Meet the Tribe is a five-part series introducing some of the industry leaders who helped us select the Generation T List 2018—a panel of experts we call the Tatler Tribe.
In many ways, it’s the story of Cheng himself. Born in Hong Kong but raised in Canada, Cheng is also a fusion of Chinese and Western influences. He studied classical French cooking in Toronto before cutting his teeth at the city’s Auberge du Pommier and then moving to Daniel Boloud’s New York eatery, Daniel, at the age of 21. He later moved to Hong Kong to discover his roots, making his name at Liberty Private Works before launching Vea two-and-a-half years ago.
“Every dish we do has a story, and the story is about Hong Kong,” says Cheng. “Food tells the best story because it’s real. Food culture is something you grow up with, something that’s in your blood.”
Cheng may be drawn to the concept creatively, but he’s also cognisant of the business implications, too. Vea’s application of French techniques to Chinese ingredients is its USP—something every restaurant needs in order to stand out in today's F&B industry. “Good food is not just about a food anymore. To be a trendsetter, to be a world leader, it’s about the whole experience. It’s about stories you tell and how you tell them. And it’s most effective when you’re telling them from the heart—like how a movie based on a true story is always more emotional.”
Cheng is one of the most creative culinary forces working in Hong Kong today, which is why we asked him to nominate candidates in the Food & Drink category for the Generation T List 2018. We ask the Michelin maestro about his career, the next generation and the most important lesson his mentor Daniel Boulud ever taught him.
How did you decide to pursue a career as a chef? Was there a pivotal moment?
As a young kid, the only thing I was good at and interested in was cooking. I was noticeably better than everyone else my age. When I was young there were only two channels on my TV: the cartoon channel and the Food Network! So when it came to deciding on a career I had no choice—I stuck to the only thing I was really good at.
See also: Meet The Tribe: Joyce Tam
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in your career?
As a young cook I was in Toronto, my hometown. I had a stable job that paid me well, a stable girlfriend, my own car. I was comfortable. Then I randomly booked a trip to New York. I didn’t really want to go because I had everything in Toronto, but I went to New York to do trials at a couple of well-known restaurants, including Daniel.
And I have to say it was out of character for me. I was very chicken at the time—it wasn’t the norm for me to be that bold. In Toronto I was still living with my mum. I had everything to lose because New York was a culture and work environment I wasn’t familiar with. But I think everything that’s followed is because of that one move. That first step opened me up to new possibilities. It made me confident enough to move to an even more foreign country. Even though it’s home, Hong Kong was foreign because I hadn’t been here since I was 10 years old. So the decision to come back by myself with no family, almost no money, no place to live and no job was also because of that first decision. It’s those two moves, and those two risks, that made me who I am today.
"I wanted to work for a Michelin-star restaurant and there weren’t any in Canada. So I just packed my bags and left."
So what pushed you to book that ticket to New York?
I wanted to work for a Michelin-star restaurant and there weren’t any in Canada. So I just packed my bags and left. If I hadn’t done that I think I would have never left Toronto. When I went to Daniel I was 21. I might have failed, but if I had—I was 21! I was happy to start again.
What are the most useful resources—books or podcasts, for example—you recommend to someone looking to gain perspective into becoming a better leader?
I sort of have a secret—I’m not great with books. Instead, to be a strong leader I believe you have to read your team. To put it in cooking terms, you cannot use the same temperature to cook different fish. My team are all different, so I treat everyone differently. With some you need to be a little bit more aggressive; some you have to be a little softer. Identifying natural leaders within your team is also important, because you cannot be everywhere all the time.
How do you foster innovative thinking within your team?
When you reach a certain level as a chef, there’s nobody to teach you how to cook anymore, so you need to look for inspiration. Not only do you have to inspire yourself but you have to inspire your team. And when you’ve taught them everything you know already, what else do you have to teach them? You have to learn and discover new things. We incorporate a lot of Chinese ingredients at Vea, which a lot of my team are not familiar with; I’ve been cooking for 18 years and never touched Chinese cuisine. So being able to work with sea cucumber, fish maw, things that are so different, keeps things exciting for everyone.
So to foster innovation you constantly challenge yourself and your team?
Absolutely. We have a lot of internal competitions—quick-fire rounds in the kitchen. I introduce an ingredient and they have to cook a dish that uses it. It’s very different from my training, where the sous chef and chef de cuisine made all the dishes and we learned from them. That was a great learning opportunity, but there are always a lot of talented cooks within kitchen teams, so for the chefs in my team to be able to express themselves is a great thing.
Can you name a mentor who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
My most recent mentor is Daniel Boulud. He’s played a big role in my life. But I think Jason Bangerter, who was chef de cuisine at Auberge du Pommier, perhaps had the greatest impact.
That restaurant was my first job; I started as an intern when I was still at school. When I walked into that kitchen for the first time I didn’t even know how to hold a knife. But Jason took me under his wing; I was his first apprentice he was my first mentor. He threw me into every competition he could get me into and I was fortunate enough to gain his trust by winning many of them under his mentorship.
What was the most important thing Daniel Boulud taught you?
Chef Daniel was always about discipline, attention to detail and making everything perfect. He never accepted any less. We were doing 330 covers at a then three-star Michelin restaurant and the standard never dropped. When you run an operation like that you have to manage a big brigade. To stay at a high level consistently, he taught me you have to have leaders in your team that can manage others under your direction.
"I’m not saying that yelling and screaming is good, but did it work for me? Yes."
Now you’re an executive chef and a mentor yourself. What’s the most important advice you give to young chefs?
It’s okay to make mistakes. Just as long as you don’t make the same mistakes over again. Not making the same mistakes is something that was repeatedly drilled into me when I was training. Working under many quite aggressive sous chefs, my challenge, and the ultimate goal for every day, was to not get yelled at. The day I didn’t get yelled at was truly a very good day.
Are kitchens at some top restaurants still incredibly hostile workplaces?
Yes, but that trend is changing. That was 10 or 15 years ago in New York and Toronto. I think the industry, and the world, is changing. I’m not saying that yelling and screaming is good, but did it work for me? Yes. It forced me to work harder to achieve that goal of not getting yelled at. And the only way to achieve that was to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake I made yesterday.
The Hong Kong Generation T List 2018 is unveiled on June 8.
Outfit: Theory | Venue: Vea | Photography: Moses Ng | Styling: Rosana Lai
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