Five Minutes with...Chef Vicky Cheng


Acclaimed Hong Kong-born chef Vicky Cheng has teamed up with mixology maestro Antonio Lai to create VEA, an innovative open-kitchen concept that pairs fine-dining with imaginative cocktails. He talks to NecesCity about the challenges of cocktail and food pairing, his culinary influences, and the difficulties of incorporating cod fish sperm into his dishes.

How did you discover your passion for cooking? Do you come from a culinary family?
At the very young age of 12, I knew I was interested in cooking. Instead of cartoons, I found myself watching cooking shows. Then two years later, an opportunity came up for me to work in a restaurant, and so I did. My family were all great home cooks; my uncle used to be a Chinese dim sum master, but stopped cooking a long, long time ago, so I wouldn’t say I came from a culinary family background


What inspired you to team up with mixologist Antonio Lai to create VEA?
I wanted to build something different in Hong Kong; I wanted to have something that was going to make a difference, and to aim for the best. Having cocktail pairing in a fine dining establishment is not something often seen in Hong Kong so we both knew it was going to be a challenge.


Your new concept resembles a fine-dining private kitchen that’s gone legit. Who is the perfect VEA diner?
Guests who appreciate fine food, fine wines, and creative cocktails. We try our best to be very personal. I didn’t build VEA to be a stuffy restaurant with uptight servers; I built it so our guests can feel that we care, and that we spend time thinking how we can make their next three hours with us the most comfortable.


How difficult has it been to create the cocktail pairing menu?
It definitely is a challenge, unlike wine pairing, which can be a little more forgiving. Cocktails can be very good or they can be a disaster. Having Antonio, one of the best mixologists in the world, is a plus as he can make amazing drinks, but the challenge here is to make an amazing drink that compliments my food. Whenever I create a dish, I will give Antonio 2-3 ingredients that I know could be incorporated into the dish. The result is he is forced to restrict his flavors around those ingredients, so it’s definitely a challenge.


What do you consider is the most challenging dish on the current VEA menu? Do you have a favourite?
Chinese techniques are very difficult for me, as I have been cooking French all my life. The biggest challenge currently on the menu would be the Chinese fried dough (or Chinese fried donut) often eaten in congee shops. I spent many mornings at 4am going to a local congee shop just to learn the techniques behind these you zha gui breadsticks. The next challenge is practicing xiao long bao, as we are always trying to push our limits.


You’ve worked with several leading chefs, including Daniel Boulud and Jason Bangerter. Which had the most influence on your culinary style?
I would say all, and perhaps not even only the [famous] chefs, but also the sous chefs, the chefs de cuisine, the executive chefs, and all of the talented cooks I had a chance to work with. My style is a combination of techniques from all of my mentors, blended together with my roots.



How does the Hong Kong dining scene compare to those of other major cities in the region? What’s missing?
Hong Kong is different; I would say it has its own character, and its own trends, thanks to so many talents, some local, some not. I don’t think anything is necessarily missing. Hong Kong is an amazing food city and has so much to offer, so if anything is missing, perhaps it's the exposure of Hong Kong to the rest of the world. Chinese food is amazing and I am sure you will see more and more western chefs being interested in Chinese techniques.


What are the major challenges of an open kitchen concept like VEA? Do you have to catch yourself from yelling the odd expletive?
Of course, it is normal to have a bit of yelling once in a while; let’s face it, it's an intense place to work in. Fortunately I have a very strong team and seldom do I really have to yell. When it is necessary, we try to do it quietly; no guest wants to see this. At the end, we are one happy team, with one dream.


Is there a signature dish that’s followed you through your career?
There is a “tuna, espalette, uni, burnt cucumber jelly” and an “egg, truffle, caviar, Parmesan” dish that generally never changes here at VEA. I had a similar version of it at Liberty Private Works but as a chef, I do not want to do something I have done before, so many guests would come in and get excited to know that this dish is still on my menu, but be pleasantly surprised when it arrives, as it is presented differently, with similar ingredients but with different techniques.


What are the ingredients you’re experimenting with at the moment? Any hidden gems uncovered?
Shirako, a cod fish sperm sack from Japan, is something which we are experimenting with as it is in season at the moment. We are also experimenting with a dish of local stewed lamb belly, a common winter dish in Hong Kong, but of course, a fine version of it.


What’s the greatest flavor combination you’ve discovered?
Chinese salted duck egg is one of my favourite ingredients to use in desserts.


Is there one rule you try to impart on young chefs working in your kitchen?
Never waste anything. Prior to opening VEA, I rented out a small piece of farm land in Yuen Long. The purpose was to grow with the kitchen team, let everyone learn and realize, including myself, where our food comes from and how much hard work goes into even a piece of carrot, the fish that died to feed us, or the life of a turnip that we pulled out of the ground. My cooking philosophy, which we write in our employee’s hand book, is anything that is edible can be turned into something beautiful. If something lost its life for us, then use every part of it. Coming from a Michelin restaurant background, we often cut with rulers and created perfect circles; this is why you will often see purees on my plates, because perfect cuts means trimmings.


Condemned men can be judged on their last meal – what would yours be?
My grandma’s Shanghai “lion’s head” (large pork meatballs stewed with vegetables); for 30 years I have been eating this. She came back to Hong Kong from New York this year, and asked if there is anything I wanted to eat. Immediately this was the dish I asked for.


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