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 Wong 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 flavours 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.
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.