With tech-driven delivery tipped as a major trend to watch in 2016, she spoke to BigHospitality about the challenges of cooking ‘online’ and why London’s take-out scene needs a shake-up.
How did you first become a chef?
I grew up in a very traditional Asian household where my mother would make everything from spring rolls to her own sausage, so I was always surrounded by food. We had a lot of family friends who owned Asian restaurants, and where do you send your kid if you want to keep them out of trouble and they need a job?
Later on I was working 80 hours a week in an office and coming home and making pasta and it was madness. So I quit my job and moved to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York. From there I started working in any kitchen that had something to teach me, whether it be Michelin or non-Michelin.
You’ve worked at Bar Boulud in London and New York, how has your time there influenced your cooking at EatFirst?
It was really the backbone of my restaurant experience. There’s a reason everyone studies French cuisine when they first start out, because it has so much structure and process and it really taught me everything about how I wanted to run a kitchen.
Why did you decide to move from a traditional restaurant to working online?
I was working in London and the restaurant industry here has a very old-school, specific way of progressing. I had all this work experience and was ready to do my own thing so I made the leap to running my own business. From there moving to working online was an easy step because it had a similar attraction - I got to create my own menu, cook what I wanted and still engage with the customer. It’s really exciting and is something new on the market.
How does creating dishes for EatFirst differ from in a ‘normal’ restaurant?
It’s challenging as you have to think about how dense your product is and how it’s going to re-heat in the microwave – things as a chef you really never have to consider. I found it really intriguing as you need to have a better understanding of what your ingredients are, but the creative process of cooking something you want to eat is the same. A lot of times I’ll make something at home for my family and they’ll like it so I’ll decide to create a more high-end version to sell to the public.
Why do you think EatFirst has been so successful in London?
In London you have great high street delivery options but they’re packed, the lines are long and it’s very repetitive. If you go to a high street in Hammersmith and then a high street in Bank you see the same restaurants.
When I lived in New York my friends who worked in offices could order a Korean takeaway for lunch, Mexican the day after, and sushi the next. Here, people want something different and our menu changes every day, so I think it’s providing something that’s not exactly on the market right now.
Do you think online restaurants such as EatFirst and Supper pose a challenge to the traditional model?
I think in some ways we’re competing with the restaurant market but EatFirst is a very different model. It’s for people who are tired of unhealthy takeaways and those who are used to restaurant food, but maybe it’s raining and they don’t want to go out. All of my friends are very loyal customers and have described it as like having me in their house cooking for them.
You ran Canadian street food pop-up Belly London during the 2012 Olympics, is this something you’d like to do again?
I’m always open to options. I’m very proud to be from Canada so I wanted to do something to support our country, feed all the hungry Canadians that are here and showcase Canadian food to people who’ve never had it. The London street food scene is so dynamic and miles ahead of other countries that I just wanted to be a part of it.
Are there any Canadian influences in your cooking at EatFirst?
Well I do probably use more maple syrup than anyone else in the kitchen, if there’s ever a dish that needs sweetening I’ll go for the maple syrup!
EatFirst has secured a £5.3m investment to expand worldwide , how will that impact your menu?
We currently operate in Berlin and London and share a lot of information about what dishes do and don’t work – as you do need to tailor the menu to each local area. For now we plan to use the investment to grow in each city, expand our delivery area, expand our offering, and then who knows?