After two decades of success in French haute cuisine, Vicky Cheng, originally from Hong Kong, recently decided to dabble in Chinese cuisine. For Cheng, who is the originator of the famous Franco-Chinese VEA one Michelin star, the opening of Wing represents a turning point in his career as a local Western-trained chef in the city.
I meet him in one of Wing’s elegant private lounges, which opened in the spring on the 29th floor of a new building in Central, where we recall the first steps of his career as a young chef who sought to find his identity, and which prompted him to open Wing.
Tell us about your new restaurant, Wing.
In a nutshell, it is a contemporary Chinese restaurant. We use modern techniques and luxurious ingredients. What’s special is maybe I have never studied or cooked Chinese food before. Over the past few years at VEA, I have become very interested in Chinese cuisine – even though I have been cooking for 20 years, it has always been French. My interest in Chinese food grew to the point where I really wanted to open a Chinese restaurant. The food at Wing is prepared by me and my team. You could say it’s reinterpreted from the point of view
of chefs trained in the West.
Does the name have a special meaning?
Wing is the central 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 step in your evolution as a chef?
Absolutely yes. I came back to Hong Kong 10 years ago and I was cooking French dishes. Soon after, my concept changed to Chinese-French. Specifically Chinese and specifically French, no Japanese or Italian influences. I’d like to say 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, especially dried seafood, into French cooking techniques, dressing and taste .
What we do at Wing, however, has a lot to do with how we present food and how you would like guests to eat it. It is very important that this is done in the most professional and genuine manner. Chinese food should be like Chinese food.
Even though Wing and VEA are both my restaurants, you should also be able to tell just by looking at a dish, without the ingredient list, what it belongs to. For me, this is quite important. At first, when I returned, I dared not touch Chinese cuisine. There was no way, if you asked me 11 years ago, that I thought I could open a Chinese restaurant someday. It’s actually funny. At the time, someone approached me to open a Chinese restaurant and I refused. I said, “No way. I don’t have enough knowledge and I don’t have enough experience. I think it’s a combination of opportunity, timing and just patience. It takes it. a lot to be able to cook Chinese food in a city well known – perhaps the most famous – for its Chinese cuisine.
For the past 10 years, it was all about cooking, learning and researching as much as possible so that I could do the things I do now.
In a contemporary restaurant, how do you strike a balance between innovation and respect for traditions?
For me it is quite simple. If you want to innovate, you have to learn the tradition. First of all, you need to 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 that anyone can change something to improve it if they don’t understand it deeply. I can think of a million things to do and change, but I won’t, unless I understand how to cook the traditional version of a dish first. It’s a rule that I live by.
Do you focus on regional Chinese cuisine?
I do not focus on a particular region because I have never been supervised by a Chinese chef preparing 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 am proud of them and want to share them with the guests.
My mother is from Shanghai. I was born in Hong Kong and surrounded by Cantonese influences. So maybe it’s the traditions that are a little more influential for me. At the same time, I like Sichuan and many other regional cuisines. I don’t want to restrict myself to what I can or cannot do.
Getting 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 come back since I basically left it, that was when I was very young. It is important for me to use my new skills and to integrate them into the culture and culinary memories of Hong Kong.
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 merger. I am not, not against the term. If you had asked me or any other boss 10 or 15 years ago, you probably would have offended me. But I can tell you right away that my food is absolutely fusion, in a good way. We use the best ingredients from both cuisines and we breed them.
Wing, of course, is not fusion at all. It is absolutely Chinese. You could say, however, that this is Chinese fusion in the sense that we are not limited to any type of regional cuisine in China.
Have you always wanted to be a chef?
Yes. I grew up watching cartoons and the Food Network, the only two channels I have ever watched. I was just very, very interested in cooking from the start. It was a form of entertainment for me, but being a chef was not as glamorous as it is today. My family was not in favor of it and my mom was literally the only person to believe me from the start. It actually gave me the motivation to be the best I could be. When the whole world says you shouldn’t do this and the only person supporting you is your mother, you have to prove the whole world wrong to support their decision. And that’s what I did.