Find Christine on instagram @chefchristinelau. Photo: Evan Sung
Tell us a bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in food.
I grew up in the Bay Area. My parents emigrated from Hong Kong to study at Berkeley. My mother is the one who really loved restaurants and even though they never sent me to Chinese school on the weekends, she made sure I was able to order off a menu. I guess I started cooking with my brother mostly as a way to feed ourselves when our parents worked late. We watched a lot of cooking shows on PBS.
How did you start cooking professionally?
I never imagined I would be a chef, but as luck would have it, I had to do 100 hours of wage free work for my Senior Project — to graduate. I really wanted to spin records, but I couldn’t find anyone reputable to supervise me. So I flipped through the Zagat Guide and naively walked into restaurants in the book and was like “can I work here?”. I ended up at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. I don’t know what they expected but I showed up on day one expecting to file papers or wash dishes and they had me opening oysters and learning to brunoise shallots for mignonette. I ended up staying on and working through the summer and as much as I wanted to go to culinary school I was starting at UC Davis in August and had a spot on the soccer team. It didn’t feel like an option.
I continued to work in restaurants through school and even corporate internships I had. I tried to do part-time like 3 days a week on the weekends, but going to school full-time there was no time to study and it was very difficult. When I was around 24 or 25, I had the feeling that I would regret it when I was 80 if I didn’t give it a shot, and that’s when I jumped into restaurant life with both feet.
Kimika opened right in the middle of the pandemic. I imagine that is an extremely challenging undertaking. How has that experience been for you?
Of course it has its own set of challenges, but what I say to people, who ask what it’s like to open a restaurant in the middle of covid, the best way I can describe it — is that I feel blessed on all sorts of different levels. I have so much appreciation for my staff who come out every day and work extraordinary hard under difficult circumstances. From the front of house to the back, rolling with all the new challenges of the day, like — what are the new regulations going to be this week. It feels like we’ve opened seven or eight different renditions at this point in about 6 months.
I feel blessed for everybody that’s come out to eat and the support from the people who live in the neighborhood, and our friends and family and colleagues who might have come out for their first dinner in a year or their first time seeing a friend in 6 months or 3 months. The fact that they’ve decided to come here, I feel very blessed because there’s no reason they couldn’t pick somewhere else or order delivery or takeout or just cook at home. So I think honestly that’s really the all encompassing way I see it — we’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of support in the press, we have a great team, we’ve been lucky to not have anyone very sick you know knock-on-wood, and to be able to have access to the vaccine early on.
How did the concept for Kimika come about?
The concept for the restaurant is Ita-meshi cuisine — a mix of Japanese and Italian. I spent the first decade of my career working in Italian restaurants and then went to work with an amazing Japanese-American chef and later opened a Japanese Izakaya, so Kimika is definitely informed by those experiences. We laid out the menu like an Italian restaurant. There’s some snacks then small dishes, a fried pizza section, there’s pasta and rice, and then there’s larger plates but not composed entrees, there’s a side or contorni and then dessert.
As far as the Asian element — it’s not a 50/50 share like 50% Italian or 50% Japanese it’s really trying to take dishes that we want to put on the menu and find some parallel lines between the two cultures. Some dishes tend to lean more one way or another and even different components within the dishes are more Mediterranean or Italian and Asian. Some things are more driven by Japanese techniques or ingredients. But there is undeniably a Chinese influence on the menu. I’m not by any means a classically trained Chinese Chef, the general knowledge that I have for Chinese food is honestly from my upbringing and I lived in Hong Kong for a year and spent a ton of time and pretty much any vacation I have going back there, but those flavor profiles are in my blood. I’ve spent time trying to figure out how to make those flavor profiles, things that my mom made, luckily one of the partners here is a very talented Chinese Chef so l have access to that kind of expertise.
So basically I would describe the food that we’re cooking here is is a mixture of Italian and Asian American food — this kind of hodge-podge of my upbringing and having traveled all over East Asia, having cooked in and run a Japanese Izakaya, having worked for a Japanese-American Chef and living, eating and working in New York. It’s the result of sitting in restaurants late at night asking a million things about the food and learning through osmosis.
Favorite Tools or Techniques?
Of course aside from knives I highly recommend moribashi (plating chopsticks) — the thin tip allows you to handle delicate products without damaging them, it’s essential for something like uni, for example. Plus a small heatproof rubber spatula to scrape the sides of pots and pans so you’re not wasting anything. Lastly, I use a benriner all the time. It’s lightweight, adjustable and easy to wash. You can get a thinless that is hard to achieve even with a knife sometimes.
Are there any specific ingredients you are excited about using right now?
50Hertz makes a cold-pressed Szechuan Peppercorn Oil that I’m obsessed with right now. At the restaurant I’m using it on a semolina crusted soft shell crab dish in an egg yolk sauce, but at home I put it on everything from eggs to Shin Ramyun.
I’m also digging spot prawns from Regalis. Living in Hong Kong made me obsessed with really good quality live shrimp and the sweetness of these ones from Santa Barbara are just amazing. I think these are probably the best ones available domestically and really what’s the point of eating shrimp that doesn’t come with the head and tail attached.
Any favorite restaurants we should know about?
My favorite noodle shop in the whole world is called MAK MAN KEE. It’s in Hong Hong and they specialize in wonton noodle soup. They make the alkaline bamboo noodles with fresh duck eggs and the chew on that noodle is unlike any other. It encapsulates that perfect texture and tooth feel you are seeking with katamen for ramen or al dente with Italian pasta.
More locally, Bo Ky on Bayard Street is a place I like any hour of the day. It’s run by the Ngo family and focuses on Teochew cuisine, a type of cooking that originated in Guangdong province. Many Teochew people migrated to Hong Kong or throughout South East Asia to escape the Civil War in China and brought this cuisine with them, picking up influences from other places along the way. Some of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the US were opened by Teochew people and their style of cooking has influenced the style of vietnamese food you can find here. Go there and eat the barbecued meats and don’t miss the fish skin dumplings.