With an illustrious career spanning neighbourhood to fine-dining establishments and luxury five-star resorts, Chef Patricia Yeo came onboard Black Sheep Restaurants as Head of Culinary earlier this summer. We join her at Soul Food Thai to pick her brains on topics ranging from her PhD to gastronomy to personal growth.
Tell me more about your background. I heard that you studied biochemistry! How did that lead to cooking?
It was purely accidental. I got my PhD and I was about to go and get a postdoc, but I had a few months to kill. I worked for a chemical company at that time and hated my job. I mean, it was just research, it was so tedious and simple, but it took forever to get results. You can work on something for 10 years, and then, oh – it was all wrong.
On the other hand, with cooking, in 30 seconds I can identify if I would like it or not. So, I took a knife skills class and thought, well, I could be a chef. It was just so much fun. I just loved it. And I never looked back.
I have to ask – what did your parents think about this? From a PhD to working in a kitchen.
Hah! My dad wouldn’t speak to me for a year and a half.
If I had continued with that first path, I would probably end up ended up in academia, teaching in universities and whatnot. To a certain extent, what we do here is very similar. We do a lot of coaching, a lot of mentoring… so it’s not so different. It’s just faster and much more tactile.
Were you influenced by family in any way when it came to enjoying good food?
I’m from a family of what you would call competitive chefs.
You can go to a family gathering and one of my aunts will announce that she’s just made this delicious chicken curry or whatever. And then the next day, another relative will proclaim that they’ve made one better and they literally outright outdo each other for a couple of weeks. They get really, super competitive. So yeah, food for me is really about family. Tradition carries on.
Did you ever consider going back to Malaysia?
I left too young. Apart from my mother who has since moved back to Malaysia and a few cousins and uncles, I don’t have any close friends there. It’s hard when you don’t have friends to try and move back to a place because you can only hang out with your family. Malaysia is also close enough that it’s a hop, skip and jump away from Hong Kong.
Tell me more about your culinary journey.
I went from owning restaurants in New York and working in New York, and then, well, it was just so stressful that I pivoted to working for some big companies in the States.
My journey’s taken me across a realm of different kitchens but it was fabulous, because it really taught me everything from running a small business on your own to being in a big company and learning all the systems and all these fantastic ways that you never thought of. After a while, I wasn’t really enjoying working for these sorts of giant conglomerates anymore. By chance, I got offered a job at Six Senses Oman, and then I’ve been juggling hotels ever since then.
I was in Croatia right before this, and well, the rest is history.
What convinced you to move halfway across the world to Hong Kong?
Chris [Mark] and I were talking for a few months prior to this. Him and Asim [Hussain] are great storytellers and they make everything seem so romantic. They really have strong beliefs and vision for what they want you to do. The whole group seems like a big family; you just want to be part of it.
It certainly took a while for me to make this decision, and it’s been a whirlwind. But it’s been great.
What was the transition like going from Croatia to such a big city?
Croatia was really idyllic and a really fantastic place to work. But, at heart, I’m such New Yorker that I couldn’t really cope with the pace. I’ll ask, ‘Can I get some cherry tomatoes?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, we haven’t grown any cherry tomatoes. The season’s over.’ That meant that the food was a little one dimensional because unlike here where I can have whatever ingredient I want, any time of the year, it was quite limiting in a small island.
Tell me a little bit more about your role now at Black Sheep Restaurants.
I’m really enjoying myself tremendously. As Head of Culinary, I get to work with some really young team members who are looking for direction and also team members who come on with the vision of, well, this is a job that I’m going to go to for a paycheque. Being able to make them understand that there’s more to this world… If you become good, you can actually pick your niche and go and work in any country in the world.
These roles are a chance for adventure, a chance for expressing your creativity – it’s a fabulous job. And being able to get this message across to the next generation is one of the best feelings.
I also enjoy just walking around eating all day, pretty much! So, I start my morning at Maison Libanaise: I taste hummus and baba. Then I come up to Stazione Novella, and I talked to them. And then it’s Motorino to eat a few pizzas. And then to Soul Food to have some Thai. I think I’ve gained about three kilos since I started working here.
What sort of direction of advice have you had to impart unto the team so far?
There’s a lot of technical skills. A lot of my team are very skilled already, but it’s just about refining it now. A lot of the times you have to put yourself in the shoes of your guests and imagine what it’s like to sit down and eat a whole dish of pea soup, for example. You want texture, you want colour, you want flavour, you want contrast. It’s just getting people to think about how they want to do things.
My chef here [at Soul Food Thai] is sometimes afraid of making super authentic Thai food. Somebody in the past complained it was too spicy. But I say to him, ‘No, no, cook the food, you know!’ And then it’s up to us as the front facing people to tell the guests, well, this is what the food is like and we can adjust it for you and we can tailor it for you. You have to enlighten your diners, right? Empower your chefs to be their authentic selves. Helping them push themselves further and giving them the confidence to have the space to grow.
What is your advice when it comes to thriving in a very male dominated industry?
I mean, I don’t walk around thinking of myself as Asian or female, you know, I am who I am. And I am a chef. Women, I think as a rule, are better multitaskers and as a chef, multitasking is a really big part of your life. You’re telling this guy to do this, you’re watching that other part, and then you’re thinking about scheduling and ordering. What we lack in strength, we make up for in brains.
I’ve been very lucky to be able to work with some really great people. I can be as foul-mouthed and as crass as the next guy, and you know, and I’m not afraid to turn the bitch on.
Do you have a favourite cuisine?
I can give you a taste profile as opposed to style. I don’t like food that is shy. I don’t want to think about my food. I want food to be in your face. So, Thai food is always fantastic because it’s acidic, there’s spices, the herbs. And it’s bright! I’m not a picky person. I don’t like having one dish in particular – my palate gets really jaded. I’m looking for new bites all the time.
What movement would you like to see more of in the community?
The idea of sustainability and the future of dining is very important to us.
This bag I carried from Ho Lee Fook is full of cilantro roots because most people throw it away. But Thai restaurants use that a lot. So, I’ll walk around with a bag and I will go to every restaurant in the area and collect stuff like broccoli stems and convert them into an antipasto or so.
It also drives me batty when the fresh produce comes in this giant styrofoam box, which is just so bad for the environment! It’s just really one of the worst things there is. We’re starting this initiative where we’re buying these giant hard sided plastic containers and giving it to the produce company to pack the vegetables into for delivery. We hope that will reduce single use plastics and obviously avoid styrofoam going forward.