In profile: Chef DeAille Tam

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With a newly minted Michelin star restaurant in Shanghai, DeAille Tam tells Cat Nelson about innovating Chinese cuisine and her lightening-speed journey to the top

From behind the bar at Obscura, DeAille Tam hands over a ceramic bowl. Crafted by a young artisan she discovered in China’s ancient porcelain town of Jingdezhen, its rustic appearance belies its featherlight weight and my hand jumps suddenly. “It’s kind of like our food,” she says. “It’s not what you expect it to be.”

Surprises punctuate Obscura’s menu, an innovative modern Chinese restaurant in downtown Shanghai that she and her partner Simon Wong opened in late 2020. Savory ice cream is made from siu yuk, Cantonese roasted pork belly; fatty slices of otoro tuna mimic the classic Shanghainese pork dish hong shao rou; delicate handmade noodles in a dashi broth elevate the street food dish liang pi. The flavors are definitively Chinese, the dishes decidedly not.

Garnering a Michelin star within a year of its opening, Obscura is ambitious, unconventional and full of imagination. Its meteoric rise mirrors Tam’s own. Just 10 years ago she was only just finishing culinary school. Last year, she was awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2021 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, only three months after opening her own restaurant, where she’s co-owner and chef, in China’s most cosmopolitan city.

When she arrived in Shanghai with Wong in 2016, high-level Chinese fusion was almost non-existent. “Five years later we still saw that there weren’t a lot of people doing what we do,” she says. Their multicultural, transnational upbringings set the stage for what they are setting out to achieve at Obscura. “Because of our unique background, we have the ability to swim between Western and Asian culture,” explains Tam. “We wanted to continue to put forth those ideas for everyone – to be the pioneer for this.”

Adventures in the kitchen

Born in Hong Kong, Tam grew up in a rich food culture, stopping by her father’s cha chaan teng (diner) and local breakfast spots before school, surrounded by Cantonese cuisine. At age 9, her family moved to Canada where she describes sampling poutine, steak and fries. “But when we went home, if we ate what my mom was cooking, it was always Chinese.”

Despite having a father in the restaurant world, it wasn’t until university that Tam felt a calling to the culinary arts. Living in the school residences for an engineering degree in Toronto, she started cooking for herself – and enjoying it. These little adventures in the kitchen soon led to making snacks for study group and baking birthday cakes for classmates. “I found a lot of happiness when I got to share foods that I made from scratch,” Tam says. “It was the ‘from scratch part’ that was the most rewarding and satisfying – building something from just basic ingredients and making it into something pretty and edible.”

Soon, she was taking pastry classes and realized that her passion for cooking outstripped her interest in engineering. At first, this newfound path was met with resistance by her family, who worried about how demanding the industry could be, especially for a woman. Determined, Tam enrolled in a year of culinary school. “I guess I was a bit rebellious,” she says.

Older than most other students at 26, she wanted to learn as much as possible and work her way up as quickly as possible. Tam condensed the one-year program into eight months. This period confirmed that  her heart was set on a career in the kitchen. With a drive and tenacity that persists, she finished the two-year program in 18 months.

Culinary school wasn’t only where Tam found her life’s purpose, it’s also where she found her partner in life and work. “She sat at the front, I sat at the back,” says her fiancé and restaurant co-owner Simon Wong, who met her in class their first year at George Brown. Like Tam, Wong was born in Hong Kong but moved to Canada at age four and made his way to the culinary arts via medicine. “We were two of the few students in class who were a little bit older and had a different background before pursuing culinary school. I think we found similarities in each other,” Tam says.

“We started this journey together, right from the beginning,” she continues. “We’ve always had each other to listen to and conquer a lot of the struggles that we had in the beginning.”

Taking the leap

In 2014, Tam and Wong moved to Hong Kong. “The trigger was Alvin,” she says, referring to celebrity chef Alvin Leung of two-Michelin-star restaurant Bo Innovation. Also an engineer by training, he had been the guest chef at a charity event in Toronto where her school sent her to assist.

The experience was eye-opening. “I never knew you could manipulate food in this way instead of just heating it in the pan or cooking it in oven or steaming it. There’s so much more to it,” she says, describing how Leung, whose signature dish is a molecular soup dumpling, fused Asian elements with Western techniques. It was her first encounter with Michelin-level cooking and watching Leung work and speak about food was revelatory. “He sparked that interest in us. We thought we need to leave Canada if we really want to continue to move up the ladder.

“We never thought that we would become Michelin chefs at that point but we knew we wanted to work alongside people who have that level of excellence,” says Tam. “We wanted to be around people of that higher caliber of skill sets and knowledge.” Based in Canada, a country with no Michelin’s presence, they needed to look abroad.

With their sights set on Alvin Leung and Bo Innovation, Tam and Wong headed to Hong Kong. “That was the turning point for us,” Tam says.

The next two years were high pressure but transformational as Tam and Wong adjusted to the Michelin kitchen environment and the buzzing Asian city’s fast-paced lifestyle. In Leung, they found more than a “yes, chef” relationship. “It’s easier to replicate than it is to create,” says Wong. “Alvin taught us indirectly how to create things – what his philosophy of food was, which allowed us to develop our own style.”

The next watershed moment came in 2016 when Leung was opening a new restaurant in Shanghai. “We saw an opportunity to step out on our own and start actualizing our ideas onto the plate,” says Tam. Sous chefs at the time, the pair leapt at the chance and convinced Leung to let them lead Bo Shanghai.

The newly minted executive chefs landed in Shanghai with only two mandates: make food unique to China and attain a Michelin star. Still green in the world of high-level fine dining, it was a period of little rest and lots of caffeine as they delved into restaurant’s focus on the eight major culinary traditions in China crossed with Western cuisines and techniques. “We didn’t really have enough experience to say what is Michelin-level food. We did a lot of experimenting and testing, researching themes of food that were a match for the restaurant,” says Tam. “We didn’t know how much we had to do to achieve that level. All we knew was as much as we can, as far as we can, just push ourselves to the maximum.”

When September 2017 rolled around, the city’s second Michelin Guide was released. They received one star. “We knew all our sweat and tears had a reward,” says Tam. “It also gave us a bit of confidence that we were able to do it.” This also made Tam the first Michelin-starred female chef in mainland China.

Bo Shanghai was a success, but in early 2019, it shuttered suddenly due to investor and management issues with the bistro that they shared the space with. They had to ask themselves: what next?

Eating with locals

Opening their own place wasn’t always a given – or even the dream. “Up until the end of 2019 we still told ourselves, we are not going to open our own restaurant,” says Tam. After Bo Shanghai’s abrupt closure, it felt risky and reckless. Plus, the pair were being head hunted by restaurants around the world, with offers from Osaka to San Francisco. They spent their time off travelling through China and internationally. “We were actually very close to leaving China but then Covid-19 hit,” she says.

With the economy rattled, investor plans changed across the globe. Tam and Wong had come back to Shanghai just before Chinese New Year and hunkered down at home with the rest of the country. It was the first break either had since culinary school. As they cooked for themselves and did nothing, they thought about the future – to stay or to go? By month three, realizing that there was still plenty to discover in China and a huge untapped market for their concept and food, Tam explains, they decided to stay. Just over six months later in November of 2020, Obscura opened.

Set in a three-story villa in the center of Shanghai, the 12-seat restaurant is intimate and personal. A curved bar snakes through the space allowing the chefs to serve each guest directly, telling the story of each dish. In a sense, the pair is carrying on where they left off at Bo Shanghai – innovating and reimagining classic regional Chinese flavors – but with an agenda entirely set by themselves, more freewheeling and unfettered.

Obscura’s simplified tagline is “taking classic Chinese flavors from different parts of China, and reimaging and recreating it into a new experience”. But the reality is more layered and nuanced. Dishes are emotional and evocative – each a microcosm reflecting the stories of places and people they meet, each wrought with an intense precision and intention. Asked to describe her food in brief, Tam laughs: “Simon is going to have to do this. I can’t do it in a couple words because my ideas are too big.”

Storytelling is at the heart of the food. “I really want to travel, to discover the actual things that connect the locals with the area. Because that’s what we want to share with people here,” she says. “Unless you are there and eating with the locals you really can’t see or hear it in the same way.” She and Wong travel once or twice a month and during these discovery trips, locals are eager to share their lives with them, says Tam. “We get so much love from them, so we put that back in the food when we are back in the restaurant.”

Tam looks to dive beneath the surface, to uncover the surprising details about a place and present it on a plate to guests. “We take those small elements. They are very hidden, even for people in China if you think about it,” she says. “Why is one area’s cuisine so stereotyped by other people outside of the area? It’s because all of the truly memorable, important elements that touch the hearts of the people from the area are not really shared with people outside.”

On the table, this might look like albino trout sourced from Sichuan, lightly poached and perfumed with the unexpectedly tropical aromas of Xishuangbanna in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Or it might be seafood canapés from China’s northeast region, typically known for big portions and strong flavors. “I had my first meal in Dongbei, which was a seafood feast with shellfish I’ve never had before and sea urchin – huge ones,” says Tam of her first trip to the region. “I was given a 360-spin on what I had initially imagined it to be.”

Dishes celebrate the seasonal and evoke a sense of place, often inspired by a chanced-upon ingredient. “It sounds very unplanned but actually it gives us the most surprises, just letting resources come to us,” says Tam as she describes the thrill of discovering exceptional chestnuts, once destined solely for export to Japan, from one of her staff’s hometowns. “When we see it being useful, we start planning a whole dish based around an ingredient. It gives us a lot of freedom to be creative as well, instead of saying ‘this is what I need to do, OK now I start looking for ingredients.’”

That’s not to say it’s a laidback process. In fact, quite the opposite – Tam is uncompromising. In a video interview, Wong describes her as someone who never gives up, tenderly calling her “stubborn.” To me, she says she was, “the type that always tried to get perfect in everything,” during culinary school. For a dish, they might try 20 types of duck or 10 kinds of lamb before settling on the right variety to realize their particular vision.

It’s this precision and dedication that creates the singular cuisine that sets Obscura apart. She likes to be a little bit different in what she does. “I believe uniqueness and individuality can leave a mark on this world,” she says.

Running her own restaurant this early into her career might not have been the plan, but she has no regrets. “It has been a really fun journey after Bo closed down to be honest,” she says. “It gave us a lot of time and opportunity to step out of our comfort zone and immerse ourselves in the environment to rediscover and relearn what Chinese food is about from a very different perspective.”

One year in, and the learning and discovery certainly haven’t stopped. Despite all their trips, there’s still exploring to be done in this country where they’re building their future. “I feel like we haven’t really travelled enough yet,” says Tam. “Especially now after the restaurant has opened, every day there’s researching and finding new ideas to make new plates so you feel, ‘I’ve never been there and I want to.’ There’s so much that you can draw inspiration from in China.”

Cat Nelson