Asia’s Best Female Chef 2014
Taiwanese born, French trained chef, Lanshu Chen is describing her favourite meal to eat off duty: “Yaki soba. It’s a childhood memory – my favourite dish from my mother. It accompanied me many times when I stayed up late studying.”
The yaki soba-fuelled late nights and hard work have paid off. At 33 years old, not only is Chen owner and head chef of Le Mout, a fine dining, Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan, she has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef.
“Growing up in Taiwan, food has always been an integral part of my heritage,” says Chen who was presented with the title, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, at the second Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards at the Capella hotel in Singapore in February 2014.
“From an early age I appreciated the pleasures that derive from preparing and sharing meals.”
Chen recalls a childhood of her aunts – all fantastic cooks – constantly in the kitchen, whipping up Taiwanese and Chinese dishes and how she read cookbooks for fun. But her route to food stardom was not a straightforward one. Unusually for a chef, Chen headed to university where she chose to study languages and literature but afterwards she left Taiwan for France to train in patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
“I used to cook Taiwanese dishes and Chinese cuisine when I as a child, then I fell in love with making pastry when I was in high school,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a professional chef then but I committed to spending two years exploring my interest in cooking overseas, just to see if I could make it.”
The two years turned into four including 12 months at the professional cooking school ESCF-Ferrandi during which time Chen experienced an about turn on her career choice. “After I’d finished the course at Le Cordon Bleu I realised I loved cooking. I devoted myself to learning about the French culinary world. By my fourth year in Paris, I was planning to open my own restaurants.”
Following a stage at The French Laundry in the US, Chen moved back to her native country and opened Le Mout in 2008 with the aim of serving the best French food in Taiwan. “When I returned to Taiwan and visited the French restaurants, they didn’t match my expectations,” she says.
“I wanted to introduce authentic French cuisine but add my own interpretation. I found there are many special ingredients in Taiwan that I could use. I use those ingredients with French techniques and sometimes I combine them with luxury produce from other countries as well.”
Examples include Oyster and Pearls, a dish adapted from one by Thomas Keller at The French Laundry with a nod to Bubble Tea. “Here we soak our tapioca – you know, from the pearl milk tea in Taiwan – in Chinese bacon stock overnight and we add Sichuan pepper. The oyster is lightly coated in lemon butter to draw out the natural sweetness. So we use a very French way to cook, using a combination of French and Taiwanese ingredients.”
Chen is clearly proud of the bounty of local Taiwanese produce citing eggs from the Silki breed of hens, sprouts from the Angelica tree and line-caught wild Amadai fish from Taiwan’s North-eastern coastline. She particularly enjoys cooking with vegetables and seafood; “There’s a large variety of vegetables and seafood in Taiwan, giving me a lot of opportunity to be creative.”
Le Mout’s menu changes around every six weeks according to the availability of ingredients. While she shies aways from naming a signature dish (”I think a signature dish needs to recognised by others, not claimed by myself”) she does have some personal favourites such as mustard leaves fermented in the traditional Taiwanese method then wrapped around a whole, de-boned pigeon stuffed with truffled pearl barley.
“In Taiwan, or even China, no one sees being a cook as a dream job,” says Chen which may give some clue as to why she did not want to be a professional chef while growing up. “I, however, think it is cool to be a chef. It allows me to share my feelings, passion and memories through the food I make.”
Chen thinks physical inferiority to men may be the reason that women are not equally represented in professional kitchens but adds: “being a professional cook in a restaurant is to devote all your time to this career. You have to be very determined to make this commitment.”
Her view compounds the widespread industry belief that the unsociable hours and the physical consequences (burns and knife cut scars are the norm let alone the deathly pallor of people who rarely see day light) have traditionally put women off entering the profession. Those that do, tend to stay in patisserie unlike Chen who says: “For me cuisine is a place to explore the ultimate possibility of flavours and textures. I prefer to be able to do everything not to focus only on the sweet part.”
And she credits her mentor Jean-Francois Piege whom she interned for at the Hotel De Crillon in Paris as the catalyst for that decision: “He treats food like an artist would crafting an art piece. After seeing him at work I made the decision to move from pastry making to French cuisine.”
With noticeably fewer women than men in the industry, William Drew, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants spokesman, says the Best Female Chef award is needed. “We believe that shining the spotlight on a female chef will highlight their success in what remains largely a man’s world. Celebrating talented women in this profession is important as the perception of the cheffing industry is still quite macho,” he says.
On the positive side, Chen thinks the advantage of being a rare female in the professional arena is that “it’s easier to be seen in the kitchen.” She says the woman chef she admires most in the world is Anne-Sophie Pic of the three Michelin starred Maison Pic in France and Beau-Rivage Palace hotel, Switzerland, but that she hasn’t had a chance to try the food of many female chefs in Asia.
As for up and coming young women she says: “I don’t have any advice to female chefs in particular however I can share what I learn from the kitchen.” Namely to respect yourself, never to waste food and to present food in the best way possible.
One thing that’s fairly certain is that Chen can look forward to an increased interest in her restaurant as a result of the award. Inaugural Asia’s Best Female Chef Duongporn “Bo” Songvisawa who co—owns Bo.lan in Bangkok says: “Not only did we see an increase in the number of guests, but the type of diners changed. They had read about our restaurant and came in more knowledgeable. Our guests now ask questions about the ingredients, how we source our products and the cooking techniques.”
Chen is remaining grounded about the changes the award may bring. “Maybe the guests will come with higher expectations?” she muses. “But it won’t change me too much. I am still looking for ways of being better.”