Cover Photo: Victoria Holguin Fotografia

Following his trip with Nespresso to Colombia, one of the world’s key coffee producing countries, chef Vicky Cheng reflects his learnings about quality and the parallels he has found in his own culinary eco-system

A common misconception is that chefs merely cook, a convenient simplification of a wildly complex system that hinges on hundreds of factors and moving parts. In a fine dining restaurant such as VEA, the brigade is dependent on a carefully honed choreography that must be repeated, consistently, day in day out, with feeling. A dining experience is more than the sum of its parts—a transcendent one is the result of consistent execution and utmost dedication to quality.

As chef ambassador of Nespresso Hong Kong, Cheng visited the famed coffee producing region in Colombia to see firsthand the effort that goes into creating the simple cup of coffee that many take for granted. He observed different styles of farming from a couple of producers, including a traditional farmer who had been in the coffee business for decades. “The trip really was a way to open our eyes,” he explains. “We look at it from our point of view, and we also saw the differences and similarities in how chefs and farmers work.”

See also: Vicky Cheng On How A Cup Of Coffee Inspires His Craft


The systematic ways in which the crops are grown and harvested, for example, was familiar to Cheng. “It was a matter of everybody harvesting, then everybody screening, and pulping. It was one by one by one, just like in the kitchen where you need to have an efficient workflow.” He gives the example of working on filleting fish, instructing his cooks to focus on completing each stage of the process (cleaning, scaling, filleting, pin-boning) for all necessary fish rather than work on one fish at a time. “There’s a lot of screening involved in between, like in the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Programme,” he observes. “Though the programme is on a much larger scale, essentially it is the same in the kitchen.”

Every day at 4:30pm, the sous chef will perform a check on all elements of the day’s dishes. This is followed by a second chef check at 6:00pm. “This is all to confirm that the acidity is right, the thickness, the balance, the richness, the saltiness,” Cheng explains. “It’s a daily job and doesn’t change. It’s the most important part of the day. This constant quality check—a check for consistency—is the most important in any business, I think.” Every chef is trained to carry out these minute quality checks daily, to ensure that the restaurant is performing at its best at every service.

Similarly, Nespresso goes to great lengths to maximise quality and sustainability during each stage of the coffee journey, with up to 70 quality checks taking place throughout—starting from the farm all the way to the production centres where the coffee capsules are completed. The company stresses the importance of best practices, encouraging their processing partners to take great care throughout, from properly managing the fermentation of the bean to maintaining the cleanliness of the processing facilities. This insistence on consistency makes the difference between a reliable, delicious coffee and a batch that is unsatisfactory—and every step counts, from beginning to end. 

After all, the variable quality of each harvest can have a significant impact on the final flavour of the dish—just as on the coffee farm, where everything from weather conditions to terroir will influence the beans that eventually end up in a signature Nespresso blend. Cheng points out that in wine, there is an understanding that each vintage is expected to have variations in flavour profile—but when you’re looking for consistency in coffee and in the kitchen, it’s important to know your ingredient and how to handle it. “With coffee, the palate and skills of the coffee blenders allows each capsule to be virtually the same every time,” he says. Thus, it's important to have highly trained tasters—not too dissimilar to the chefs in a kitchen brigade with experienced palates—who use cupping as a way to evaluate the quality of a coffee, taking into consideration factors such as aroma, body and taste. 

This commitment to quality is applied whenever new exciting ingredients or dish ideas come to the fore, too.  Most recently, Cheng developed a 29-head caramel-centred Japanese dried abalone and foie gras pithivier—a perfect encapsulation of his “French x Chinese” culinary direction—that has become an instant hit in the restaurant. “This dish is a combination of things that we know and things that we don’t know,” he says, drawing parallels with the coffee farmers who adapted their coffee farming practices to yield even higher quality crops in the AAA programme. “We knew the French technique, but we didn’t know the Chinese technique. It was a matter of research and testing.” Following multiple experiments, Cheng had the chance to serve the dish to the king of abalone himself—chef Yeung Soon Yat of Ah Yat Harbour View. It was a testament to the quality of the dish, the result of months of refinement and testing.

Like a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, it is easy to underestimate the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s why this particular chef chooses Nespresso, and why he puts so much emphasis on committing to quality. “It’s because I know that there will be consistency,” he says. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day.”

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