Earlier this week, the announcement was made that Little Bao‘s May Chow was voted Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017 by the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The quirky and colourful self-taught chef is somewhat of a departure from the more by-the-book, classically trained chefs that have picked up the prestigious title in the past few years (Filipino chef Margarita Forés won in 2016, and our own Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room & Bar took the title in 2015). They were known for serving heads of state and fine dining degustations; May is known for bringing to fame the wacky American-Chinese “bao-burger” invention that sees a packed crowd buzzing about her hipster joint, Little Bao, from dawn to dusk.
While we have no doubt that May will retain the same cool, humble attitude that’s made her a favourite amongst the foodie crowd here, there’s no question that her career is about to accelerate into high gear. With a busy schedule rolling out new concepts in the works and a flurry of media attention about to settle in, we snagged the rising star for a quick chat to get her thoughts on the whirlwind announcement and how it feels to have hit the big-time.
Congratulations on this huge achievement. Where were you when you heard the news?
The committee of World’s 50 Best Restaurants called me while I was at my restaurant Second Draft in early November. I was shocked at first and then fear set in because I knew that this recognition meant that I had to deliver. When I accepted the award, I decided I had to be brave and be my best to act as a role model and provide hope and opportunity for other coming Asian female chefs. For years, I did things for myself and now I feel like I do it to pave the way for local Asian female chefs or local Hong Kong chefs who don’t feel they are worthy of recognition despite their talent.
You opened Little Bao several years ago. What was your original inspiration, and did you ever imagine it would take off the way it has?
Little Bao started as just a one-off farmer’s market booth. I later developed a modern Chinese diner concept around the bao. I always make sure that what I bring is unique. I wanted to create something that I could call my own and was inspired by my Chinese heritage, Hong Kong culture, my appreciation of techniques, as well as my own lifestyle and western service. We wanted to be modern and cool yet authentically Hong Kong.
Did the thought of winning the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef by World’s 50 ever cross your mind?
I didn’t come from a traditional chef’s path where I spent decades perfecting my techniques and skills as an apprentice from masters. I never even wore chef’s whites. My chefs do not call me “chef”. I didn’t feel I exactly fitted the category and so definitely did not think I was going to win Asia’s Best Female Chef! But I was familiar with the title because of the fame of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants as well as my peer Vicky Lau winning the accolade a few years ago.
What inspired you to take up this profession growing up?
I always gravitated towards eating and cooking at a young age. My favorite toys were a Mcdonald’s drive-through window set, making fake noodles with Play-doh. When I was in kindergarten, my mother and I would cook together. I watched Yan Can Cook. When I was 17, I was lucky enough to go to Le Bernardin and my mind exploded. My parents wouldn’t allow me to go to culinary school so I only got my first chance to work in a proper kitchen my last year in college.
I came back to Hong Kong and eventually worked at Bo Innovation and it planted a seed in my mind that creativity and Hong Kong food can be celebrated in all shapes and form. I had my own voice very early on and I definitely didn’t fit well in other people’s kitchens. After a few years, I decided to open my own restaurant. I’m not trying to be the best chef but I want to be in tune with myself in all of my life endeavors. My passion for food is an emotional feeling that sits heavy in my heart and it always calls on me and steers me to want to create my own path.
Tell us a bit about your core cooking philosophy.
The most important for me is that it tastes delicious and it’s unique yet familiar. I don’t feel the need to show off technical skills. I feel that eating should be fun and food should connect you emotionally whether it’s to the food or the sharing of experiences with friends.
How do you imagine your life will change now that you have this distinctive recognition around Asia?
I’m a very positive person so I understand that the expectations might be higher and we need to continue to do our best as a team. I’ve always tried to be true to myself but I’ve in recent years felt that I had the responsibility to work harder for our society including supporting peers, local chefs, charities, preserving Chinese cooking traditions and inspiring chefs to be proud of their own Asian culture. I hope that this creates a platform for me to do more now and in the future.
How do you think the role of female chefs in the industry is developing, and do we still have a long ways to go?
There are more female chefs globally, but I think there’s a low representation of female chefs in our field in Asia. There are still more female pastry chefs than female executive chefs. I always wanted to get into the hot kitchen but I always got sent to pastry or cold section. I was too young and didn’t know how to demand for it. Sometimes my peers would want to make my life easy and give me the easy jobs because I’m a girl.
I stripped out most of my “feminine” side to be part of the boys. I think that also had to do with age. When you’re young, you want to fit in by being like everyone. When you’re more experienced and confident, those things are just mental blocks that one needs to get rid of. I hope that women believe that they can achieve whatever they want in life and if they have a dream to be a chef, they should have the right to pursue it with the support of friends, family, society and our government.
If you could collaborate with one chef in the world, who would that be and why?
I would love to collaborate and just listen to Alice Waters talk all day. I enjoy her sense of simplicity, sense of nourishment from nature and this “motherly” component of feeding people is something I appreciate because I live and work in a big city and sometimes we have less capacity to promote slow food mentality.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
Always be hungry to learn. Don’t just learn in your work environment. Read, eat, travel, listen, explore your own heritage. Figure out who you want to be and what story you want to tell. Do things that other people don’t dare to do; emulate the best. Also, do your best but own up to your own success. Don’t be apologetic or dismissive about your own talent and hard work — know your own self-worth and demand to be compensated equal to your peers.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m about to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong that I’m very excited about. I would also love to open a restaurant in one of my favorite cities LA, Sydney or Melbourne. The next challenge I set for myself is to be a well-rounded restaurateur that offers great opportunities to local chefs as well as continuing to explore deeper into my Chinese food heritage.