By Vanessa Hung
“One of the brightest stars in Hong Kong’s culinary scene, Chef Vicky Cheng from VEA, speaks of his love for cooking and his sources of inspiration.”
He is probably one of the youngest executive chefs to earn a Michelin star in Hong Kong and there is a justifiable reason. Chef Vicky had just returned to VEA from the daily routine of a market visit, with a handful of grocery bags filled with fresh ingredients.
Now at the helm of a Michelin-starred establishment perched on the top floor of The Wellington, Cheng still insists on stopping by the market every day. Though sweating and gasping from carrying the ingredients, Cheng warmly greeted me. Our conversation started with his vivid recollection of how his passion for cooking was initially ignited.
Growing up watching cartoons and the Food Network, Cheng first ventured into cooking in an unconventional way. One time, the nine-year-old Cheng was left alone with a bunch of frozen meals because his mother was away on a trip.
“The food ran out very quickly. So I took the leftover money and went to the supermarket to get some simple ingredients and started cooking. That’s how it all began.” Cheng recalled, with a sigh of nostalgia. At a young age, Cheng had already set off down his career path. He started as a budding chef classically trained under globally-revered chefs, such as Jason Bangerter of the Auberge du Pommier in Toronto and three-Michelin-starred Daniel in New York, which equipped him with the qualities and skills needed to become a great chef himself.
Opening VEA in 2015 was a bold move for Cheng, “It was risky because I didn’t know if people would like my food and I’d never owned a business.” In a thriving gastronomic hub like Hong Kong, new restaurants are opening almost every week. It is difficult - almost impossible- for a restaurant in its first year of operation to secure a stable clientele, draw positive reviews, and to be well loved by the media and the Michelin Guide.
But Cheng has defied the odds and turned his fantasy into reality twenty years after his first cooking adventure. Despite his astounding success, Cheng remains down to earth and modest, without a hint of flamboyance, feeling grateful that VEA enables him to execute his vision. “When I first built this restaurant, I told myself that it was a must to have a walk-in freezer and an open kitchen.” Embracing an open-kitchen concept, VEA has unique counter-style dining tables that might not appeal to some diners at first. But the dining area, in the shape of three semi-circles stretching across the kitchen area, offers a panoramic view of the chefs and the actual cooking at work, providing a sense of transparency to diners.
Growing up in Toronto didn’t make Cheng forget about his roots; he is dedicated to paying homage to his Asian heritage. “I am proud to have been born in Hong Kong. I want to reinterpret Hong Kong cuisine and incorporate ingredients that are commonly used in Asian cuisine with French gastronomic techniques of finesse.” The 8-course tasting menu defines what an impeccable Asian-French cuisine is.
Cheng’s job is to surprise diners with innovative dishes, including “Venison with Yunnan ham, Jeru- salem artichokes served with Sichuan pepper sauce”, that embrace ingredients from China, the sumptuous “Egg with truffle, parmesan and caviar” with its mix of rich yolk and Parmesan sauce, and “Sea cucumber with langoustine, Brussels sprout”, with its well-balanced crispiness. The contemporary Gallic dishes and the bold western take on Chinese ingredients are what keep diners coming back.
While dining at VEA, guests are offered an option to include either wine or cocktail pairing. The wine list is well thought out, comprising of wines from France such as Domaine Michel Magnien Morey-Saint-Den- is 2010, and Italy including Valle Dell’ Acate Vittoria Il Frappato Doc 2014 from Sicily. You can also enjoy a wide range of cocktails created by Cheng’s award-winning mixology partner Antonio Lai, who helmed the 29/F VEA Lounge. From new inventions to timeless classics, the cocktails can quench your thirst for creative mixed drinks. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Cheng said sometimes the team inspired him to create a new dish, “One time, we were having sweet and sour noodles at a local food stall, and one of the chefs jokingly said ‘let’s put it on the menu!’ Two weeks later, we delved into experiment and came up with a unique recipe of our own.” His most recent inspiration was sparked when he spotted fresh strawberries in the market.
He then decided to present eight different kinds of red and white strawberries from different countries on a silver platter for guests as an alternative palate cleanser. Such practice is one-of-it-kind in Hong Kong. Inspiration comes and goes; fine dining evolves every single day. But Cheng’s passion for gastronomy, his immerse inventiveness and firmly-held belief in quality remain unchanged.