A Woman’s Place Is… Front and Center

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Great chefs reinvent their childhood favorites for a good cause.

Each year since 2013 when the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant list was created, the organizers of the closely watched prize have also shone the spotlight on an outstanding woman chef in Asia. On March 4, just ahead of International Women’s Day, all five recipients of title of Asia’s Best Female Chef were reunited in Manila for an exclusive benefit that raised over US$800,000 to build four National Centers for Children with Disabilities across the Philippines.

Each of the previous holders of the title volunteered her time to design and cook a canapé served with predinner drinks as well as a dinner course, all inspired by a childhood memory. We asked each chef to talk about the dishes she served.

For her canapé, Chef Bo Songvisava of Bangkok’s Bo.lan made a Rice Cracker with Minced Pork and Prawn wrapped in Pickled Mustard Green Leaves, a dish that reminded her of trips to the market with her parents. “I can still hear the bite of the rice-cracker crunchiness,” she said. Sweet, salty, nutty and sour, “it is one of many dishes that introduced me to the balance of flavor and texture of Thai food.”

Chef Margarita Forés made Piaya and Goose Liver Inasal, highlighting local Filipino ingredients. She paired piaya, a rustic cracker that was a childhood favorite of hers with a more grown-up marinated goose liver, and garnished the morsel with soured guava and santol fruits to make atchara, a local pickle not unlike acar.

Pork Terrine, Truffle Mayonnaise and Fines Herbes was Taiwanese Chef Lanshu Chen’s dressed-up nod to her days training to be a chef in Paris. “I didn’t have much time to prepare dinner after the school and restaurant work so I would go to the supermarket to buy packaged pork terrine and salad for dinner,” she recalled fondly.

Hong Kong Chef Vicky Lau made Tomato Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Iberico Ham. “Like a lot of kids, I was obsessed with all things micro. Naturally I had an immediate attraction toward micro tomatoes from Japan.” She put them in an appetizer that reminded her of the tomato soups of her childhood.

Opening the sit-down dinner, Chef Bo, who took home the first ever Asia’s Best Female chef trophy in 2013, chose to serve a starter of three bite-sized dishes. Her sticky rice dumplings with mung beans and crispy pancakes are common street food snacks, while mild Chicken Paenang is often a popular dish with Thai children before they move on to more robust curries. “These three items are what I used to snack on. They are very flavorsome but gentle in spices [and were] a good introduction to more intense flavors.”

Gaita, as Chef Forés is called by all who know her, heads a successful catering business and a string of restaurants in Manila including her flagship Grace Park. Cooking on her home court, she served Pan-Roasted White Marlin with a Guinataan of Blue Crab, Corn and Bamboo Shoots for the fish course. “This coconut milk braised dish [guinataan] was nearly always a staple at meals growing up in our very Negrense household,” she said, making a reference to her native island of Negros about 800 km south of the capital. “I also chose this because crab is one of my most favorite ingredients.” She champions local ingredients like the marlin from Bohol and local techniques like smoking coconuts before extracting the coconut cream, a process that she first observed in Mindanao.

Inspired by the heady stew her grandfather would cook for Chinese New Year, Chef Lanshu of Le Moût in the city of Taichung on Taiwan’s west coast replaced the traditional cured duck with beef and served Wagyu Tenderloin, Mushrooms and Mustard Greens and Rice. “The vivid bitterness mixed with a smoky duck fragrance is a symbol of a delicious family gathering.” The rare beef gives a modern twist while the soft rice and greens act as a sauce that binds the dish.

Chef Lau told the story of her dessert surrounded by builders putting the finishing touches on her newly relocated Tate Dining Room and Bar in Hong Kong. What she called Honey Lemon Candy was “inspired by a local candy that I had when I was young that I was obsessed with.” Her sophisticated dessert made with local Shatin honey was a lemon mousse with explosive pop rock sweets and ice cream. “I used to save up my money to buy this candy at the shop during break time at school.”

And what childhood memory would 2017’s newly minted Best Female Chef May Chow, who has opened two successful Little Bao restaurants, one in Hong Kong and one in Bangkok, have cooked? “I would do a congee-inspired dish and make the congee into a sauce,” she mused, without missing a beat. “Congee is something I grew up with, and as a kid I also loved the crullers, like a Chinese donut. It was something you could look forward to especially when the mornings were cold.” Who knows? Maybe a version of the dish will appear on the menu of Happy Paradise, her latest Hong Kong venture.

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All the chefs agree that winning the distinction has given them a platform to address a variety of subjects close to their hearts, like children’s disabilities at the UNICEF Children’s Ball, but activist chef Bo Songvisava who is also known for her stance on the environment and sustainability perhaps summed up best how the award has empowered them. “I want to talk to the world about so many things, I can’t just sit down and be quiet.” With the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef she feels that “more people sit up and listen.”

 

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Written by FoodieS Photographs by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan April 30, 2017.

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