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The model chef

Published on Friday, 07 Jun 2013
Esther Sham
Photo: Lau Wai

Tough but tender, Esther Sham is cooking up some ambitious plans

Model-turned-chef Esther Sham had to put aside her femininity while being trained at two Michelin star restaurants in France in 2011.

“During those few months, I forgot I was a woman,” says Sham, executive chef of Ta Pantry, a five-year-old private kitchen in Tin Hau. “Being a woman is a disadvantage if you limit yourself by saying things like ‘these [tasks] are not for me’, or ‘that’s too heavy’, or ‘there’s too much blood’. It’s a world of natural selection in the kitchen. If you can’t make it, you’ll be eliminated. You can’t be too precious.”

Sham is known for bringing flavours from different cultures to French dishes. An admirer of the precision and the variety of techniques in French cooking, she says her three-month training in France was an inspiring experience, as she learned how to cook meat, make good sauces, combine different tastes and present a dish innovatively.

Whenever she couldn’t understand the chefs, she would write down the words – and there could be many during the day – and looked them up online. She would spend hours searching for vocabulary and phrases on the Internet in order to make sure she was able to convey her ideas accurately. Neither would she shy away from “men’s work”, such as carrying copper pots and pans around the kitchens.

“I was always asking chefs if I could do this or that, to get as many chances as possible. I wanted to show them Chinese girls are very strong and so I was toughening up all the time. I am very proud of myself,” she says.

Sham has never been to a culinary school and doesn’t see the need for it, believing she can gain more from throwing herself into the deep end rather than burying her head in textbooks. That said, her route is probably not for everybody, especially those with no prior experience in cooking.  Growing up in a food-loving Shanghainese family in Hong Kong, Sham developed a nose for good food at a young age and would experiment by mixing different kinds of food with her brother.

But, she says, it wasn’t until she started dating, and hoped to use cooking as a tool to impress boys, that she started to take cooking seriously. “The more I cooked, the more I realised it was very enjoyable when people appreciated your cooking.”

After graduating from college in the US, Sham moved back to Hong Kong and started modelling. As she built her career, her social network widened and she became exposed to the world of gastronomy. Gradually, she began to feel that modelling could no longer offer the challenges and excitement that would motivate her to carry on with the work. 

“Modelling is quite repetitive. You put on make up, wear nice clothes, do your hair, walk, walk and walk. It’s very superficial. After a few years, you get tired. But there is no limit to the creativity of cooking. I was addicted to cooking to the point where I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Oh, I want to cook something’,” Sham says.

She began to harbour the thought of becoming a professional chef when one day, after not cooking for five months as a result of a hectic modelling schedule, she realised she had been miserable because she had not been cooking. It was also when she met her then boyfriend, now her husband, which made Sham decide to give up modelling and the frequent travelling.

Once she made up her mind to venture into the food and beverage industry, Sham applied to work in L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, a Michelin three-star French restaurant in Central. After a few months, her brother had the idea of opening a wine storage and drinking spot. Sham suggested that she would cook and provide food to go with the wine. “If people didn’t like my cooking, we could still run it as a wine place. We wouldn’t lose everything,” she says. Ta Pantry opened on Star Street, Wan Chai, as a one-table, private kitchen in 2008.

Food sourcing was one of the initial challenges Sham faced, given the low consumption and an unstable supply of premium foodstuff and ingredients. Not having enough fridge space also hindered Sham from flexing her culinary muscles. Despite the odds, Ta Pantry has become a popular diner, and Sham decided to expand her business by moving to a bigger space in Tin Hau, which officially opened at end-April.

“It’s about running a business now,” says Sham. “I’m constantly trying to build a company culture of mutual respect [and learning] how to be a good boss but not to the extent you’ll be pushed around.”

Sham looks to her mother for inspiration. “When I don’t know how to handle certain situations, I would think of what my mum would have done. When I was young, I made a lot of mistakes. Plus, I’m not a sweet-looking person. A lot of people disliked me. But the more people you meet, and the more things you see, you feel humbled,” she says. 

“My mum always says, ‘You need years to build up a relationship, but only a second to ruin one.’ I constantly remind myself in my relationship with my husband and my staff to be the kind of person I want people to think of me when I leave the room.”

Ultimately, Sham wants to be the Martha Stewart of Asia. “It’s about managing a household. It’s what my mum has taught me – to be a well-rounded woman. I’m very ‘man’ on the one hand but also very ‘woman’,” she says.

With a streak of toughness combined with determination, an appreciation for beauty and a shrewd business mind, Sham may well follow in – and even go beyond – the footsteps of the celebrated, but some say controversial, US homemaker.

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