Chef Christine Lau
Uncovering the Heroes Making a Difference Through Food - SNACC's Food Hero Series
Where did you grow up?
Where do you live now?
What do you do currently for work?
Currently, I'm focusing on defining what I'm cooking next. I'm in the early stages of developing a popup series meets a food conference meets a documentary. I'm also doing some consulting & traveling doing as many pop-ups as I can.
How has your background and upbringing influenced your approach to food and cooking?
So, I am an American born Chinese & identify as Chinese American. How does that influence my approach to food? First, I was exposed to an immense amount of Cantonese food at an early age so those flavors run through my blood. However, contrary to what some may think, I’m not a classically trained Chinese chef. I cooked Italian food for the first 10 years of my career so if I had to say I'm trained in something, it's Italian! What’s amazing is as the world has changed, there's finally an audience that's interested in eating global flavors. I can finally take inspiration from what is my life. My background is more than just the Cantonese side, it's the childhood of eating perfectly wrapped burritos & bowls of pho larger than my head in Oakland, CA, it's the adult years in New York City filled with late nights eating halal cart food or in Koreatown after work, it's the bowls & bowls & bowls of noodles I've eaten on the streets all over Asia. These experiences are what influence my food, but what you'll see that ties all of it together are those underlying flavors that run through my blood, the Cantonese.
What is your proudest culinary accomplishment?
Being named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant award in 2022. It really came out of nowhere for us. We weren't expecting it. We were just cranking through the day to day & the nomination came, I was so honored & proud. It meant there were people paying attention to us while the whole world was just trying to survive. We were a restaurant that opened August 2020, in the height of the pandemic. And it meant a lot to share with the staff this honor (even if we didn't make it to the finals). I've never seen people work so hard as they did during the pandemic. And have to continue to pivot from one day to the next, from the constant regulation changes to the pivots we had to make to keep a business a float whether it was monetarily or just having enough staff for the night. That honor was for every person on my staff that dug in, stayed & persevered through that entire roller coaster.
Can you share with us a memorable experience you’ve had in the kitchen or in your career?
When I was a sous chef at Bar Basque, we hosted a super high-profile lunch for everyone & anyone related to Spanish food with 3-Michelin star chef Martin Berasategui. As a sous chef, we were responsible for sourcing all of the ingredients Martin's team would need. There was one ingredient we couldn't figure out. So I had to email Spain & figure out what that last item was. There was an American, from Boston, MA in fact, on their team & she helped me figure it out. She came with the team & we cooked the lunch together - what a memorable experience. Fast forward a few years later, my brother texts me & says do you know a Tracy Chang. Tracy Chang was THAT American in San Sebastian that helped me translate what a purro was from Catalan into English - a leek! Tracy, was in Boston, cooking a ramen popup at my brother's startup company's office. Fast forward a few years later again, Tracy is the proud chef/owner of Pagu in Cambridge, MA. Tracy & I have done numerous events together since & have become great friends. Why am I telling you this story? It's really quite amazing almost 10 years after the Basque lunch, both of us are cooking the food of our experiences. Nowhere 10 years ago, would I have ever thought we would have the platform to intertwine our Cantonese & Taiwanese backgrounds into the years of cooking Italian & Spanish food.
Can you speak to the importance of representation in the culinary industry, both in terms of diversity among chefs and the representation of different cuisines on menus?
Representation in the culinary industry is the key for the future. I'm a true believer that food is the gateway to exposing people to new flavors, ingredients, thoughts - different cultures. And from there we can have larger meaningful conversations about the other, the not me - those conversations are the bridge to bringing people together. If we can find ways to integrate Italian & Japanese flavors or Chinese & Dominican ingredients onto one plate, it's the stepping stone for larger conversations, exposing people to new flavors & ideas, it's bridging the gap between cultures & identifying how many similarities there are amongst us all.
What do you believe is the most pressing issue facing the food industry today, and what role do you see chefs playing in addressing the issue?
How do we make more restaurants financially successful & not merely passion projects? What are the steps that need to happen in the industry for restaurants & food establishments to survive? What can we do about rent prices? Utility prices? Cost of goods? This isn't just for restaurants, this goes down the entire food supply chain. What about not just surviving, but even being profitable, which will lead to paying their staff more than livable wages, access to supplemented benefits, retirement benefits, etc. Can we raise prices? Can we educate people on the true cost of what a bowl of rice should cost for every person who has touched that rice to live a fruitful life? There are so many components that have to work just right for a restaurant to stay open. How can we really think outside the box & not make every part of the food industry - don't forget a completely essential item for all of us to stay alive, so absolutely challenging?
If you want to learn more about this month's Food Hero, follow Chef Christine Lau on Instagram!