Chef Vicky Cheng of VEA on his New Chinese Restaurant Wing and Demystifying Fusion Food
After two successful decades cooking French haute cuisine, Hong Kong native Vicky Cheng recently decided to venture into Chinese cooking. For Cheng, who’s behind the acclaimed French-Chinese one-Michelin-star VEA, opening Wing represents a watershed moment in his career as a Western-trained local chef in the city.
I meet him in one of the stylish private rooms of Wing, which opened in the spring on the 29th floor of a new building in Central, where we discuss the first steps of his career as a young chef who was trying to find his identity, and what prompted him to open Wing.
Tell us about your new restaurant, Wing.
In a nutshell, it’s a contemporary Chinese restaurant. We use modern techniques and luxurious ingredients. What’s special about it, perhaps, is that I’ve never studied or cooked Chinese food before. Over the past few years at VEA, I’ve gained a lot of interest in Chinese cuisine – even though I’ve been cooking for 20 years, it’s always been French. My interest in Chinese cuisine grew to the point where I really wanted to open a Chinese restaurant. The food at Wing is cooked by me and my team. We could say that’s reinterpreted from the point of view
of Western-trained chefs.
Does the name have any particular meaning?
Wing is the middle character of my Chinese name. It means eternity. It’s also the only word that ever meant enough for me to tattoo it on my body.
Does this represent a new phase in your evolution as a chef?
Yes, absolutely. I came back to Hong Kong 10 years ago and I was cooking French food. Soon after, my concept changed to Chinese-French. Specifically Chinese and specifically French, no Japanese or Italian influences. I’d like to say that it was a breakthrough for me, to find
my niche, to find my uniqueness and to be able to identify my own personality and cooking style by incorporating luxurious Chinese ingredients, particularly dried seafood, into French cooking techniques, plating and taste.
What we do at Wing, however, has a lot to do with how we present the food and how you’d like the guests to eat it. It’s very important that it’s done in the most professional and authentic way. Chinese food should look like Chinese food.
Even though both Wing and VEA are my restaurants, you should also be able to tell just by looking at a dish, without the list of ingredients, where it belongs. For me, that’s quite important. At first, when I came back, I wouldn’t dare touch Chinese cuisine. There was no way, if you asked me 11 years ago, that I thought I could open a Chinese restaurant one day. It’s actually funny. Back then, somebody approached me to open a Chinese restaurant and I turned it down. I said, “No way. I don’t have enough knowledge and I don’t have enough experience.” I believe it’s a combination of opportunity, timing and just patience. It takes a lot to be able to cook Chinese food in a city that’s well known – perhaps most well known – for its Chinese cuisine.
In the past 10 years, it’s been all about cooking, learning and researching as much as possible to be able to do the things I’m doing now.
In a contemporary restaurant, how do you find the balance between innovation and honouring the traditions?
For me it’s quite straightforward. If you want to innovate, you must learn the tradition. First, you must understand why it’s been done in a certain way for hundreds of years before you even try to change it. I don’t believe anyone can change something to make it better unless they understand it profoundly. I can think of a million things to do and to change, but I will not, unless I understand how to cook the traditional version of a dish first. This is a rule I live by.
Do you focus on any regional Chinese cuisine?
I don’t focus on any particular region because I was never mentored by a Chinese chef cooking specific dishes. The only thing I can say is that I cook my Chinese food. Things are on the menu because I think they taste good, and because I’m proud of them and want to share them with guests.
My mother is Shanghainese. I was born in Hong Kong and surrounded by Cantonese influences. So perhaps these are the traditions that are a little bit more influential to me. At the same time, I love Sichuan and many other regional cuisines. I don’t want to restrict myself with what I can or cannot do.
Going back to my roots is also very important to me. When I came back to Hong Kong after working and living abroad, I hadn’t been back since I’d left basically, which was when I was very young. It’s meaningful for me to use my new set of skills and incorporate them into Hong Kong’s culinary culture and memories.
Is it an oversimplification to call your food at VEA “fusion’? Chefs often hate this term.
I don’t think fusion is the wrong word. VEA is absolutely fusion. We combine French and Chinese elements – that’s
the definition of fusion. I’m not, not against the term. If you’d asked me or any other chef 10 or 15 years ago, you probably would have offended me. But I can tell you right now that my food is absolutely fusion, in the right way. We use the best ingredients from both cuisines and we elevate them.
Wing, of course, isn’t fusion at all. It is absolutely Chinese. You could say, however, that it’s Chinese fusion in the sense that we’re not restricted to any regional type of cuisine in China.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Yes. I grew up watching cartoons and the Food Network, the only two channels I ever watched. I was just very, very interested in cooking from the beginning. It was a form of entertainment for me, but being a chef wasn’t as glamorous as it is nowadays. My family wasn’t supportive of it and my mom was literally the only person who believed me from the beginning. This actually gave me the motivation to be the best that I could be. When the whole world is saying you shouldn’t do this and the only person supporting you is your mother, you’ve got to prove the whole world wrong to support her decision. And that’s what I did.