Nothing quite screams stale in the world of gastronomy more than the word ‘fusion’. What may have been interesting in the 80s is now dull and diners these days are quick to dismiss anyone who thinks dreaming up dishes that clobber laksa with pasta or foie gras with xiao long bao as novel.
Yet it’s hard to deny that ‘fusion’ is what is happening in just about every good restaurant across the world. Chefs in all the major gastronomic cities routinely extoll the virtues of Japanese ingredients despite the type of cuisine while more and more Asian chefs are returning home after stints abroad, lending a touch of their adopted culture onto the plate.
In this age where culinary mashups are the norm and no longer given a name, where does the line start and stop? Ask chefs Lanshu Chen and Vicky Cheng — both award-winning French-trained chefs from Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively. Their answer? It’s about striking a balance and letting the flavours and character of produce lead the way.
The duo had a four hands recently where they walked the delicate tightrope between French finesse and traditional ingredients of Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. This was in conjunction with the launch of the Infini Collection by Ruyi — a range of tableware with an ethos embedded in Eastern philosophy.
The plates take inspiration from the elements of nature and mirror chef Chen’s belief that chefs are responsible for interpreting the flavours of the earth and sea. “Nature speaks through its flavours, smells and textures,” she says. “For us cooks, our duty is to translate the various components through the way we treat them – with care, respect and grace.”
We speak to both chef Lanshu Chen (LC) and Vicky Cheng (VC) to talk about how nature plays such a huge role in creating culinary experiences through food, flavours, presentation and tableware.
How do you get the balance between French and Chinese Cuisine?
LC: We are both French-trained but the way Vicky manipulates local ingredients in Hong Kong is very different from the Taiwanese style even though the ingredients may somewhat be the same.
VC: It’s quite interesting because I’ve never learnt Chinese cuisine in my entire life. I love Chinese cuisine, and as I continue to stay longer in Hong Kong, I discovered new layers of Chinese or Asian food. Almost everything on my menu has something to do with Chinese and Hong Kong influences. But the heart is still very French; from techniques to deriving the flavour profiles.
So, how do you derive these flavours?
VC: All of the chefs that I’ve followed before and techniques that I’ve known are all French. Anything that are not traditionally French are Chinese techniques that I’ve picked up along the way – like making dim sum skin for instance. I’m not professionally trained under a Chinese chef but anything that I don’t know, I learn through asking or simply reaching out to the local cooks.
Can you pinpoint exactly a dish that represents this four-hand collaboration between you two?
LC: Yes, there is one thing that we both love – noodles.
VC: Lanshu is known for her reimagined Taiwanese beef noodles dish that blends authentic flavours that are slowly refined with care. In this dish, we bring the flavours of Taiwanese beef noodles but it is nothing like it at all. The flavours carry a lot of spices and significant ingredients like preserved vegetables into the inspired dish. This is something we do not have in Hong Kong’s Cantonese cuisine.
LC: It took about two months to create a noodle dish that combines both our signature styles. We create the noodles like pasta to have more bite. Soup wise, we use more bones than meat to give a gelatinous consistency from the melted tendons and collagen.
VC: We infuse chilli oil that is made using three different chillis. The char siu component using beef is something that I’ve done before in VEA, but inspired by the nuances in Lanshu’s beef noodle dish. In my mind, this dish has to represent the Chinese-French philosophy but more local – Taiwanese inspired. That’s why we use the preserved bok choy with chilli oil, leek puree and braised daikon to give the dish the character it needs to stand out.
How can you relate these inspired dishes with nostalgia and childhood memories?
LC: Some of the dishes come from memories of flavours that I like. Like the eel for instance; it is not something we use a lot in our family. But it is something very Taiwanese from where I grew up in — the northern region of Taiwan – and I want to enhance this ingredient. The eel naturally has a muddy taste. I’ve added truffle to elevate its earthiness and clam jus to add more depth to the background of the dish. Then slowly, I build the dish around the key ingredient that I’ve chosen.
What about everyday street food?
LC: Taiwanese street food is something very unique to me and the flavours are super complex and comforting. You have to dissect these elements comprehensively to understand how to bring its essence into fine dining. Here’s something that I’ve discovered: the fragrance of elderflower adds an extra hint of fermented flavour.
VC: Hong Kong flavours are quite diverse. There’s an influence of Chiu Chow (as it’s called in Cantonese) in most of the local dishes. My mom is Shanghainese and I grew up in a Thai family (my godmother is Thai); my wife’s half Thai. That’s why there is a minute Thai influence in my inspirations. These elements of different cultures make up a vibrant food scene here in Hong Kong today. But ultimately, you have the ‘holy trinity’ of Cantonese cuisine; three very common ingredients – coriander, scallion and ginger – that beckon the flavours of Hong Kong.
How do you bring these local flavours into your menu?
VC: When I think of new dishes and when I want to greatly remember a dish, I think of my own culture. Maybe Chiu Chow dishes, something my dad used to eat. Sometimes, I find an influence within an influence. There is a fine line when we create a new menu. The last thing I want is for customers to leave my restaurant feeling like they’ve eaten Chinese food – that’s not what we want to do. We want customers to feel they have a good French meal with Chinese influences in it.
In recent years, the resurgence of Asian influence in contemporary dining has become more prominent. How do you see this movement growing in the next couple of years?
LC: I think it is something that naturally should happen but it is something that you see in the past decade. 20 years ago, it was all about haute French cuisine. 10 years ago, people feel Japanese and French flavours go well together. Different cultures have their unique offering and more chefs are returning to their native roots to create that ‘unique experience’ through food – of course with the base of French cooking techniques.
As you develop your own signature flavours, you cannot just depend on just the French fundamentals to derive something local. But when you find the balance between discovering and being creative, it is something more meaningful and interesting.
And how do you think upcoming chefs can achieve that?
LC: What you can do overseas is not what you can imitate exactly back home. I’ve tasted many dishes from all over the world to learn how flavours are curated and created using natural ingredients. When I come back to Taiwan, I experiment with different locally sourced fresh ingredients to complement the dishes I am making –mostly as complementary flavours rather than the main ingredient.
But we don’t really use these fresh ingredients as the main star. We just know how to use them but not take the opportunity to understand them better. When we do that, the possibilities are endless. To understand your food is to understand the flavours and its nature. There’s a saying that goes, “nature speaks, cook translates.” It has influenced me a lot; from finding the missing piece in every dish through the beauty of nature. I have a different appreciation when I see nature, and it is something you need to understand – to find the flavours within nature.
What are the challenges when using local produce?
VC: Geographically, it’s very different. We have beautiful farms in Hong Kong but it’s not always consistent. But there is absolutely a lot of seafood that I use significantly in my menus. The poultry are local; even the oil that I make from chicken fat. But it doesn’t mean that I stop myself from other products that are better, even though they are sourced elsewhere. I try to be as local as possible wherever I am. For this four hands, I’ve brought some ingredients from Hong Kong and at the same time, highlight that Taiwanese ingredients like the white corn and mushrooms in my dishes. The idea is to bring the awareness and to focus on what we have in abundance in our homeland.
Naturally, I am proud of where I come from. It is a luxury to be able to use produce from all over the world. It has been natural for most cooks; when we depend too much on French ingredients, we tend to forget what we have in our own backyard. It is up to us cooks to make that small difference through our food.
So do local ingredients really matter?
VC: In the end, if it’s about the product. As chefs, I have to make a decision in deciding what kind of dishes I want to make. My philosophy of cooking is to create something that is beautiful. When nature speaks, you let it be and you do the least to it.
LC: You also need to like the flavours from the ingredients in order to use them to their fullest potential.
VC: I think it is also about manipulating these ingredients by applying different techniques and do more to it to create something interesting. I also apply a zero-waste policy as well strictly in my restaurant; which allows me to be creative in my everyday approach to cooking.
There is also this unique way of introducing sweetness in both your dishes; like extracting sweetness from licorice into your beef stock. What is the significance of this ‘addition’?
LC: Licorice is a type of natural root that we use to complement the fresh ingredients of our stock. When you find the balance of quintessentially five flavours in Chinese cooking, you get a balanced sensation and wholesomeness. When it doesn’t need anything else, you know it is a very balance concoction.
In French cooking, it is similar but different flavour profiles. Like adding butter to find the balance, or an extra pinch of salt.
VC: Growing up eating Chinese food at home, especially cooked by my mother, you know whenever salt appears in a dish, it comes with sugar. I never actually understood it. But it’s really all about balance. We derive flavours using the techniques we learned in French schools and apply them in a more localised context.
And how does tableware come into place with the menus that you create?
LC: Choosing a plate is one of the most fun parts about being a chef. It is one of those things that is like clothing. Sometimes it is not just about appearance but it’s about the tableware that gives you the hold, the depth and the glaze that allow a particular dish to stand out or to be eaten in a more experiential way.
VC: Like I’ve said earlier, the experience is for you to come to the restaurant and not feel like you’re having Chinese food. And it begins with the first impression when the dishes are being served. Tableware plays that pivotal role in the presentation and it is where we find balance in the dining experience that we are trying to create.
The Sea Cucumber dish is one that is inspired entirely by the organic lines of the Ruyi Collection. The depth of the bowl allows me to steam the egg white that acts as the base to the roasted sea cucumber. The seamless lines and curves give that illusion to the dish – you practically wouldn’t expect a layer of steamed egg white until you dig in.
How are you responding to the freeform Infini tableware by Ruyi?
LC: It gives a classic feeling to the dining experience. Now, I appreciate the ‘freedom’ that the plates allow the dishes to be, and the limitless creativity in our creations. The new aesthetics is spontaneous like nature’s unpredictability. Where it faces, the tableware gives a different perspective and look – just like how nature surprises you in different enigmatic ways.
Traditional French cooking may not be suitable for organic-shaped plates. They need to be more geometrical and symmetrical to make the dishes look good. It is different now. There is an element of experience and fun in the making of these dishes. The plates or bowls now allow you to find the balance in the dining experience you’re set to create.
Images courtesy of Ruyi