Uncertain and limitless. This is what ‘obscura’ means, says DeAille Tam, voted by over 300 industry experts from across the region as Asia’s Best Female Chef 2021. Hong Kong-born Tam is the executive chef and founder of Obscura in Shanghai, a spot that’s been attracting gourmands since it opened November 2020.
It’s “a black hole-type of concept,” the chef shares at the 50 Best website. “You know there is something interesting happening on the other side of the black hole, something alluring and captivating. That is what we want: a restaurant that pulls you in. And once you’re sucked into that black hole, we want to capture you with our food, to create a feeling like: ‘I never thought that the food I knew could take on this new shape, texture or flavor’.”
Obscura is set within the three-storey Tang Xiang Cultural Space, an intimate villa housing a private collection of ancient Chinese treasures. Embracing the age-old Chinese traditions of food, wine, tea and incense, it presents elegant interpretations of classic Chinese flavors in a contemporary context.
It also showcases Tam’s refined techniques, analytical style, disciplined precision and attention to detail in each dish—qualities very telling of her engineering background.
From engineering to culinary arts
Raised in Canada since age 10, Tam pursued engineering in college. But while at university, her career path took an unexpected detour. As independent living required her to make her own meals, she discovered a passion for cooking. Following her heart, she left the university to start a new gastronomic journey. She enrolled in the culinary program at George Brown College in Toronto and eventually earned a post-graduate degree in Italian cuisine.
It was while studying that Tam met Simon Wong, a fellow student and Hong Kong native who had similarly left his medical degree to study the culinary arts. Wong would eventually become Tam’s husband, with whom she’d embark on a journey to research the country’s diverse cuisines and regions.
The couple’s professional and personal relationship flourished and they remained in Toronto for several years working in a variety of restaurants before returning to Hong Kong in 2014 to embark on a new chapter in their respective careers.
In 2014, Tam began working at the much-lauded Bo Innovation under the tutelage of acclaimed ‘Demon Chef’ Alvin Leung, an iconic figure known for his bold interpretations of modem Chinese cuisine.
Two years later, Leung appointed Tam and Wong as co-executive chefs to launch Bo Shanghai at Five on the Bund, a sister restaurant to the Hong Kong outlet. Time Out Shanghai described Bo Shanghai’s 10-course tasting menu as “an all-out, no-regrets meal of some of the most interesting food in the city,” incorporating elements from the eight regional cuisines in China. Tam distinguished herself as the first female chef in Mainland China to earn a Michelin star when Bo Shanghai achieved that status in 2018.
Climbing to the top
Tam said in her interview with 50 Best that it wasn’t an easy ascent to the top, as it meant challenging societal and gender norms. “When I started out, I received some pushback from males within the industry who treated me in a way that I felt was a bit unfair,” she recalled to the website. She even remembered not being allowed to butcher a suckling pig simply because she is a female, and she might hurt herself. But she stood up her ground and fought for her place in an industry dominated by men.
She said she hopes that this most recent accomplishment will inspire other women to not hold back on fulfilling their dreams. “Men can put in an endless amount of time, but women are still considered the pillars of the family in China,” she said.
“I’m sure there has been positive change since 50 Best established the Asia’s Best Female Chef Award, but it’s a continuous battle. I’m taking the torch from Chef Cho in Korea who won the award in 2020 and I want to move it forward to the next person. This is a relay race; it should never stop,” she told the website.
Tam’s achievements will be celebrated as part of the online ceremony for Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2021 on 25 March, from 4.30pm I-IKT/SG (5.30pm ON), which will be broadcast to a global audience via Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Facebook and the 50 Best Restaurants TV YouTube channel.
Previous recipients of the Asia's Best Female Chef award include Duangporn Songvisava from Thailand (2013), Lanshu Chen from Taiwan (2014), Hong Kong's Vicky Lau (2015), Margarita Fores of the Philippines (2016), May Chow from Hong Kong (2017), Bongkoch 'Bee Satongun (2018) and Burma Arora (2019), both based in Thailand, as well as Korean chef Cho Hee-cook (2020).