Being a pastry chef is a daunting task: you’re responsible for everyone’s favourite part of the meal. I asked Chef Leila Tang how she dealt with it.
Chef Leila is responsible for all things sweet at new luxury hotel and restaurant opening in the City of London, Vintry & Mercer. It’s the sister to Kensington-based The Ampersand, and is already part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World brand, and Mr & Mrs Smith website. Offering guests 92 bespoke rooms and suites, it also runs on 100% renewable energy, which means that all the heat generated in the kitchen is environmentally friendly.
Q. So Chef Leila, tell me about V&M, how have the first few months been?
It’s been thrilling! From the pre-opening, to opening in February, there has been non-stop planning and prepping. We always have new ideas and it’s really exciting turning them into a reality. It’s such an amazing experience to see the hotel, myself and my colleagues continuing to grow in every step of the journey.
Q. You’re the Head pastry chef at a city hotel yet you’re so young, how did you get here?
Before I became a chef I knew I wanted to work in the pastry section of a five star hotel so I was really lucky to have landed my first pastry chef role as a trainee in one (a boutique five star hotel). I kept my head down, learning and taking in as much as I possibly could over the last few years and here I am running the pastry section in Vintry & Mercer Hotel which opened February 2019. I take inspiration from my Vietnamese background to create the desserts you see on the menu today.
Q. How do you deal with pressures at work?
Good communication solves a lot of issues, as does teamwork, kindness and a sense of humour. In life, I don’t really believe that there are such things as problems – we just make them up in our minds. Although situations may not always go to plan, I just take the next appropriate step in order to move forward. You have to be precise with desserts especially with the decoration, so you need a steady hand too!
Q. How does being a young female chef feel today? Are you inspiring others to follow?
It’s 2019 and times are changing. I’m really grateful that I get to do this. I’m proud of the things I stand for which include being a woman and doing this role at a relatively young age, as well as always standing up for what I believe in. Kitchens can be quite male dominated and I think it’s important for there to be a good mix of people in the workplace. I think I bring a different working style as well as different values to the kitchen compared to say what another more ‘traditional’ chef might bring. There are plenty of good female chefs and of course it would be great to see more. Regardless of gender I would like to see and inspire others to do anything they can with kindness and compassion. I’m blessed that our pastry team always support and take care of each other. I think this is especially important in the kitchen because the work can be quite intense so it really helps a great deal to have a happy working environment.
Q. What or who has inspired you in your career?
I’m massively influenced by my family’s history. My great grandmother on my maternal side was kidnapped as a child, taken far away from her home and sold in China (this is as far back in our family history that I know about). She was Caucasian and too young to know anything about how to get home or where home even was. She learnt to speak fluent Chinese and eventually married into a very wealthy Chinese family. My grandmother (her daughter) used to always tell me about how glamorous life was growing up. After the communist revolution my grandparents’ generation lost everything they had and my grandmother ran away from China.
Throughout all this adversity, food and family was always the focus in life. Preparing and sharing food is a part of the labour of love. No matter how extravagant my grandparents’ meals were or how hungry my parents were living in poverty, food was always tasty and always beautiful, or at least that’s how family have always described eating to be. Meals were, without fail, made and served with love and although eating is a biological process, it’s deeply social, and it’s loving. Therefore, I don’t believe in just having, or making, something mediocre!
Q. What is your speciality?
Asian inspired dishes are my favourite thing to create. I love the flavours, especially the sense of nostalgia I get using and tasting them. My dad used to make Vietnamese iced coffee on summer days when I was little and it was the inspiration for the ‘Vietnamese espresso mousse’. I tried to capture the perfectly balanced kick of the heavily roasted coffee against a milky sweetness. I’ve added other elements to the dessert itself but the taste really does take me to a happy place, and I hope it does the same for those who try it.
Bringing dishes to life, which have a story to tell, is something I really enjoy doing like the ‘koi fish’ which have important symbolism in Asian culture. Although the dessert may just look like an edible take on a Chinese koi fish painting, the koi also represent good luck, strength, courage and much more. Plus it’s vegan!
I love stories, and creating a dish is very much a celebration of life and the histories of things and people. Without looking at these stories, we wouldn’t have ingredients or inspiration, which really and truly are the seed of all my ideas.