Hong Kong chef May Chow was tapped to receive the title of this year's Asia's Best Female Chef from the organisers of the prestigious Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, but she's the first to say that it's not her technique in the kitchen that sets her apart. “I am never going to be an amazing chef because I don’t look at restaurants just from a kitchen perspective,” she remarks candidly. “I don't think I'll ever be that chef (who brags), 'I’m the fastest person to portion out this fish. Check me out'. Or the Japanese chef who spends 10 years perfecting one dish.”
“I’ve realised more and more what kind of person I want to be,” she says. Her strengths lie in seeing the big picture. “I love planning, I love music, I love service, I love food, I curate menus.”
A big part of her vision is fostering creativity and ambition in others – two things she says traditional Chinese culture doesn't encourage. Chefs should “dare to dream,” she says emphatically. Five years ago, when she started working at Bo Innovation, Alvin Leung's avant-garde Hong Kong restaurant, and began talking to the other chefs there, she realised that “their highest dream was to be a sous chef.” They never imagined they could rise beyond that. “And the executive chef was always (going to be) an expat.” It was even a problem when dating or making friends. “That’s such a low career path,” she jokes. Chow, of course, has shown that being a chef is anything but.
“When I said that I wanted to be executive chef and have my own restaurant,” the sceptics were dismissive. “'Yeah, good luck,'” was a constant refrain, but she refused to give in to the naysayers. Bo Innovation was proof she could make her dream a reality. “I looked at (Leung) as a business owner and I knew that I wanted to open a restaurant.”
She eventually moved on to Yardbird, and though she only spent three months in Canadian Matt Abergel's kitchen – where by her own admission she didn't learn anything about cooking – the impression he left was long-lasting. Chow found a way to articulate her own culinary philosophy that blends fun, music and gastronomy. Abergel told her she needed her own kitchen. A spot in the farmers' market in Hong Kong's Quarry Bay that was originally offered to him became an opportunity for her to test the waters.
She decided to serve soft steamed buns filled with flavourful ingredients assembled like a burger. David Chang's Momofuku was serving them in New York but the dish didn't yet have much traction in Asia. Hers sold out in minutes. The next week she doubled production and sold out again. Little Bao, a 20-seat, no-reservations eatery serving shared dishes, cocktails and of course, her signature bao, opened a few short months later in the heart of Soho, Hong Kong's bustling nightlife district, and diners came in droves.
Now at the age of 32, barely three years after opening her first restaurant, Chow has her eyes set firmly on the future. Last year, she opened a second Little Bao in the equally trendy Thonglor area in Bangkok, and has just opened the doors to Happy Paradise, a stone's throw from the original Little Bao, an all-encompassing venue that offers sophisticated food along with eclectic DJ sets and loads of atmosphere. She is also a partner in Second Draft, which highlights Hong Kong's craft beer scene and the food of her former head chef Man Chu Yeung. She is constantly pushing her staff to strive for more, so giving him a showcase for his talents was a natural progression.
Chow is conscious of being a role model. “My role is paving the way for chefs, especially local chefs, to have the capacity to be here in five years, 10 years,” she says softly, touching the table in front of her. “Not because I’m bringing them. Because they deserve it on their own.”
Chow also reflects on being named Asia’s Best Female Chef. “The previous winners won at a later stage in their life and I won very early, (but) I don’t think that Little Bao is what defines me. It's just my first restaurant.” She is grateful for the recognition “but I think my vision will bring me much further, and in 10 years, it’ll be easier to see what I’ve done. It’s really hard to convince people where you want to be next because all they can see is what you are now.” If where she is now is anything to go by, Chow's future certainly looks bright.