LA Exclusive: Asia's Best Female Chef DeAille Tam Shares Amuse-Bouche On Michelin-Star Fine Dining - LA Lives

Anyone can have the recipe for success, but strong willpower is a rare ingredient.

Everything is in its right place in the kitchen of seasoned culinarian DeAille Tam.

READ ALSO: Obscura’s DeAille Tam Is Awarded As Asia’s Best Female Chef 2021

Between receiving the prestigious title of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2021 and becoming the first woman in Mainland China to earn a Michelin star in 2018, compliments sent to this chef have been overwhelming.

Now, her latest passion project, the Shanghai fine-dining destination Obscura, has been recognized with its first Michelin star just a year after it opened in November 2020.

The fixture located within the Tang Xiang Cultural Space stands out from the abundance of establishments in the city offering Western food or Cantonese, Shanghainese, and other Chinese cuisines.

Not fond of fitting into just one category, Obscura can serve anything from Cantonese roast pork disguised as ice cream, to baozi with Brittany blue lobster, fish maw, and salted mustard.

In fact, Obscura is the lone location listed in the Michelin Guide Shanghai 2022’s “innovative” cuisine type among restaurants with one or two Michelin stars, old and new.

It shares this distinction with Shanghai’s only two Michelin 3-star restaurants, Ultraviolet and Taian Table, which opened in 2012 and 2016, respectively.

This is why the success of Tam and her business comes as no surprise to anyone. After all, the cream always rises to the top.

But the journey upward has not always been so smooth.

Tough Nut To Crack

“Actually, this first year has so many ups and downs. It’s unbelievable. But more ups than downs,” Tam breaks the bread with Lifestyle Asia.

She feels fortunate to have achieved many significant recognitions globally for her profession, thanking everyone who has supported her.

Obscura’s reimagined take on “suan cai yu”

Her new venture also got her to connect with a lot of old and new suppliers making some of the best ingredients in China.

Compounded by the pandemic, sourcing ingredients can be especially difficult. But Tam was able to find more local produce that before was oftentimes exported.

Dragon Well Shrimp

A mutually beneficial setup was formed: Obscura became an outlet to promote and sell ingredients, which in turn made their dishes “taste delicious and with a lot of great stories.”

“Every day, I wake up feeling just excited about what’s gonna come through my door, what I get to make, what kind of customers I get to meet… It’s been wonderful,” Tam reflects.

She gave credit to her team at Obscura for pulling through such a tough time the past year, and with a Michelin star to boast.

“We started the restaurant from scratch and we really pushed and moved forward. Within such a short time, we were able to achieve this recognition… I cannot put into words how relieved I am,” the owner sighs.

At the time, the thought of achievement seemed impossible to them as they toiled in the kitchen.

“Day after day, sometimes you do get stuck on ideas, you hit walls,” Tam admits.

Lotus Baked Pigeon

“Guests are not accepting some of the creations you’re making or have doubts about the things you put on their plate. But we really try with our best effort to promote and educate the public about the importance of local ingredients, produce that are made within close proximity.” 

Even their hits, however, are sometimes treated as misses, especially by guests with different expectations like imported ingredients. Cancellation of reservations has also proven to be a logistical challenge since some dishes require planning and preparation days in advance.

Macerated peaches with smoked yogurt and Moutai sorbet

Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop Obscura from working around limitations and thinking outside the box. They continue to source local food items like caviar, truffles, and seafood.

“At the end of the day, I personally, actually, don’t like to remember failure as ‘failure’ that much. I usually take it as an opportunity to learn and grow from it,” Tam expresses.

Rather than being defeated, she regards daily stressors as passing events that are all part of the job.

Cream of the crop

“But more importantly is that this year, I have a place where I really get to spend time and put a lot of my ideas that I gathered from traveling in China—in terms of the food and the culture and the many elements that I felt were very important to share with as many people as I can—through food, through whatever I put on the plate,” the chef emphasizes.

Fish maw

Usually, the Obscura team prepares one tasting menu of dishes inspired by China’s many locations. This is adjusted based on ingredients and seasonal flavor profiles, with the menu updated monthly to change up one or two dishes.

Food is then served on the “Chef’s Table,” which allows guests to sit around the kitchen, interact with the staff, and spectate the process during the entire meal.

“Because it’s so important nowadays…to have the opportunity to really talk to the guests and communicate with them. Not just telling them what is on the dish but really telling them why we do certain things, why we choose ingredients, what was the starting point of the entire concept,” Tam explains.

Customers are also able to see upfront how Obscura differs from traditional kitchen setups. 

Members of the team, according to Tam, are viewed as equals who are free to voice out their thoughts and feelings.

“Every single dish we do, our staff tastes. We let them give us comments. We let them tell us what they feel about it. It’s an open conversation between everyone about the things that we do,” Tam celebrates.

“It’s not like a very traditional way where the chef makes something and I just tell you how to reproduce it. It’s not such a case in our place. Our restaurant is an open forum. Everyone is free to tell us what they feel.”

Having a team with diverse backgrounds is particularly helpful in idea generation since activities like traveling, which feeds inspiration to Tam, are a lot more difficult now due to pandemic restrictions. In some cases, even the parents of their staff suggest ingredients in season or of interest.

“We’re constantly throwing ideas at each other. We’re talking about just normal day-to-day things and let that also be a part of realizing what it is we need to make this tradition and innovation come together,” she says.

Bigger fish to fry

The upside is that inspiration can come from anywhere, especially since food is universal.

Baozi with Brittany blue lobster, fish maw, and salted mustard

“I don’t believe that food belongs to any single body of time or culture. I think food is definitely a shared thing. It’s a shared experience. It’s a shared knowledge to everyone all around the world,” Tam elucidates.

The most important takeaway from her unique experience is to savor life by pursuing happiness. 

“My next goal in life or next thing that I want in the future…it doesn’t seem so important to me as more to how we can live a happier, more fulfilling life every single day and not regret every moment that we are alive and awake,” she realizes, adding that many families worldwide are going through a difficult time.

Although Tam acknowledges her career’s positive trajectory, events in her personal life have reminded her that our time on Earth is only temporary and that one must make the most of it.

Chuan Chuan

“I hope that everyone can just be happy. That’s the most simple thing I want. And that’s the only thing I want even as a career aspect. Just be happy and be satisfied that we still have food, we still have friends and family around us,” she concludes.

For now, she’s more than satisfied in her profession with validation pouring in from those she respects most.

“[Obscura’s] sophisticated vision interprets traditionally Chinese gustatory memories with Western techniques and a touch of whimsy,” the Michelin Guide wrote favorably of the restaurant.

Hunan Bacon & Pepper

“Its chiaroscuro ring logo connotes completeness and the complementary relationship of the chef duo who traveled around China for a whole year to mull over every little detail of each course on their prix-fixe seasonal menu.”

This refers to the yearlong culinary research trip across China embarked upon by Tam and her life partner and co-chef, Simon Wong, preceding their restaurant business.

But prior to the trip, long before the days of Obscura, her journey to the top started out with humble beginnings.

Food for thought

“I grew up in the family of Shangri-La. I worked in Shangri-La as one of my first official jobs after my graduation in culinary school back in Canada,” Tam reveals.

It only felt natural to share her life story in the ​​new series “From Asia with Heart” by Shangri-La Hotel & Resorts, where it all began.

The series of short films and articles was created through a collaboration between the luxury hotel and resort company and Tam, alongside other culture makers representing Asian art, design, fashion, food, and music on the world stage. Shangri-La’s latest #WithHeart campaign is its way of commemorating its 50th anniversary in the region.

In the short film featuring Tam, she narrated her leap as an engineering student to become an apprentice of the kitchen.

“At that time it was all about exploring possibilities. It’s the same with cooking. There are the ingredients, the techniques. For me, they’re all just tools for exploring,” the executive chef recounts in the film.

Since then, she has gone on to explore the world as part of her lifelong culinary education.

I always say Shangri-La blood is in me,” Tam recalls. “Everything that I’ve learned in the past is still with me today and has only made me better and continue forward.”

She continues to apply an important business lesson from her former employer.

“One of the most important things that Shangri-La taught me before is the aspect of treating every single guest with the most passion you have from within. From the heart. Talk to the guests, talk to your colleagues, talk to everyone within the company as if they were your family.”

Photos by Obscura courtesy of The Eon Group

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