In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we are celebrating DeAille Tam of Obscura, Shanghai who recently won the Best Female Chef at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant 2021 and is regarded highly for her successful artistry and approach in pushing gastronomic boundaries by elevating traditional Chinese cuisine. We speak to her to find out what Obscura is all about.
Best Female Chef: DeAille Tam of Obscura Shanghai
DeAille Tam, executive chef and co-founder of Obscura in Shanghai, has won the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2021, sponsored by Cinco Jotas. The award is voted for by over 300 industry experts from across the region who also create the annual list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, Tam initially studied engineering before beginning her gastronomic journey. Prior to opening Obscura in Shanghai, Tam embarked on a year-long journey to research the country’s diverse cuisines and regions. Inspired by her travels, she and her husband crafted a menu that celebrates China’s culinary heritage in a contemporary context. Tam’s refined techniques and immaculate presentation betray a background studying engineering. Innately curious about structural possibilities, each dish reveals the chef’s analytical style, disciplined precision and attention to detail.
Congratulations on winning Best Female Chef at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021. What does this award mean to you?
This award means many things to me however the most important aspect is knowing that I have made the right choice in my life to pursue my passion.
What were the challenges when you started?
The challenges are myriad and at some points seemed insurmountable. The kitchen was a heavily testosterone driven environment when I first began and if you could not find a way to fit in, nobody would teach you the ropes. Earning the respect and acknowledgement from your colleagues is difficult in any industry but you could not show weakness in the kitchen, it was all about grit and how much you could push yourself to do.
Who are your role models and how do they inspire you?
There are 2 chefs that I encountered along my career path which had the most impact in my development as a chef in this predominantly male industry when I first started. First is Chef Imma Pantaleo from Ristorante Bolina, in Tricase Italy. Second is Chef Alexandra Feswick from The Drake Hotel in Toronto, Canada. Both of these women showed me how females can have a strong and powerful voice in the kitchen but still be delicate, graceful, and elegant in their profession. Working alongside with them made me realize the kind of dedication and devotion one needs to balance life and work in this high pressured environment. Most recently, there is a Chef who has inspired my desire to develop my own rendition of Modern Innovative cuisine and that is Chef Alvin Leung from Bo Innovation in Hong Kong. He gave me my first insights into the world of Chinese cuisine and has given me the opportunity to reconnect with my Asian roots.
What motivated you to open Obscura and what do you think contributed to its success?
Once I had attained the Chef title, I knew that in order to fully express myself I would require a platform of my own. Discovering China is not something that can be accomplished in a short time and we were enraptured by the seemingly boundless new ingredients and knowledge throughout our travels. The answer to why we were successful rests upon our team and their own willingness to constantly improve. Restaurants really on teamwork and nobody can do it all alone.
What food or which particular dish best represents your personality?
I would like to think of myself as a dim sum. Small, delicate, full of “inner” strength and able to touch your heart. It is a simple looking bite, but often it is packed with complex layers of flavours and textures. At the same time, dim sum can be prepared utilizing various cooking techniques, just like how I like to imbue myself with a plethora of knowledge, from savory to sweet, traditional to modern. Like like dim sum, I have the ability to stay relevant with the times regardless of the era while continuing to improve and innovate along with the development of society.
What’s next for you? What is the next challenge you’ve set for yourself?
Since this is my very first restaurant, I only wish to continue nurturing and watching it grow. I hope to be able to discover even more throughout China and deepen my ties with this culture so that I may continue to develop new dishes for my valued guests.
What advice would you give to young female chefs?
If I were to give any advice to young female chefs it would be that you must try truly be prepared to sacrifice if you want to be great, regardless of profession. If you have a thin skin or cannot take criticism, this may not be the right path for you to take. If you are hoping to become famous and established in less than 10 years, you are only lying to yourself.
What can be done to encourage more female chefs to join the industry?
I do not know if more needs to be done to encourage females to join the industry as it is already so much more positive then when I began. I believe that it boils down to what it is that you truly want out of life which will influence your decision to enter the industry. I would only say that you should decide your path earlier rather than later as it is not an industry you would want to enter too late in life, the hours are long and take a heavy toll on your health.
Previous recipients of the Asia’s Best Female Chef award include Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava from Thailand (2013), Lanshu Chen from Taiwan (2014), Hong Kong’s Vicky Lau (2015), Margarita Forés of the Philippines (2016), May Chow from Hong Kong (2017), Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun (2018) and Garima Arora (2019), both based in Thailand, as well as Korean chef Cho Hee-sook (2020).
The Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant 2021 will be televised live on the 50 Best Facebook Page on 25th March 2021.
For all 50 Best related content, see 50 Best.