API Heritage Month: an interview with Chef Derrick Lau about food and Asian culture
Chef Derrick Lau shares favorite dishes, thoughts about cooking, and his own personal background.
From the exacting discipline of sushi making in Japan, to the roasted pigs served on Christmas in the Philippines, to the puffed rice that takes a central role in Hindu marriage ceremonies, food plays a major role in many Asian cultures.
Here at Momentive, those lucky enough to work in the San Mateo office often get the chance to sample these cuisines—sometimes with an innovative twist. The office’s head chef, Derrick Lau, led kitchens at trendy hotels in Hong Kong for years after graduating from the Cordon Bleu cooking school. His renditions of dishes from all around the world have earned him a cult-like following among our employees, with a dedicated Slack channel for discussing his creations.
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (API) heritage month, we decided to interview Chef Derrick about his cooking, his process, and his personal philosophies about food.
Des Georges: What do you consider to be your most iconic Asian dishes?
Lau: One of my favorite things to do is learn how to master a traditional dish or flavor profile, and then put a totally fresh spin on it. I do a lot of fusion.
One dish that employees seemed to get really excited about was a green curry spiced rib. In Thailand, you eat a lot of barbecued meats with sticky rice, so we did green curry ribs with sticky rice. It ended up working really well, and we’ve made it a few times now.
Another meal that became an accidental classic was Hong Kong-style french toast. In Hong Kong, everyone takes a snack break at around 3:15pm, and it’s popular to have french toast with milk tea. We decided to combine the two and turned the milk tea into a glaze. I don’t know if we were ready for just how popular that would be. We later started serving it with boba tea, which people also seemed to like.
And lastly, I have to add our most requested dish: miso-marinated black cod. This one isn’t my original recipe, and we prepare it exactly the way its creator, famous restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, intended. I had the honor of learning how to make it from Nobu himself at a training in Hong Kong. The version we learned was slightly different from the one in his cookbooks (which are tailored for home chefs), so it felt like a rare glimpse behind the scenes. At the end of the training, I made sure to thank him and tell him that I loved him in Austin Powers (he had a cameo)—which made him laugh.
Des Georges: What is your personal relationship with food? Does it reflect your life, culture, or upbringing?
Lau: My mom is from Thailand and my dad is from Hong Kong, which both have very strong food cultures. Growing up, my mom (rightly) didn’t trust me to do all my homework unsupervised, so I spent my evenings with her in the kitchen. All those smells—and seeing the evolution from ingredient to plate—really stayed with me.
My mom loves spicy food, but my dad can’t stand a hint of spice, so she had to balance her personal taste with providing for the rest of the family. But when my dad was out of town, she’d make curries and spiced soups and other food that helped me expand my palate.
My father really wanted me to be a dentist, and I made it all the way to dental school before I realized I disagreed. But all the science I learned as part of my STEM undergrad requirements ended up serving me well as a chef. I learned how to pay meticulous attention to time, texture, and temperature.
I ended up at Le Cordon Bleu, and a few years later I was working at a restaurant when Gordon Ramsay walked in and ordered a fish. I was nervous, but after eating, he called me out to the dining area and told me that it was “perfect.” It was definitely a validating moment for my career choice.
Des Georges: How do you incorporate API holidays into your meal plans?
Lau: Mosaic, our employee resource group for people of Asian or Asian Pacific Islander descent, is great about keeping me in the loop about upcoming holidays and the traditional foods associated with them.
Sometimes, we recreate those foods exactly and sometimes I take a creative new angle—always with the deepest respect for the original intention of the dish and the traditions behind it.
I love the way that these dishes connect us with their cultures. Food is like a time machine: It can go into the past and the future at the same time. No matter how avant garde or new wave a dish can be, it is prepared in the present, with roots from the past.
Des Georges: How would you describe your philosophy about food?
Lau: Food to me is a powerful mechanism that can evoke multitudes of emotions and feelings. It can bring joy but also sorrow, it can bring comfort but also fear. It can remind us of the good times but also the bad. Food can be adventurous and it can be safe. Food is the only thing I know that can speak every single language in the world. You don’t need to speak a language to understand a cuisine. How do you tell someone you love them without actually having to say it? Simply cook for them.
Des Georges: Any final pieces of advice for aspiring chefs?
Lau: First, be patient. I once spent three full months trying to figure out how to make perfect baked eggs for ramen for 500 people. I had to play with the oven’s temperature, the arrangement of the eggs, the speed of the fan (which plays a surprisingly important role). Eventually, we got it figured out. The trick is to understand that failure isn’t failure—it’s just another chance to learn.
Second, be curious. Momentive is the place the curious come to grow—and that certainly applies to me. I’m incredibly grateful to have the chance to be creative and try new things. I encourage all chefs to be willing to explore a little. Chase the rabbit down the hole. Just because things are usually done a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way.
Lastly, trust your own taste buds. Being a good chef boils down, above all, to just really loving food.