Check out our expert interview with chef May Chow. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
May Chow has spent her first 33 years building a bank of memories – culinary and otherwise – that feed into the chef she is today. From her childhood with her Shanghainese family in Canada to high school in Hong Kong, from sorority life in Boston to her first cooking gigs in LA, from starting a business to winning the title of Asia’s best female chef in 2017 at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
“I’ve tried to have a lot of life experiences,” she tells me. “I always knew that if I was able to live something that other people weren’t living that I would feel special. Since I started as a chef, I’ve craved those moments. I remember at Bo Innovation [Alvin Leung’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong] making a durian and Thai lime leaf macaron and saying to my chef, ‘Can you imagine we might be the only two people in the world creating this thing right now?’”
This drive propelled May forward as she formulated the concept for Little Bao, the 20-seat bun shop she opened in Hong Kong’s Central district in 2013. She wanted to do something “fun and easy to understand” but also unique – a “happy meal” for grown-ups, as she has described it. Steamed buns weren’t original in themselves (Momofuku’s David Chang got there first) but what May did differently – she’s quick to credit her ex-boss Matt Abergel of Yardbird for the bright idea – was to serve her fusion bao in burger form.
“I want to showcase original versions of authentic Chinese flavours,” she says. “People love how we take things a Chinese person has had thousands of times and create a twist that’s different, not forced, and always delicious.” May’s own favourite is the chicken bao with black vinegar glaze, pickles and spicy mayo.
“The Roca brothers came to Hong Kong and ate at Little Bao,” she recalls with obvious pride. “To me, it’s such a simple burger shop but everything they put in their mouths they were like ‘Oh! I’ve never experienced this flavour before, I didn’t know this was how they did it in China’. What I’m doing is part of the story of how we dine, how we enjoy food.”
Since she launched Little Bao, May has expanded her mini empire with gastropub Second Draft (2016) then Happy Paradise (2017), a neo-Cantonese outfit with a late-night vibe (May calls it her “alter ego”). She’s also collaborated with the likes of Nike and House of Vans, designing concepts that incorporate art, music and fashion. “Whether I cook each piece of meat myself, it’s not what I find most enjoyable about being a chef. I’m very happy I’ve had mentors who’ve taught me I have to be competitive at a global level.”
May has a millennial’s ease with social media, readily sharing everything from her new trainers to her life with girlfriend Sam. “I don’t really have a sense of ‘oh my God, that’s my personal life’,” she explains. “I just want people to know what I like and what I don’t like, and what I stand for and what I don’t stand for.
“I knew early on that I didn’t want to live a life of untruth or half-truth so when I did my first interviews, even when people didn’t bring [my sexuality] up, I would talk about it so there was no backing out. I knew if I started lying early on I would have to answer to it later.”
Accepting the best female chef award was not an easy decision. At first, she didn’t want it. “It was almost like I didn’t want to grow up. I was having so much fun. I thought if I take this award I will get scrutinised and will have to speak for other people. It came with a lot of responsibility.” But accepting it has, she says, accelerated her career. She now moves with the global culinary elite while building on her work at home with the LGBT community and the Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong. “The award is such a great platform. If people ask Asia’s best female chef to speak at a function, I might as well speak about meaningful things. I’d feel really selfish if I just used it to talk about how great I am.”
There are still obstacles facing women who want to work in kitchens. “In a Chinese culture, being a chef is associated with gambling, drinking, smoking – the last thing you’d want for your daughter, right? Your daughter, you want her to marry well, get a good husband, keep her hands really dainty. We grew up with those ideas.” May surmounted these obstacles herself but recognises, in hindsight, how circumscribed her early career was. “When I went for my first interview, actually every job interview, they always told me there was no opening right now in the kitchen but if I started in the pastry section I could get into that restaurant. I didn’t think too much about it, I was like, ‘oh sure, I can start in pastry first. When you have an opening let me know and I can transfer over’. I was never transferred over.”
Since going it alone, her sense of self has flourished. “The moment you have the power to control your own destiny, you are able to speak louder.”