After five years serving its distinctive brand of French-Japanese cuisine on Elgin Street, tiny Tate restaurant (snug at just 26 seats) has assumed a prominent new space on Hollywood Road. Chef-owner Vicky Lau meets me at the site just shy of two weeks before the grand opening, when the air is still thick with sawdust. She apologises as a fine layer settles over our glasses, which are filled with water purified and filtered in-house using a special system imported from Korea. You see, as part of the new restaurant, Lau is shaking things up a little. “We’re not going to have any bottled water. We don’t need to fly water all the way from France or New Zealand. It’s just not eco-friendly.”
She walks me through the space, which was quite literally The Space before she took over the events venue last year. Because of the building’s split-level layout, she decided to use the ground floor to launch Poem Patisserie, which will sell affordable mousse cakes and desserts inspired by Asian flavours. “With the patisserie, I really hope to reach out to more people,” she explains.
Upstairs are the restaurant and two kitchens: one for Butler, the catering business Lau set up in 2014, and the other for the main restaurant, which now seats 40. To me, the square footage of the restaurant kitchen seems almost the same size as the original Tate restaurant. When I make this observation, Lau lets out a relieved chuckle. It’s certainly refreshing to have more space to create, she says.
Thinking back to when she opened Tate in 2012, she admits she was buoyed at the time by blissful ignorance. “I didn’t know much about the restaurant business, but it also gave me the power to do things outside the box,” she explains. “Because of this ignorance, I created something that was quite special for Hong Kong.” I wouldn’t call it ignorance per se; perhaps a different point of view.
“I didn’t know much about the restaurant business, but it also gave me the power to do things outside the box. Because of this ignorance, I created something that was quite special for Hong Kong.”—Vicky Lau
After all, Lau was not always a chef, though she has always loved good food. She spent the first six years of her working life as a graphic designer after graduating from New York University, even setting up her own firm after moving back to Hong Kong. But charged by Ken Garland’s design manifesto First Things First, she decided to do a complete U-turn. “Garland talked about how designers should embrace more of society and not just do commercial work for shampoo bottles and stuff,” she says. “It taught me to question why we do the things we do. And food is very interesting in that it connects to all of your senses, and there are so many different perspectives. More than ever, it’s important we rethink all of these things.”
She recalls a conversation with a friend one day over the topic of food. “We talked about it non-stop every day, but one time we just went, ‘Let’s just take a break and go to Le Cordon Bleu’.” That friend was Nancy Fung, who eventually founded lifestyle PR firm Signature Communications, which represents Lau’s restaurant. What was planned to be a fun three-month course at the Bangkok campus of the prestigious French culinary school led Lau to pursue the nine-month full-time Grand Diplôme—the highest qualification available—in patisserie and cuisine.
Straight from there, she landed a job as commis chef at Cépage, the French fine-dining restaurant in Wan Chai’s Star Street, where she worked for a year before deciding to launch her own venue on Elgin Street. The combination of her modern design sensibility and classical French training expressed at Tate delivered critical success for Lau right from the opening of the restaurant. She was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, following in the footsteps of Duangporn Songvisava of Bangkok’s Bo.lan and Lanshu Chen of Le Moût in Taichung, Taiwan.
The pretty pastel, marble and copper interiors of the new Tate—designed and executed by rising star James JJ Acuna—provide a beautiful dining environment. But Vicky’s favourite detail is the small drawers built into the tables that are meant to hold mobile phones. “It’s a little reminder to be more present, to engage with your guests and enjoy the food fully,” she says. “I’ve had guests at Tate who have spent the entire meal watching videos with their earphones on. And, no, they weren’t dining alone.”
In a camera-eats-first society, it would be hard enough to keep your phone hidden in a temporary cubbyhole, but the incredibly photogenic nature of Vicky’s creations makes it even more difficult. Her distinctly visual style is reflected delightfully in her dishes—for example, a miniature zen garden arrangement fashioned from ground sesame upon which petits fours are placed, and appetisers that turn simple ingredients such as Datterino tomatoes into edible works of art.
The new menu is an ode to the things Vicky holds dear. Its inspiration is Pablo Neruda’s compelling All The Odes, a volume of lyrical poems dedicated to everything from the mundane to the extraordinary, from clouds to artichokes. At Tate, diners will experience a deliciously cerebral menu that celebrates the ingredients and their origins, from the local bees that produce honey for the ice cream dessert, to the dragon well tea that adds aroma to a superior broth.
The ingredients are fresh and seasonal, and organic wherever possible, something that has become more important to Vicky since the birth of her daughter, Kory, late last year. Steam cooking, nourishing ingredients and slow-simmered soups have recently caught her attention, too, thanks to the confinement nurse who filled her days with dishes such as braised sea cucumbers and vinegared pork trotters. Vicky has also recently taken up casual apprenticeships with dim sum chefs to learn the art of folding dumplings and crafting turnip puff pastries. And even the topic of rice, right down to the grains, has been occupying her mind.
Clearly Vicky, widely renowned for her finesse in executing French-Japanese cuisine, is making a return to her Chinese roots. It’s moving to see her pay homage to so many elements of her culture and heritage on the new menu: Ode to a Chiu Chow Classic is foie gras royale with marinated goose, and a hat-tip to her father’s eastern Guangdong upbringing; Ode to Scallop features three variations on the shellfish, one designed to evoke the intense umami whiff of the city’s hoi mei (dried seafood) shops; even more overtly, Ode to Hong Kong is a dish of local abalone served with a tuna jus.
“I actually started studying Chinese food more after visiting Hangzhou for a TV documentary, where we picked tea leaves and I got the chance to see the inside of a Mainland Chinese kitchen,” Vicky says. “It made me think more about what the core of Chinese cuisine is, my roots, and how I should explore them. After all, this is what grounds a person. And this is what makes me me.”
Tate, 210 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan; +852 2555 2172
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Hong Kong Tatler