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In quality restaurants, the arrival of the final dish can sometimes trigger a wave of stress, as it means a big check can never be far behind.
The stress instantly vanishes when the last course resembles a Zen garden.
At the Tate Dining Room and Bar in Hong Kong, the domain of chef Vicky Lau, that’s precisely what happens.
Plated like a real Zen garden, which is also called karesansui, or rock garden, in Japan, the matcha dessert comes with a little rake and gravel made of sugar.
The detail is amazing, echoing the real tools and material used to create calming patterns in an actual karesansui.
It’s the piece de resistance in an entire meal of edible art works.
But Lau’s cooking isn’t only aimed at satisfying stomachs and eyes.
She wants to create food landscapes that nourish the mind.
“Through the ‘Zen Garden,’ I hope my customers will reflect and ponder on things at the end of their meal,” says Lau, Tate’s owner and head chef.
The 34-year-old chef was just named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015.
She’s also earned a Michelin star every year since the restaurant opened in 2013.
Her food is described as “an eclectic mix of French and Japanese influences” in the guide.
Despite her success, Lau didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a chef.
She graduated and worked in advertising and design before enrolling on a short-term course at the Bangkok outpost of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.
“I ended up loving it so much after the initial program that I finished the grand diploma,” says Lau.
She then worked in the now-closed Michelin-starred French restaurant Cepage under Sebastien Lepinoy, before opening her Tate in 2012.
The 24-seater Tate is elegant, fitted in white wall with touches of brass and hanging light bulbs from ceiling.
“When I started Tate, I really wanted a small, homey place to express myself through food, to tell the inspirations from poems that I have read, places that I have been,” says Lau.
She called them the “edible stories.”
Take “Zen Garden” – one of the recurring dishes on Lau’s menu – as an example, it’s the result of a tea ceremony Lau witnessed during a trip to Kyoto, Japan a few years ago.
“I really respect how strong their tea culture is – it reflects a lot about their culture,” says Lau.
She’s impressed by how it’s inspired kaiseki (or more specifically, cha-kaiseki) cuisine in Japan – in which green tea is the last course.
“It all came about because Japanese people would drink matcha tea that’s rather bitter, so they’d pair it with some sweets,” says Lau. “That has eventually evolved into the whole elaborated kaiseki cuisine.”
Lau: Take your time to eat
Each of Lau’s dishes represents a carefully crafted edible story.
These tales are introduced by the waitstaff delivering the food, but Lau still hopes diners interpret each dish in their own way.
That’s why a meal at Tate may take longer than usual – as guests rake through the sugar sands – and their thoughts – as they eat..
Lau is willing to sacrifice the table turnover rate for that cause.
That may explain why it requires a month’s booking in advance to secure a weekend table.
With long hair tied at the back, Lau’s usually composed expression becomes animated when she describes a good meal or an interesting food fact.
Her eyebrows furrow when she hears the word fusion.
“I don’t like to use the word,” she says. “I think it’s outdated.”
“I don’t feel like I’m bounded by any cooking genre. I think French is just a base of it and I’m not afraid to add on a lot of different techniques if that is better.”
In fact, konbu and bonito, the two main ingredients used to make Japanese daishi stock are the most recurring ingredients in her dishes.
She’s interested in exploring Vietnamese and Korean foods in the future.
Currently, she’s experimenting with some dried spring bamboo shoots she brought back from her recent trip, with CNN’s Culinary Journeys, to Hangzhou, China.
Lau introduces new dishes to the menu every month and a new menu every season.
Her view on being named the best female chef
She also has a strong opinion on a female-specific award like the one she just won this year.
Apart from being “very happy and surprised” to be named a winner, she thought a lot about the meaning behind such an award, sometimes seen as controversial.
“It certainly is an awkward award, it shouldn’t have to have its own category but the fact that there is such a category because the academy feels the need of it and the importance to celebrate that.
“It kind of raises awareness and social value of the chef and encourage more females who are interested in the field to enter it.”
Tate Dining Room and Bar, 59 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2555 2172; open daily 6-11 p.m.
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