THERE'S A REASON chefs hate that word “fusion”. It's a term that implies lack of rigour, an inability to colour within the lines. It's code, really, for the bastardisation of food. And oh, how some foods have strayed from their origins. Imagine my surprise upon my first trip to Hanoi, after years of USA-brewed pho made by “real Vietnamese people”, that the dark-brown broth so steeped in flavour was a figment of American dreams? Think about the times your out-of-town friends came to Hong Kong requesting har gao, siu mai, char siu bao and…egg rolls?
My respect remains for authenticity, but as a global diner, I've also come to appreciate these gastronomic subcultures. I love a California roll and I've grown to crave a Hong Kong-style “yin yang” for my daily caffeine fix. I see no shame in that, and certainly my stomach has never complained, yet it seems that these intercultural flirtations have often been relegated to the mass market.
Trained in the kitchens of Amber and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Esther Sham has made a culinary career out of bucking this trend. The former model opened her private kitchen, Ta Pantry, in 2008, with a series of menus inspired by different ingredients of the world. The technique is mainly French, but it's a shoot-from-the-hip kind of cuisine that can only be described as “Tata style” (Ta Pantry is named for Sham's nickname, “Tata”). In Le Japonais menu, foie gras is worked into a tamago custard with Asian mushrooms, or a classic Nutella-filled crêpe is stuffed with matcha ice-cream and corn flakes. In L'Indochine, Hokkaido scallop carpaccio is mixed with a green mango curry on a bed of sea urchin crème, while a crabmeat ravioli bathes in lemon-grassscented chicken bouillon.
“I always try what people have never done before,” says Sham. “If it's too common, I want to change it a little bit. I combine different taste and texture elements. And my thinking path is shaped by my arts background [Sham majored in contemporary art at university], very minimal. I always need to strip things down.
“Each ingredient has its existing identity that's very embedded, like [in Chinese cooking] abalone has to go with chicken feet and ham. But no, abalone is a seafood. That's it stripped down to its basic element, then you can build it up again. In one menu I have coconut milk with balsamic vinegar. People asked how I came up with that. Coconut is creamy and sweet, balsamic is sour with a sweet note – well, sweet and sour can come together,” she explains.
Last year, Sham was approached by Korea's tourism board for a culinary collaboration – “I don't know if it's because I look a bit Korean?” she jokes – that never came to fruition. But in preparation, they put her through a sort of crash course on the cuisine with a Korean chef. Rather than waste the experience, she decided to add a new menu to the list, Le Coréen, just as her little enterprise moved from its Star Street residential outpost to a larger, more organised venue in a North Point industrial building, in the premises held by Hip Cellars.
That menu launches this month, and represents one of very few Korean dining experiences in Hong Kong that doesn't include a barbecue. Purists, of course, will scoff at the loose interpretation of dishes – dukbokki used in a dessert? Bean-sprout banchan paired with raw fish? Lasagna? The sacrilege! Purists: avert your eyes and turn away your tastebuds. That just means more food for us.
Truly, if you measure success by how good something tastes (and really, besides sustenance, isn't that the whole point of food?), there's no question that Sham has achieved something exciting. Circumstance and determination gave her a training in Hong Kong's and France's finest kitchens, but nature granted her an imagination that's vivid enough to take various flavours and combine them in her head.
“Taste is a natural gift for me – I can imagine tastes,” she says. “I can create dishes in my mind, combine certain elements and know that it will make this kind of taste, before I even make it, and it would turn out how I imagined.”
That bean-sprout banchan takes care of the expected kimchi flavours early on in the meal, contrasted with daurade carpaccio, delicate cubes of yuzu soy sauce gelée and a tangy lime sorbet. It's an opening oeuvre with kapow, simultaneously showcasing a bravery with juxtaposition that belies Sham's few years in the kitchen, and a strong sense of self. “Ever since I started I've been cooking like this,” she says. “I'm a little stubborn, a little OCD, and I like my tastes to be organised. I can't be a very authentic Japanese or Korean chef, but I can pull together from different topics. My diners find it very interesting because it's something they've never seen before.”
The ensuing dishes, while hardly overtly Asian, are ably and compellingly executed. Foie gras is used in the second course of all of Ta Pantry's menus, and in this specific case cubed alongside frog legs, topped with sweet garlic and soy scallions, cauliflower purée and champignon shavings – a dish that Sham alleges has converted some of her non-frog-consuming friends. Then there's prawns wrapped in crispy vines of taro, served with sauce crustacés and kimchi hachée – minced, with the focus on texture and a subtler take on tastes. Wagyu beef cheek is slow-cooked for 24 hours with spicy tomato kochujang – Korean chilli paste – and then layered with pasta sheets and melted Gruyère cheese to make a lasagna that, while hefty in size, leaves you wanting more.
The final course is Korean rice-cake fritters, the beloved chewy cylinders coated in brown sugar then served with caramelised Korean pear and a fiendishly addictive Yakult soju sorbet, all so perfectly jumbled together I have dreams about it for days to come.
What is both an asset and a downfall is that Sham's dishes are simple enough that they could almost be recreated at home. “A lot of chefs, they don't consider me a chef. I'm still just a ‘cook',” she says. “I mean, I can get a lot of media attention because I'm a girl, I can pose, I do some cute cooking…but after a while that'll be gone…so I did try to strengthen myself from the inside.” That she did, interning not only in Hong Kong's best kitchens but ones in Paris and Montpellier, thanks to referrals from her mentor, Amber's Richard Ekkebus. “There…pain is nothing. Sweat is nothing. You just need to get your orders out before the chef yells at you.”
That's certainly a far cry from the scene at Ta Pantry, even with the larger operations. But five years on since the private kitchen opened, the bookings are still strong, so it seems that Sham's brand of chilled-out comfort cooking is still in demand. To match the homey vibe of the cuisine, Ta Pantry's new headquarters continues to sport apartment-like touches, so you feel like you're at a friend's house, except you don't even have to walk your dirty dishes to the kitchen.
A long room can be split up with dividers that cut in between three tables, each of which seat 14. The first and last subscribe to a more girly aesthetic – the one nearest the kitchen is decorated with roosters, framed in photos, sculpted from chilli peppers, etc, an homage to Sham's Chinese zodiac sign; the one furthest features a wall of decorative plates from the Rosenthal collection for Versace. In between, they needed a more male energy to temper the feminine touches, achieved with knick-knacks with a bit of a nautical theme. The venue was designed by Steve Leung with lighting assistance by Tino Kwan, but the vibe is still quintessential Sham – she, in fact, directed much of the concept, including the conversion of an exterior corridor into an indoor balcony, with cosy armchairs facing out a row of windows that let in the most sublime natural light. It's almost like you're in France, but with a view of Asia. Which, come to think of it, sums up the Ta Pantry experience pretty well.