handmade Soy Milk Soap.
Lau explains. “Dating from the Song Dynasty, tofu dishes weren’t just about nutrition, as food also became part of a lifestyle in which people were writing poems, decorating tables with flowers and beautiful ceramics with glazes.” Tofu became China’s go-to, both dish and ingredient “du Dynasty”. Simultaneously, Buddhism’s influence was deepening, meaning many people ate less meat, boosting tofu’s growth. “I thought that was such a remarkable thing in terms of how we should think now,” says Lau. “About how we farm our animals, how we source, and so many things today that don’t make sense.”
Covidiousness in early 2020 saw the world making even less sense, as restaurateurs and chefs struggled to maintain – never mind grow – their businesses. But the pandemic had a germinating effect on ideas Lau had been mulling. “At Tate we never did lunch, just an eight-course dinner, and so because of Covid’s dining restrictions, I thought it might be an idea to do lunch.”
And she chose to focus on a single ingredient per menu. “Like wine tasting,” she says, “where you focus on one vineyard and you can compare everything.” She began with various kinds of eggs, then tea pairing with food, then rice, then tofu. “Tofu is such an iconic food in Chinese cuisine,” she says, “and I wanted to do something in depth, in terms of studying its history, where and how it was first created, and which dishes it was used in at that time.” And appropriate it. “I also wanted to pick humble ingredients that speak directly to where we are now in terms of culture and the
Scoping out the territory’s tofu-restaurant competition only impassioned Lau more. “I found there were some that were very traditional, still using old stone-grinding machines, and still distilling the soy milk. They didn’t even have the equipment to preserve the tofu (which spoils quickly) and I felt this was sad.” So she went new-school-tofu in approach. “I researched more modern tofu machines – in Taiwan there’s still a lot of these places that modernise soy-milk making.”
Mora is an interesting switch in tone for Lau. Multi-Michelined American chef Thomas Keller used to joke he opened his Bouchon bistro in Yountville, California as it gave him somewhere to eat after he’d finished working each day at his three-Michelin-star The French Laundry, on the same street. Could she relate to such Kellerian sentiment? “For almost 10 years I’ve been making very elaborate kinds of food, and people expect no less. At some point, I thought, I can’t quit the job, so I might as well open another restaurant where I am.”
So Mora opened as a dedicated tofu-go-to, a next-gen soy shrine in which they make rich soy milk and test an inventory of soy products. And given her French- influenced inflection from Tate, Lau says they’re not pressing tofu in the traditional way, but creating a cheese texture, like ricotta, with butter and milk. There’s a dish on the current menu which pairs summer tomatoes with soy made like ricotta, and some lemon juice to curdle it.
“Tofu is one of the most flexible ingredients I’ve worked with in terms of texture,” Lau says. “You can go from super silky, almost like Jell-O, to super hard like a piece of meat. And between those two states, it absorbs whatever broth or flavour you want. And the bean taste goes well with just about everything.” And it’s not just for vegans and vegetarians. “The beauty is that you can still enjoy the meat and the sauces but you’re reducing the meat-protein consumption by half by incorporating all these soy products. So what we’re saying with Ān and Mora is that you don’t have to be vegetarian, you can incorporate all these things to help your diet.”
How will Lau judge the success of Ān, given its initial two-month roll-out? “My goal is to inspire. One of the goals with Mora and Ān is to make tofu great again because it got such a bad rap as being a sick people’s food, or bland food, and so in making this very rich soy milk we’re hoping to inspire more people to buy and create with it.”
Moreover, she sees big B2B potential in the venture. “For example, Dominique Ansel [French-American pastry chef in Hong Kong] is using our soy milk to make ice-cream at the Central bakery in H Queen’s.” And Lau’s collaborating with Four Seasons Hong Kong. “We’re working with Lorenzo Antinori and Argo at Four Seasons to make three cocktails out of the soy,” she enthuses. The project’s still in the R&D phase but expect a September/October soy-inspired libatory splash.
Among the female chefs and all the fangirling Lau inspires in Hong Kong and Asia, which female icon does she most appreciate? “Even though French chef Anne- Sophie Pic [10 Michelin stars] comes from a really long line of chefs, and her father/grandfather were chefs, she’s created her own style, reflecting her food. The way she decorates a table; the art of the table is beautiful in her restaurants. You can tell she respects entertaining guests.” Lau met Pic in Singapore. “She’s very humble, and for me that’s inspiring. She speaks to me a lot in that way.”
Those qualities aren’t so different from the chef who gave Lau one of her best-ever meals – Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York. “I had a really good experience there maybe 12 years ago. Even now, that’s still a very stellar meal for me to recollect from beginning to end.” She indulged in Keller’s famous Oysters and Pearls, Salmon Tartare Cone, Beetroot and more. “And when it was over, they showed us the kitchen as well, and how spotless it is, so reflective of the place.” Having met Keller, she respects him as “a very serious chef, who also doesn’t show his personal side, or big personality, which I like.”
Talk of Ān and lifestyle products makes us wonder whether there’s any soy-inspired eau de parfum on the market. Lau doesn’t know but is curious to find out. Instead, she goes on to explain that her favourite scent or smell is that of bread, and more specifically, brioche. “I asked BeCandle in Sai Kung [with whom she collaborated for Ān] to make a brioche candle – for me that’s one of the most intoxicating smells.” However, the wax confection proved elusive. “It was either being too toasty, or too caramelised, we just couldn’t get the balance right.” Undeterred, Lau wanted a truffle-mushroom candle, but that went the way of the brioche. “I read that Joel Robuchon used to do a truffle gala dinner and he’d buy all these truffles just to make the restaurant smell of truffles the moment you walked in.”
Asked about the change in the Hong Kong dining scene over the last 10 years, Lau reflects on her own experience. “The reason I got into this industry was because of ignorance – I had no idea how hard it would be. I hadn’t really worked in any restaurants, I didn’t know a lot of chefs, or what it was going to be like. If I’d known all of that – well, let’s just say, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy.”
Lau Never trained a chef, but a graphic designer. She schooled at the Diocesan Girls’ School in Hong Kong then went to boarding school in Connecticut in the US at the age of 15. Three years later, she was studying at New York University and left to work in advertising. But realising there were several ways to approach storytelling and that food could be one of them, she enrolled at the Cordon Bleu Bangkok for nine months, and worked at Cépage in Hong Kong (now closed) with French chef Sebastien Lepinoy, of three- Michelin star Les Amis in Singapore.
“Other than that experience,” Lau says, “it’s just been making a lot of mistakes on my own and figuring it out in a good way.” But she’s canny enough to appreciate that the lack of early experience may have been an unlikely asset. “When you look at chefs around the world who have character in their food, they didn’t work for ‘brands’. They were able to think on their feet, not follow. It’s easy to take someone’s recipe, it’s a safety zone, and people go to their safety zone.”
But not for Lau. “In the first few years of opening Tate I changed the menu very often,” she says, “and that helped me understand what works and what doesn’t. So many of my ideas were naïve.” Such as? “Well, at the beginning, you wanted to make ice-cream of everything; like caviar ice-cream, or odd combinations.” Caviar ice-cream sounds like a Keller/Heston Blumenthal crossover, I tell her. She chuckles. “I tried a lot of the Heston Blumenthal things, but they didn’t work out.”
With hindsight, on the 10th anniversary of Tate, what would she change? “I would change so many things if I could start again,” she matter-of-facts. “I’d find a space that has huge storage; change a lot of the hardware things – the acoustics I would change; also the lighting, because all of these things affect the menu. I also wanted to do a shorter menu.”
And then she’s back into dreamscape. “Of course, I have a lot of fantasies in my head,” she says, tantalisingly, “like, having a space where you can just enter and there’s like a garden, like a restaurant, or finishing off a meal in something like a Zen-ish garden”. We love that “ish”. She even talks about running a restaurant in a very rural place, but questions how sustainable or not it might be.
On her 10th anniversary, where does she stand on the Michelin-star debate? “It promotes business and that encourages you to improve every day. Cooking every day is a performance and not everyone can cook or perform the same way every day. The whole team needs to align and there needs to be a standard. So, the good side is that it helps to push everyone, the whole team in the kitchen to be of the same spirit and mind set, as well as meaning you have to set realistic standards that you can keep reaching for.”
It’s a process she likens to martial arts. “It’s like Kung Fu. You need time to grow and develop who you are, and push the direction, so that’s a good thing. The bad is that I’ve killed a lot of my personal time, because I push myself so much. In hindsight, it can seem ridiculous. In life there are only so many things you can focus on simultaneously: your career, making money, having friends, health, family. Perhaps you can really only focus on three. So the bad side of being a Michelin chef is finding the right balance.”
Lau switches off by doing martial arts, whereby she “can dump my feelings every day”. She explains that being a chef in a restaurant necessitates discussions with guests, suppliers, staff and “at one point, you’re talking to 100 people who’ll give you their two cents’-worth all the time. All these emotions affect judgement.” So every day she practices meditation, or yoga, qigong or Thai boxing, as personal time.
“When you do that, you’re focusing on yourself. It’s the moment you break free from work and its rigours, and see them in a different light. Of course it’s important to digest people’s comments and opinion but not thinking and thinking and keep thinking about it and letting it consume you. That’s what I love about the martial arts.”
She’s also a podcast fanatic. “I listen to a lot of podcasts, all day and night. That’s how I sleep. I’m on Curio, Blinklist, MindValley, TedTalks and Dr Shefali (for parenting). And a few other business podcasts. And of late she’s been listening to meditation music and Billie Eilish.
Ever since I discovered the joys of soy, there was no turning back. I’ve been on an endless pursuit of finding the best ways to showcase its myriad formsVicky Lau
That need for sleep must be pressing too, given that Lau also has a five-year-old daughter, whose presence has changed her relationship with food in two ways, she explains. “One, when she was a baby of course she was drinking milk, and, after, every parent always thinks: what’s the first thing you’ll feed your kid? And then you just want to give them the freshest produce, like you can just pick an apple from the tree, the absolute freshest, so that made me think a lot about how we source food, and the freshness of what we source and, actually, when you see the way a child eats, what they tend to prefer is just really fresh ingredients.” Her daughter’s favourites are fresh local seafood and steamed fish. “Two, I also tended to make a lot of dishes thinking that I wanted to create unusual combinations in a dish. But I think humans already have ingrained in them a flavour profile and you can’t go off that too much sometimes.”
It’s like the anti-Heston Blumenthal approach, I suggest. “I think as an artist you explore a lot at the beginning as you look to do great or innovative things, but then after a while you start to question yourself, and ask who or what you’ve become, and go back to your roots, go back to why you’re doing what you are. And having thoughts like: why am I spending 12 hours a day at this restaurant kitchen, in this heat? That makes you think: how to make food taste the best it can be?”
And does she ever eat junk food? “Of course!” Lau says, chuckling. “I sometimes eat chips on my bed as well. Or cook instant noodles because I just get that kind of craving – that strong MSG craving. And I let myself do that because I eat quite well at the restaurant – we eat a lot of fresh, good food. So having that quota of eating some junk food is all right. My daughter loves ramen, too, so we go to all the different ramen shops in Hong Kong.”
As a parting shot to our conversation with Lau, we ask about the most memorable compliment she’s ever received. “The most interesting would be when someone says, ‘This is very you,’ or, ‘This whole meal is very you.’ And that’s very often people who don’t even know me; I wonder, how can they say that? After all, I don’t even know myself, how can they?” She thinks it’s the level of
detail in her approach, on plates and interior, that elicits
“I think that detail means they feel like they already know me without knowing me. Which is also one of my goals, so I don’t have to talk to all the customers, it’s just all expressed by what’s on the plate. It’s subliminal.” And poetic. And dreamy.