March 4 marked a truly unforgetable dining experience, as awardees of Asia's Best Female Chef came together to create a four-course dinner menu for attendees of the UNICEF Children's Ball. The Ball was celebrated with the intent to bring awareness to children with disabilities, and at the same time, raise funds that would ultimately help build different children centers in major Philippine cities.
We got a chance to speak to each of the awardees, namely Bo Songvisava of Bo.lan in Thailand, Lanshu Chen of Le Moût in Taiwan, Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room & Bar in Hong Kong, and our very own Margarita Forés of Grace Park here in the Philippines, to learn more about their involvement with the organization, the journeys behind their famed restaurants, and special words of advice they'd like to impart.
1. How did you get involved with UNICEF?
Lanshu Chen: "This is my first time to work with UNICEF. They mailed me about this project they wanted to do and how they wanted to invite me to participate. Of course I said yes."
Margarita Forés: "Somebody had a eureka of getting all of us Asia’s Best Female Chefs together for this wonderful cause. I think they had a feeling they were going to be challenged to make sure that all of us could make it. But we’re all very happy that everyone said yes. I think what’s more remarkable is that it’s being done for UNICEF Philippines and the minute they asked me and told me what the cause was, without batting an eyelash, I said yes. I mean what an opportunity! I guess we’re kindred spirits—it’s a bit of a sisterhood. This wonderful opportunity to bond and to do it for such a great cause… I think that that’s so important."
Vicky Lau: "They contacted me and I thought it was for a good cause. That’s how we started."
Bo Songvisava: "They dropped me an email talking about the ball and how they wanted to help the disabled kids and I said yes—as simple as that. My husband and I fly a lot to promote hotels and restaurants. But whenever a good cause comes up we take it as an opportunity to give back to society. We have no hesitations."
2. What the rules and principles do you swear by when it comes to cooking and your profession?
L.C.: "First is respect for food. When we cook we want to keep the best and most real flavors inside our ingredients so we don’t waste and over-process them. Second is respect for customers. We treat a guest as the most important person; we want to give them the best and we want to make them feel that this is a very precious moment they have with friends or family. Third is respect for self. As a chef you need to respect your own profession. You committed to this and you need to respect yourself to become a better person and not look down [on it]."
M.F.: "Use the best ingredients wherever you are. I think that’s a quote from Pelligrino Artusi, who’s the father of modern Italian cooking. The respect for ingredients that exists in their culture and in their cuisine is a priceless lesson that I’ve been able to apply to Filipino food. The other important [rule] now that I find myself in the Philippines, is discovering the wonderful ingredients that we have and that we can highlight—ingredients that are [considered] exotic to those from different countries. There’s still so much to discover and we can only find them by traveling around and getting to know the cuisines from different regions, provinces, tribes, and even just home cooks. The last important lesson is something my grandfather always taught me. He said, 'never forget how you started and never forget where you came from.' I think that when we move along in this business, we experience lot of success and accomplishments. We might have a tendency to forget how we started and not honor or remember the little things that were there before we became established. Whether or not it’s your own background, I think it’s a consciousness we have to keep because that’s what grounds a person, regardless of what industry you’re in but more so in the food industry."
V.L.: "For me, it’s a lot about the reason I have to do it: It’s about the passion and the flow of the menu. It’s not one dish in itself. I think the whole experience is very important—from when the guest walks inside to why put this dish into the menu? I don’t have an ala carte menu. It’s all a set. It’s like telling a story. It’s one of the most key things I’d like to stick to and is very important rule. Using the most available, seasonal, and good ingredients is important. Also important is trying to be as sustainable as possible. It’s a little hard in Hong Kong but we try to be with our food and with the small things within the restaurant. We’ve given up on shipping bottled water from New Zealand and not know what to do with the bottle. We put in a strong water filter system and even a sparkling system so we bottle our own. Another thing we’ve done, because my style is fine dining, is table decorating. Instead of shipping flowers from Holland we grew plants from scraps from the kitchen. Sweet potato leaves are used as table decorations. We’ve also given up on traditional tablecloth because it gets bleached and washed everyday, which is wasteful. We use instead a synthetic leather on our tables that can be cleaned by sun drying."
B.S.: "Fresh coconut creams is the rule of thumb. Freshly squeezed lime juice. And pestle and mortar only. I think if you’ve got these three down your food will be yummy."
3. What are the most memorable instances in your years as a chef?
L.C.: "When guests can really appreciate your food and effort. They can tell why you have this kind of combination and are amazed by the message you want to send."
M.F.: "Some of my best moments were my first few, successful catering jobs. When I started, it was a real slow burn; it took me a while to learn. I was a girl in my mid-20s—an age when you’re still kind of finding your way. I was also still on party mode. But I think I learned the best lessons in life at that time because it forced me to wake up and decide whether I wanted to go into this career for the long haul. It was very difficult to learn. But in the end this business is not about the glamour and the praises you get because your food is so good. I think that to endure in this industry is a lot more about being responsible, mature, punctual, and having a little bit of structure in your life which was very unlike what I was at that time. Up to this day, 30 years down the road, I have many priceless lessons learned and many more to learn. It’s been a very fulfilling path and what I like about it is that everyday there’s still something new to learn. I’m already 57 and when I meet young chefs that I work with now I realize I learn from them so much. That’s also a lesson that keeps my outlook fresh and youthful. It makes me look forward to continuing my work in the future."
V.L.: "I would say when the first Tate got built because I designed it myself. We did the whole setting—from the view from the outside and I saw my dream restaurant coming to life. We moved the restaurant to a newer, bigger location two weeks ago."
B.S.: "The first time I landed in a commercial, proper kitchen was like, 'Oh. My. God.' Being in a hotel kitchen for the first time and seeing all the equipment was so cool. It was the first time someone ACTUALLY accepted me in their kitchen [laughs]. I dreamed that one day I’d have something like that for myself. This was in 2003. Also memorable was, when I first walked into this kitchen in London. The way it cooked Thai food really fit my perception of Thai cooking."
4. Any words of advice you can give to aspiring female chefs?
L.C.: "Don’t care about gender. Don’t think of yourself as a 'female' chef. Just work as a chef… It’s a pity if there are people who treat gender as an issue. But these days… there are many chefs coming up with new concepts and techniques. Kitchens normally don’t see the difference of genders."
M.F.: "I think that we women bring a real unique gift to the industry because we are women; I think it’s innate in us to want to feed and nurture people because of this maternal thing that only women have. I think it’s that dimension that adds this unique gift—that is, when a woman chef is in the kitchen in a very male-dominated industry. For young women who want to be chefs, they should draw from their womanhood. If you interview any famous male chefs, maybe 99% of them would say that they’re inspired by their mothers or grandmother’s cooking. Ultimately, I think that feeding, nurturing, and cooking is really a woman thing. Celebrate your womanhood if you want to get into this industry and at the same time be a sponge. Many young people now get into the food industry by studying and taking a culinary course. That gives you a base learning, but what gives you the edge and what will make your work unique is what you learn outside of school—whether it's heirloom recipes from your family, things from your province, or the trips that you take. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. It’s your failures that will give you the best lessons."
V.L.: "Follow your passion and stick to it. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, just work on it. And don’t be afraid of the social value. For me, cooking is a combination of art, craft and science. The art is what you want to express in your food, the craft is the craftsmanship of the dish and how you cut a certain type of meat, etc. And the science is what equipment to use and where you source your ingredients. To become a chef it’s good to have all."
B.S.: "Work hard but smart. Make your day really efficient because you’re gonna die in the kitchen. You have to plan your day well and organize properly. I never suggest shortcuts but you have to work in a way that’s more efficient; less work but more productivity. At the end of the day the kitchen requires a lot of physical. And if you don’t work smart you're gonna stop there and not work anywhere, especially with females."
5. In your own words, why is food important?
L.C.: "First is nutrition. We have to have it to survive. Sentimentally, it comforts you, it brings out memories, and it creates memories."
M.F.: "Apart from it being what keeps us alive, if one can be creative doing that, I think that working with food is such a priceless opportunity."
V.L.: "The obvious part is that we can’t live without food. Food is a lot about culture. Human culture is very important to know your roots, to identify yourself. Oftentimes when you talk about culture I think food represents at least 30%, so it's important to tend to that."
B.S.: "Without food we’re all gonna die. We can’t survive [laughs]."
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Photographs from UNICEF / Artwork by Jana Jimenez