Cover Asia's Best Female Chef, DeAille Tam (Photo: Obscura)

The co-founder of Obscura in Shanghai talks misconceptions, food engineering, and knife throwing

The name Obscura isn't one that many have heard, and upon encountering it—as most of us did for the first time upon the announcement that co-founder and executive chef DeAille Tam had won the title of Asia's Best Female Chef 2021—one would be forgiven for constructing a mental image of an austere temple devoted to incomprehensible haute cuisine. Yet DeAille (pronounced "dee-elle") proves to be quite the opposite over the phone: open, down-to-earth, and far from putting on airs, if her favourite dish of Hong Kong-style French toast is anything to go by.

The Hong Kong native is a child of the kitchen: her father ran a cha chaan teng in Hong Kong, though after moving to Canada at age 10, she enrolled in a degree in engineering. While cooking her own meals like countless scores of university students before and after her, DeAille rediscovered her passion for food and, after graduating, entered the culinary programme at George Brown College in Toronto, where she met her partner, Simon Wong. The couple returned to Hong Kong and were taken under the wing of Bo Innovation's infamous 'Demon Chef', Alvin Leung; he would eventually entrust them to launch Bo Shanghai at Five on the Bund, where DeAille became the first female chef in mainland China to receive a Michelin star in 2018.

DeAille and Simon opened Obscura in November 2020, the culmination of a year spent travelling around China and absorbing culinary influences from Sichuan to Yunnan. Their vision to "[express] the classic flavors of Chinese dining with equal measures of respect and innovation, Chinese culture and Western techniques" was certainly well-received, with table bookings becoming a hot commodity even before launch. DeAille's latest award from Asia's 50 Best Restaurants certainly cements the abundant promise of this rising talent—a major achievement less than half a year after opening her own restaurant.

Following the announcement of the award, we spoke to DeAille to get to know her a little better, from the ways in which she applies her engineering background to cooking, her time at Bo Innovation, and what it's like having her future partner by her side in the kitchen.

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What's a food memory that is particularly dear to you? 

One of my fondest foods—a flavour that I'm constantly searching for—is Hong Kong-style French toast: the two slices of toast that are deep-fried, slathered with peanut butter, drowned in super sweet syrup, then topped with a slab of cold butter to let it melt all over. Even though it's very unhealthy for you and I don't encourage people to eat it often, it's a memory I associate with my dad because he owned a diner in Hong Kong, before I moved to Canada. My dad has passed away already and I can never really eat the ones that he makes specifically again, but it's something that gives me comfort. It's not very sophisticated, but it's definitely something that I find joy eating.

You moved to Canada, where you studied for a degree in engineering. How does that factor into your culinary approach?

The scientific background that I have from studying engineering gives me a different perspective. I almost view food and cooking as an experiment. The idea behind engineering is trial and error, and proving things to be right or wrong. It is never considered a mistake, even if it is a failure—there's always something to learn. That kind of mentality really helps with this industry because there's never really a right or wrong, but we are never tired of testing and improving on what we do.

When we are handling an ingredient for the first time or for the millionth time, we always have the ability to see something different about it. Sometimes I'll even look at an ingredient and see it on a molecular level. I will think about how water molecules are manipulated as new processes being applied to it. Whether it's frying or steaming, I'll think about the changes in the particles and proteins, how those change through physics. And then there's chemistry: all the balancing of spice, acidity, sugar, salt, etc.

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What influences did you take away from Bo Innovation and how did that influence your approach to cooking?

When we worked for [Bo Innovation founder] Alvin [Leung's] establishment, it was our first encounter into merging the whole Western and Asian culinary concepts together. He really opened up our minds to understanding that even though there is a cultural difference between the two cuisines, the techniques themselves are just an idea of how to manipulate the ingredient. He was a very inspiring mentor to us, because he also came from a different background before becoming a chef. He taught us how to use what we already know to perceive food, instead of strictly from a cook's perspective. We're actually playing with flavour and ingredients and the techniques all in combination to achieve the final creation that we put in front of the guest. He never lets tradition define what we do, and he will always ask, "Can we try something different?" 

When you refer to "we", do you mean your fiancé, Simon, and yourself? What is it like working with him so closely?

We have been together for almost 11 years now. It has been so long that we don't really think about the fact that we're working in the same industry. It's so comfortable—we see each other as family, as comrades, as partners in crime. I'm very fortunate to find someone who has the same passion and the same drive as myself to push for the ideal career. We encourage each other, we are always helping out each other, we're motivating each other to do better. I think it's something that is very precious to myself. And I can't think of myself doing this job alone, but the fact that I have him by my side helps with achieving things that I want to do faster and quicker.

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Are there any common misconceptions people have about your cooking, or about female chefs in general?

Yes, there are a lot of misconceptions because of our previous relationship with Alvin and what he was known for. People will think that what we do is molecular gastronomy, which, first of all, is not really a terminology in relation to the style of food. It's an understanding of food gastronomy at the molecular level. But for me, all cooking techniques are a type of molecular treatment of ingredients, maybe because of my scientific background. Even if I'm simply frying a piece of potato, there is something happening to the ingredients on a molecular level. We do use modern techniques to manipulate some aspects only because they create a certain flavour or texture that I want the guests to experience. But they are not something that we promote by saying specifically that we are a modern gastronomy restaurant using very scientific techniques.

In terms of female chefs, I do encounter people who see me for the first time and assume that because I am female, I should be the pastry chef, and my partner is the head chef. It doesn't bother me, because I do the pastries in the restaurant too, but when people assume that female chefs can only handle pastries, or are better suited for pastries, it's very disrespectful for all the women in the industry who are capable in doing both and everything. It doesn't limit us to only one [discipline] because of our sex.

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Inevitably, you've kind of become a role model of sorts yourself. Were there any particular names that you've looked up to throughout your career?

I have several women that I've worked with: Imma Pantaleo at Ristorante Bolina in Tricase, Italy, and Alexandra Feswick at Toronto's Drake Hotel. They're both well-established chefs with a very unique style of their own and very strong team leaders, but they also show a lot of grace and elegance with what they do. This is something I took from them, that there's always a balance. Yes, you need to make sure that people around you listen to you, but at the same time you can still be caring and understanding for your team. At the same time, the food that they create is also very delicate—there's a lot of flair and attention to details in there. I learnt from them that I can be strong, even if I'm small and petite. And at the same time, I can be kind. I don't always have to show up and be angry and throw things at people.

Hopefully no knives are being thrown.

Fortunately not, I would not permit that. Knives are very precious to me actually [laughs]!