La Vache’s Tony Ferreira tells Adele Wong what the deal is with chefs and tattoos, and how not even good food can save a bad date.
A little background
Antonio Jose Ferreira was born in Hong Kong to a Portuguese father and Chinese mother. The family eventually emigrated to Vancouver, but he came back to Hong Kong 11 years ago to open Zuma. Ferreira went on to head Bistecca, one of Hong Kong’s hottest steakhouses at the time, as well as other steak establishments by Dining Concepts before he joined Black Sheep Restaurants group. Today, he not only runs steak frites powerhouse La Vache, but oversees the entire group’s kitchen operations.
You got started in this industry when you were really young. How’d it all begin?
I was actually 16 at the time, in Vancouver. I got my first industry job washing dishes inside a barbecue restaurant. I just loved it — it was so dynamic, everything was buzzing, I was on my feet. It was just crazy, the camaraderie you have between your cooks, the people shouting, the sounds, the customers laughing, the music — it just entices you. Even though it’s really tiring at the end of the day, you wanna go back again the next day and do it all over.
What brought you back to Hong Kong?
I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada when I was 9. My parents were afraid of the 1997 handover. My parents are still in Canada. My dad would never come back to Hong Kong, he’s happy just mowing his lawn now, driving his car. I loved Vancouver, it was great, but career-wise it was just a little bit lacking in opportunity.
La Vache’s steaks are obviously popular, but let’s talk about the fries. They’re so addictive, like McDonald’s.
Yeah, that’s the benchmark we’re going for. Haha. You think there’s a lot of steak eating at La Vache, well there’s even more French fry eating. Everyday we render a lot of beef fat, and with that we just deep-fry the French fries and it tastes much better than using regular vegetable oil.
You come across as a really on-the-ball kind of guy. Do you ever have off days?
When I’m hungover, those are my really off days, haha. Once I passed the 30-year mark, I’ve become a little bit more career-oriented, but before that it was just… yeah.
Of course, I’m only human. There are times when you get a little bit sore from the stuff you’re doing or when your mind’s a little bit defeated. But then you have to think, you’re not really doing it for yourself but the people who are coming through your restaurant.
And an “on” day?
These guys had such a good time one night and we ended up talking about steak for hours and we had a drink after work. I actually made a friend that night. The next day he came back again with his wife, and he came back the day after, also with his wife. So then his wife starts getting a bit pissed off ‘cuz all she’s eating is fries and steak. I was like, “You better not come back tomorrow. I don’t wanna kill my own business but I don’t wanna kill your relationship either.”
You have some really nice tats on your arm. Is there some sort of connection between chefs and tattoos?
Oh my god, that sounds really hipster-ish. To be fair, I got this even before I became a chef. Tattoos are very personal. One of the relationships between chefs and tattoos I think is, not that they’re cool, but that chefs are kind of sentimental, sensitive and emotional and tattoos are a clear reflection of what you went through in life.
You kinda jot it down on your own permanent notebook. I have tattoos that remind me of my grandfather, I have tattoos that remind me of my faith. I have tattoos that remind me of when I chased for something that I shouldn’t have chased, and in return I lost a little bit of myself. Wow, I sound so poetic.
What makes a memorable meal?
The food has to be good, of course, but the company has to be better. You can have the best meal anywhere and all of a sudden your conversation sucks and there’s like nothing to talk about — this is one of my blind dates by the way. “So, what do you like? Do you like to eat? No?” Okay I dunno what to do now.
Do you ever have vegetarians eating at La Vache?
Yes. We always do what we can to accommodate them but at the same time, it kind of says “steak frites” on the door.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.