Peggy Chan talks to Chloe Scott-Moncrieff about a foodservice career spanning three continents
Peggy Chan – vegetarian chef, restaurateur, TED speaker – isn’t afraid of cutting to the chase. She has just flown in from Rene Redzepi’s MAD symposium in Copenhagen. “It was fascinating and thought provoking. There were talks about inner issues, internal pain, suicide, in the industry,” she says, within minutes of us meeting. “Chefs also need to be healthy mentally, it’s time to learn all the characteristics of sustainability.”
We’re in Essence, a vegan raw food joint, just off London’s Old Street, a place Chan has chosen to meet. As we plunge into intense conversation about food politics, mental health and female chefs over breakfast, you sense this 34-year-old chef is on a mission to change the world, albeit one small step at a time.
Her virtually vegan restaurant, Grassroots Pantry opened in 2012 in Hong Kong. It blazed a trail by championing plant matter and ethical eating at a time when it was considered niche. “When I moved to Hong Kong, I noticed the lack of foods I’d eaten growing up in Canada. Buying a tub of miso would cost me a fortune.” Nowadays, both plant-based menus and the debate surrounding intensive farming are prolific. But back then, Chan’s voice was prescient.
For her though, there’s no time for resting on laurels. Yes, she’s got Asia, Hong Kong specifically, ruminating over food waste and environmental issues in the kitchen. But there’s the rest of the planet to consider. This year, she’s launched pop ups, The Collective’s Table, where she challenges chefs to cook more sustainably, and she’s taking them worldwide to raise awareness.
“We’ve already had one in Shanghai, Manila, and Australia where we worked with Nick Stanton, from Ramblr; we’ve one in Vietnam in November with Peter Franklin, and we’re hoping to lock down LA for October.” Likewise, I’m meeting Chan in London today because she’s been in talks with Cub, Hoxton’s zero-waste restaurant, established by up and coming British chef, Dougie McMaster. “The timings weren’t quite right, but I thought I’d come over anyhow, check out the scene.”
While her career is soaring, Chan says she’s not always been such a force to be reckoned with. “At school, I was an introvert,” she recalls of her childhood in Montreal, as she nibbles on a breakfast of scrambled chickpeas, kale, green harissa and portobello mushrooms. “Then as a teen I became naughty, smoking and drinking, my parents were splitting up and I felt a lot of guilt for it.”
“A fast learner,” by 20, Chan was over it. “I wanted to focus on being a better person.” It’s no coincidence that’s when life took a culinary turn. “I’d been starting my path to vegetarianism at 16, initially cutting out red meat. And I’d always cooked with my mum as a child, she is culinary trained, but it never occured to me to go into the industry, even though I loved food. But then my guidance counsellor suggested something – he showed empathy and real love – so I listened and enrolled at Cordon Bleu in Ottawa for nine months,” she recalls.
It was there, in 2004, she had a Damascene moment, thanks to the now defunct Gourmetmagazine. “Gourmethad an article about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). I hadn’t understood the effects of Monsanto culture on a social justice level – the patenting of seeds is outrageous to me, you can’t buy what nature created. Because of capitalism, greed and money, ownership had been applied. I was angry and emotional about it. I wanted to know more and do something.”
Chan completed her diploma, then headed to Switzerland to start a Bachelors degree in restaurant and hotel management. Why did she leave the kitchen so soon after qualifying? “I had an injury from pushing myself too hard in yoga and carrying 25 litre stockpots and decided I needed something to fall back on. The Swiss are renowned for their hospitality courses.”
The school was set in the mountains near Lausanne and the last semester focused on environmentalism and ethical business. “It made me want to wake people up.”
Next, Chan sought out California’s vibrant food scene. “My boyfriend and I were heading to San Francisco – I wanted to work with Alice Waters, who was an inspiration.” As they were viewing apartments, they split up.
Far from reeling from the abrupt change of plans, Chan thought she’d try Hong Kong, her birthplace, and approached L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. “He was so forward and progressive, I wanted to learn. I said I’d do any job and offered to be a server.”
For a shy person it could have been a disaster. Not for Chan. Her serving experience set her on a trajectory. Not only was she bowled over by the attention to detail and strong leadership she witnessed at Robuchon’s, but it wasn’t long before she was poached by the Four Seasons Hotel for a two year traineeship.
In spite of, or more precisely because of, her drive and work ethic, problems erupted towards the end. “I was expecting a promotion after the two years, but it wasn’t happening, I grew increasingly frustrated.” Her hair started falling out, she developed gastroenteritis and lost 10lbs. “I wanted to be moving faster in my career, I’d never had a day off. Not getting what I was waiting for was difficult, it was work politics of course.”
Yet returning to run the pass didn’t cross her mind. “When you have mentors saying you’re doing a great job, you don’t think about cooking. Also, this was self-maintenance. I wanted to prove something to myself. I was learning about leadership, emotional intelligence, how to handle situations with colleagues. My short-term goal was assistant manager,” she concludes.
A natural self-starter, Chan likes creating fresh opportunities. Her next job, in The Peninsula, Tokyo, Japan – an establishment she embraced for its hard-working culture – helped kickstart a whole new journey. “I had a good time, I thought I did very well while I was there,” she says, laughing. “But again politics appeared. It inspired me as that’s when I realised this isn’t for me.”
So she hung up her order pad for what she calls an Eat, Pray, Love moment (said with tongue in cheek) in Dharamshala in India, where she taught Tibetan nuns, monks and refugees English and in return, learnt about compassion and gratitude. “The experience, how to channel suffering and turn it into a positive mindset, was a lesson. I was with people who live their lives so simply and were so content and grateful.”
Chan had plenty to cogitate. Before she’d departed, she’d been offered a major role in helping launch a vegetarian restaurant back in Hong Kong and was going to put her own savings into it. She was also wondering if she shouldn’t just go it alone. “I kept thinking, women don’t set up their own restaurants. But in India I became more assured and knowing of my intentions. I left thinking, OK, I’m doing this.”
The rest, of course, is history. These days, her imaginative dishes like scrambled tofu with sauteed mushrooms, slaw, pickled kohlrabi with coriander for breakfast, and à la carte menu of hunan dumplings and jackfruit nachos, thrill Hong Kongers and the international community alike.
Not only does her menu at Grassroots Pantry reflect her life across three continents – you’ll find everything from Hawaiian poke to Italian gnocchi in her repertoire – but she is also increasingly in demand internationally for public speaking and dinners.
This year she was invited to cook the exclusive dinner for International Women’s Day at the James Beard House in Manhattan. She was also asked to talk at the esteemed Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
She is often asked if she’d consider a franchise. As far as Chan is concerned it’s a waste of energy, detrimental even. “I don’t need five restaurants. It doesn’t make me more powerful. Running a restaurant isn’t that easy. We’ve 25 staff, training them is a huge ordeal. To me, the restaurant is a platform for us to do our work.”
Nor does she seek a Michelin star. “If I was a chef striving for that accolade, I couldn’t focus on what’s important.”
A more savvy approach, she says, is moving her endeavours beyond bricks and mortar. “I am making Grassroots not just a restaurant, but also a workshop, a place for plant-based experimentation.”
Additionally, she works at schools and is expanding her consultancy arm “to share knowledge” so people can replicate her ethos.
“What’s important,” she concludes, “is creating change. We want to inspire other people. Are we sharing enough knowledge? Are we getting people to question what’s on the menu? To think about compassion. These things mean more to me.”