In the bewhiskered world of chefs, fine food and restaurants, men currently reign supreme. Topping culinary charts such as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and taking home the most stars handed out by the Michelin Guide, male chefs are still considered the leaders in the kitchen, dominating higher positions and the industry as a whole.
Surely an archaic notion such as this is way past its expiry date. Of course, I do know that many of the world’s leading chefs just happen to have XY chromosomes, and there are certainly those that are deserving. (Spoiler alert: this story is isn’t about male hate.) However, it’s very apparent that some of the best dining establishments in the world led by women are often unfairly overlooked and, as a result, rarely make the cut.
In an attempt to be more inclusive, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants tweaked its rules in 2019 so that it now uses a voting pool split equally between men and women, with a minimum of 25 percent of voters renewed each year to allow more women to be included. Even so, a mere five restaurants run by women made it to the 2019 list (2020 has been postponed), with six others among the 70 runners- up. That’s a total of 11 restaurants helmed by a woman on the full list of 120.
The World’s 50 Best – and Asia’s 50 Best for that matter – also host a gender-specific award, recognising female talent on an annual basis. And while this might seem like a step in the right direction, it could be argued that a best-female-chef award suggests that women aren’t on the same level as their male counterparts – and especially since there’s no best-male-chef award.
A recipient of the award, Vicky Lau of the modern Chinese and French restaurant Tate Dining Room, was named the Best Female Chef by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015, and is also the only female chef running a Michelin-star restaurant in this year’s Hong Kong and Macau guide.
“This award really made me think more about this topic,” says Lau. “Because before that, I really didn’t think twice about women in the kitchen. I didn’t realise that there are parts of the world where this is still an issue. And that the social value problems that women face in the kitchen still exist.”
I first met Lau last year during a luncheon hosted at Tate Dining Room that celebrated the exceptional culinary talent and power of female chefs in Asia. As my father is a chef and I’ve worked in the industry myself, I’ve grown accustomed to eating good restaurant food made by men; nor had I given much thought as to why it was so seldom made by a woman. But with so much female talent and drive in the same room that day, the question was difficult to ignore. This was the first time I really felt girl power in gastronomy – and as a woman it felt great. “But I want to see this kind of award gone in the next five to 10 years,” adds Lau. “I’m confident that, after Covid-19, this will happen. This will mean that we’re equal.”
I’m a firm believer that talent has little relation to gender and Lau is someone who affirms this. Petite and fair, she’s a chef that a camera lens loves, but she’s also graceful and demure, preferring to shine a light on her food and her restaurant rather than herself. She has an unapologetically feminine air about her, but I sense a strength and conviction in her words as we talk. “My cuisine is innovative. It’s feminine. It’s French and Chinese,” she sums up surely and simply. The restaurant, designed together with Hong Kong-based architect James JJ Acuna, is luxuriously understated and polished. A large staircase leads to the main dining room where a blushing palette of dusty pinks and nudes with brass accents add warmth to muted tones of taupe, timber and stone. Meanwhile, softer textures and upholstery, together with subtle and artfully placed lighting, create a relaxed but elegant atmosphere in this boudoir-like interior.
Lau’s food is similarly styled in delicate taste. Her latest single- ingredient menu, in which she spotlights tofu, is a beautiful parade of seven tofu courses that please the eyes and palate. On the subject of choosing the single ingredient for this menu series, Lau explains “I choose ingredients that speak a lot about modern Chinese cuisine. Chinese food has a very long culinary history – lots of methods, different regions – but it hasn’t modernised so much. So I’m hoping to do more of that.”
Celebrating the subtleties and not just covering tofu with taste, Lau presents an evolved take on the ingredient, weaving gracefully through the courses that start with an amuse-bouche of tofu-sheet tartlet with crab meat, pickled mushroom and hard tofu, followed by a petit salé of fresh homemade silken tofu with beef gelée. Her expression in tofu is light and exquisite, eloquently feeding you with the plant-based protein.
Revealing elements of her original training as a graphic designer, Lau is particular with her flavours and presentation. “I wanted to start the meal with just tofu. So I actually made the tofu container myself and sent it off to be produced,” she explains. “I had a hard time trying to add taste to enhance the tofu because it’s so silken, so I tried many things. There are also so many different types of coagulants for tofu. I ended up using pork skin, as it gives the smoothest texture and adds umami. It’s a great way to start the meal; setting the tone that this is tofu. Don’t shy away from it.”
The inventive tofu feast continues with highlighted dishes of crispy marinated tofu (a nostalgic homage to stinky tofu), a cold noodle dish of yuba, or thin sheets of bean curd skin and beef tartare inspired by the Sichuan dish ma po tofu; and a velvety dessert of soy cream with lychee gelée and rose sponge. It concludes with mignardises from the signature chinoiserie-painted Tate dessert trolley filled with small and sweet delights.
As we discuss the future of dining and how Tate Dining Room has responded to the pandemic, Lau tells me about its takeaway and delivery initiative Date by Tate. “It’s not something temporary, we want to make it long-lasting,” she explains. “People are becoming more self-sufficient, they’ll work from home a lot more and they’ll learn to enjoy being at home and eating at home again. So Date by Tate is designed for that.”
Enhancing the home-dining experience with a multi-tiered box set meal, with a drinks pairing and accompanying music playlist, Date by Tate is unlike anything else on the market right now. Featuring dishes such as Mayura beef tenderloin en brioche with grilled green asparagus and Sichuan beef jus, or Blue lobster thermidor with Shaoxing wine and stuffed fruit tomato, the gourmet box reflects the same standard of quality as served in the restaurant. Moreover, its zero-waste approach is extremely impressive, as the packaging will be picked up, returned to the restaurant and re-used, upon completion of the meal.
“I was thinking OK, everyone is doing takeout, and we will too. But what are the issues here? I’ll end up with a pile of boxes. I don’t want that,” says Lau. “So what can we do? It’s a matter of operations to collect the box, [laughs], but we’ll find our way.”
Lau talks about her plans, confiding that “there’s lots more to come”. She adds, “There’ll be DIY dinner sets and videos teaching how to cook for free, and I hope we can go from there. I also want to create things that are made in Hong Kong, which are meaningful and tasty.” We talk more about the future of Hong Kong’s dining scene, and how some restaurants will probably – and sadly – disappear. But Lau remains positive that “the ones that do survive will adapt and find a new way”.
As I come away from our meeting, I’m heartened by Lau’s willingness to face the challenges ahead. The ways in which she feels responsible to her staff, her diners and her female colleagues are truly commendable. I leave Tate Dining Room feeling hopeful for the future – for the future is female.