Asia’s Best Female Chef DeAille Tam finds recipe for success

Deemed Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2021, DeAille Tam is nothing short of unstoppable and inspirational. The Hong Kong-born-chef talks to Stephenie Gee on following her heart and how Shangri-La helped pave her way to the top

Chef DeAille Tam

“Following my heart,” is a phrase that pops up repeatedly during our conversation with DeAille Tam, and with good reason. After all, from civil engineering to heralding the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2021, this remarkably straightforward philosophy is perhaps the backbone of her career path.

A graduate of civil engineering, Tam’s venture into the less than glamourous world of cooking came during her time at university, much like the countless students before and after her. But what began as a necessity soon transformed into a passion that only grew the more she delved into the practice. “I would call my mum and ask her for recipes in the middle of exams, like, ‘How do you make Hong Shao Rou?’” recalls Tam with a laugh. “And she would be like, ‘Why do you want to make Hong Shao Rou? It takes too much time!’”

Chef DeAille Tam

“Slowly I came to the realisation that I really enjoyed the time that I got to spend in the kitchen dealing with ingredients, recipes and testing out things that I’ve never experienced before. I started taking classes as a leisure activity alongside working at engineering firms, and that leisure class slowly led to full-time courses, a full-time study, and full-time of working in the kitchen.”

Returning to Hong Kong in 2014, Tam joined renowned “Demon Chef” Alvin Leung, at the much-lauded Bo Innovation, before moving to Shanghai to launch Bo Shanghai. There, she distinguished herself as the first woman in Mainland China to earn a Michelin Star.

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That was just the beginning. For Tam, food has never been just about food, but rather connections, whether it be between people, culture, or memories. This is the territory that Tam wades into with Obscura, the Michelin starred fine dining destination helmed by Tam and her husband, Simon Wong.

“People’s memory on food stays within something they’re familiar with such as their hometown, and those are often based on a lot of classic or traditional methods of cooking,” explains Tam, who at Obscura hopes to build a bridge between diners and their home with a menu dedicated to spotlighting the intricacies of Chinese cuisine through elegant interpretations of classic dishes.

Like the land it hails from, Chinese cuisine is broad in variety. Coupled with a rich tapestry of culture and tradition, it takes more than just knowledge of techniques and flavours to elicit feelings.“Memory and emotion – it’s a very interesting thing because it’s not something you can really easily describe with words. It’s determined by culture, history and landscape,” says Tam. “Chinese cuisine has one of the longest histories in the world and it requires for us to understand it before we can really make dishes that evoke memories for these people.”

Each dish at Obscura is served on specially chosen tableware, such as this bronze patina plate

This much is true. Prior to Obscura’s opening in November 2020, the pair embarked on a yearlong journey across China, exploring the different facets of the culinary culture as well as traditions and histories of the different regions.

It’s this dedication and sincerity that saw her receive the award of Asia’s Best Female Chef. “I am very appreciative of this award,” says Tam. “It came to me as such a surprise. I had just opened the restaurant when I received this wonderful news and I wasn’t prepared.”

She continued, saying, “Having this recognition gave me the opportunity to really tell people you don’t really need to think about obstacles too much. I always like to use the Nike slogan, ‘Just Do It,’ you don’t know until you start moving forward.”

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And it’s these three words that have pushed Tam to overcome all the obstacles thrown her way as a female Asian chef in a world where men still reign supreme. “There were many,” she says about her experiences of gender injustice during her career. “You know, things being placed on a really high spot that I can’t reach, and people going like, ‘Oh, since this is so hard for you, maybe you should just go choose something easier to do.’”

“But I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever, I’ll just find other ways.’ If this thing is too heavy for me to move, I’ll ask someone else to help with me. I have no shame in asking for help. If it’s too high for me, I’ll find a stool, find a chair and step on it. You know, just give myself more tools to get the job done.”

Besides this go-getter mentality, Shangri-La also played a pivotal role in her career, with Tam drawing from the brand’s ethos of hospitality from the heart even today. “After graduation, my first official job was at Shangri-La Toronto,” she says. “And when we first started, we were taught the way of bespoke service to the guests – how as a collection we can give the guests the best experience when they walk through our hotel door.”

DeAille Tam in the kitchen

“One of the smallest details that I’ve learned when I was working at Shangri-La was that every label on the ingredient containers had to be hand cut with scissors for the most perfect shape. It cannot be hand ripped, because they said you never know who will walk through the kitchen and you want to show them the best of you. So now in my restaurant, the first thing I teach my staff is to make sure you scissor cut the label. Don’t ever let me see you hand rip it!”

It’s no surprise then, that Tam would eventually find herself come a full circle with their #WithHeart campaign. Marking the brand’s 50th anniversary, the campaign features six Asian “culture makers” in a series of short films that honour the core value that have driven the brand’s evolution – wholeheartedness – a common thread between the two.

“Another big part was the theme of this campaign: With heart. It’s very close to what we do right now – serving guests something that I feel connected to and then giving that connection to them. Everything came almost like a coincidence, but also, it’s kind of meant to be, so there was no reason for me to turn this amazing collaboration down.”

When asked for advice for aspiring young chefs, Tam’s response is simple: “Don’t let failure make you give up on something too easily…”

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