Vicky Cheng – A CHEF WHO LOOKED EVERYWHERE
Born in Hong Kong and raised under Western influences, Chef Vicky Cheng started off as an apprentice classically trained under some of the most highly revered and respected French masters. He finally came back to settle in his birthplace in 2011. His background has paved way to his cooking style – “Chinese x French” cuisine. It is what you will find at his VEA Restaurant.
Cheng embraces his Asian roots and heritage. In an inventive approach, he combines French techniques of great precision and finesse, with emphasis on the use of fresh, authentic and seasonal products from in and around Hong Kong carefully selected by the personally known producers. At his Michelin-starred VEA, the meticulously crafted tasting menu centres around a unique culinary philosophy. While ingredients exude a nostalgic appeal to local diners, their flavours and presentations may be a discovery to a foreign palates, just like a souvenir to bring home.
I have talked to Vicky Chang in January during the Madrid Fusión congress.
Were there any culinary influences from your family?
The only professional cook in my family was my uncle. He was a dim sum master in Hong Kong, but he retired long before I even touched cooking, never mind cooking professionally. So, I don’t think there are any influences through my family. But, everyone in my family loves to eat and cook. My Dad was in a fabric company and my Mum has a print shop in Toronto, where I grew up.
What kind of food did you eat as a child?
My Mum is from Shanghai and my Dad from Chaozhou, two regions most known for food in China. There’s a saying: If you are from Shanghai or Chaozhou, you must know how to eat. So, in my case it is worth double (laughter). Now, because of my Chinese x French cuisine I often think about things I ate in my childhood and try to reinterpret it in a modern way and understandable, not only to the Chinese people, but also to others.
You worked for three and a half years at Daniel Boulud’s New York restaurant Daniel. Why did you choose that restaurant?
I grew up in Canada and went to culinary school in Toronto. New York is not far away and all my Mum’s family lived there, so it was a logical choice. I have already spent two days working in the kitchen of Daniel and it was very intimidating. They were all speaking French, there was a lot of yelling, big brigade, two very busy kitchens, a real monster. I felt very intimidated. And when I later asked my teachers in Toronto where should I go to work in New York City, they told me – go to the place which scares you the most, because there you will learn the most. I did as they told me.
Would you recommend the same principle to young chefs today?
Yes, absolutely. Was it easy? No. Absolutely not easy, but a good way to learn a lot.
With which idea did you open VEA?
I have opened VEA with one simple concept, something we call Chinese x French. I wanted my first restaurant to represent myself, to show who I am. My culture is Chinese, but all I have ever learned in cooking was traditional French. So, we have created a unique cuisine, the first restaurant in Hong Kong and in China overal to contain Chinese philosophy and products, but with French cooking techniques. We wanted to highlight and to show the culture of Chinese food with authentic taste, but to present in the way understandable to Westerners.
How much is your food driven by plant products?
A lot, a lot. I have a habit of going to the market every day, before I go to VEA. Sometimes I buy something, sometimes not. I am not there to pick up everything the restaurant needs for that day, but to see and choose what is in season. For instance, I choose one vegetable that has just come in season and then work with my supplier. So, we buy quite a lot of locally sourced ingredients, but only after I tried them and made sure the quality is good. We are not the restaurant which would sacrifice quality over locality of product. But, it is in my interest to discover good, perhaps great and excellent products from Hong Kong. I can use them in a French restaurant in a way that will inspire even my peers who are completely French to try local products instead importing from France.
What do you think about the prejudice concerning Chinese food products?
I am proud of using Chinese products and I want more people to know and understand that products from China can be very, very good. But, you have to look for it in specific areas. Imagine how big China is. It’s a prejudice that every part of China is polluted or corrupted in some way. There are some beautiful plant products coming from China, but, unfortunately, people already have an image in their heads that everything from China is no good. I hope to be someone who can speak loudly about the high quality Chinese products.
Are such products and partners hard to find in today’s Hong Kong?
That depends. If you do your research and spend enough time at the markets looking, you can find them. Of course, you also need to build a good relationship with the people who are selling those products to you. Personally, I am very loyal to my suppliers and producers. And because of that they keep the best of the best products for me. Also, I am a Nespresso ambassador and I work very closely with the company on recycling coffee grounds. We work with local farmers to use the coffee grounds as a fertiliser. Then we buy their excellent vegetables and use them in our restaurant.
At the moment, your most interesting dish is done with a dried sea cucumber. Where do you source that ingredient?
The most famous and the most expensive dry sea cucumber comes from Japan. But the funny thing is that in Japan people don’t eat sea cucumber. It is almost useless there and can’t be sold for a lot of money. Instead, they have a trade business with China. They harvest sea cucumber and dry it, which suddenly makes it expensive. This technique is present in the Chinese culture for many, many years.
Your other signature dish is Fish Maw, a swim fish bladder. How do you prepare it?
French style. We braise it in butter, add fish essence and finish with quinoa and caviar.
Is it hard to present exotic Chinese food in the way understandable to Westerners?
If you are a foreign guest coming to my restaurant, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. There would be many, many things you haven’t tried before and many stories to be told. Surprisingly, something extreme like sea cucumber has been very well received by foreign guests, because the taste of sea cucumber is quite familiar. It tastes like a crab bisque or a shrimp. When you are served a strange looking sea cucumber, which you have never seen or tasted before, the first thing you start to think is – oh my God, would I like it. And when you cut into it and it is soft, bouncy, combined with the silky scallop mousse filling, you realize it has a taste of a bisque. Even if you never tasted it before, you have a connection. And then you start to enjoy the dish. On the other side, if I have served you a very, very Chinese dish and it tasted like oyster sauce, I could understand that it is not easy to enjoy it from the Western point of view. That’s where we excel – to be a bridge between two pallets.
What is a secret of understanding a product well?
First of all, you really have to be true to yourself and believe in what you do. You cannot justify the beauty of a product unless you have tried to find out what is the best way of cooking it. So, therefore, to answer your question with another one – are certain products good enough to drive this culture? I think it depends on where you are and if you are willing to go far enough to find these products. Recently I travelled around China to discover some farms and to see if the products are good there, what the culture is like, what the restaurants are like…, just because I wanted to see it for myself. If I am using all these products from China, I want to know how they were grown and which procedures have been taken. In fact, I really wanted to discover myself.
Thank you Vicky.
By Velimir Cindric.