Vicky Cheng is the executive chef of Michelin-starred establishment VEA. He dishes on jumping into the deep end and not looking back, as well as what keeps him on his toes at work.
Vicky Cheng was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada. His culinary career took him from the kitchen of Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant in New York City, to the Liberty restaurant group in Hong Kong, where he helmed three restaurants. He is currently head of the kitchen at VEA Restaurant & Lounge, a project by celebrated restaurateur Charlene Dawes in collaboration with mixologist Antonio Lai.
You’ve been in Hong Kong for six years now. What do you make of the F&B scene here?
Well, it’s definitely evolving every day. Even in six days, you’ll find new things. It’s just the nature of Hong Kong. The thing with Hong Kong is: it’s very fast paced, it’s very innovative. People don’t mind taking risks here.
It can be very adventurous. Just the money that gets put into some restaurants and bars — the amounts are super super high. A lot of people don’t mind that — investors don’t mind putting out that kind of money.
I have friends telling me, this restaurant’s really good, this other one is really good, and most of them are new restaurants. And I believe they are very good, I’m sure. It’s always [about the] very trendy, the very new.
What exactly is your vision for VEA?
I think with VEA it’s very specific, it’s not actually just Asian [influences on western food]. A lot of restaurants would do the Asian influence or local influence here in Hong Kong. That’s inevitable, because you’re in Asia, you need to be more into Asian ingredients. Or because the vegetables in Hong Kong are that much fresher than the ones from Europe.
Of course, there are also things you can only get in Europe and not in Hong Kong, but like many chefs you will get inspired by just walking to the wet market. There are some beautiful things that come from Hong Kong. For me though, it’s not only that. I want to highlight what Hong Kong already has, and just reinvent it. When I say Hong Kong influence or Chinese influence, it’s not just taking a local orange and making a dish out of it: it’s actually taking a traditional dish from Hong Kong, or a street snack, or a luxury ingredient like sea cucumber. Whatever its form, I would apply it to a different purpose.
What keeps you on your toes?
When you realize that you don’t know how to recreate a dish, I think that’s very inspiring for a lot of chefs. If you can eat something, and it tastes amazing but you can recreate that, it’s not as mind-blowing as if you sat down, ate it, and you were like, ‘Wow, how do they make that?’ That happens a lot in Cantonese cuisine for me, since I’m no expert here.
What were some challenges you encountered when you moved from North America to Hong Kong?
When I first arrived in Hong Kong at 25, I had never been a manager in my life. I was always in situations where I was asked to be sous chef, but for professional reasons or personal ones, I would end up always turning it down. And then from not ever being a sous chef in my life, I came to Hong Kong and was executive chef of three restaurants. It was an opportunity, and it was a risk. And that was tough. I wasn’t sure if I was really ready, but I did it anyway.
Looking back, I definitely don’t regret any of it. When you jump a step, it’s not that it’s not possible, but it’s that much harder. You have to learn the hard way, and I did.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.