How do you get from a degree in biochemistry to head pastry chef at Craft Dining Rooms, via the Café Royal in London? We thought we’d better chat with Howing Lai…
Tell us about your cooking
As a pastry chef, I would describe my style as fairly classical, as most pastry chefs would I’d imagine. I draw a lot of influence from previous places I’ve worked at, such as the Café Royal in London and Michelin-starred Adam’s here in Birmingham. I’m fascinated by the science behind working with pastry. There are so many variations and techniques to play around with and when you combine this with the huge amounts of ingredients at our disposal, the possibilities are almost endless.
How did you become a chef?
I never intended to be a chef in all honesty. I have a degree in biochemistry and a Masters in bioinformatics so I pretty much always thought I’d continue working in the world of science, perhaps as a researcher. But I took a year out and simply started cooking and fell in love with it. I saw an ad for Cordon Bleu and wanted to give it a go so I saved and saved and put all my money into doing Cordon Bleu – and here I am!
What do you eat when at home?
In truth, I don’t cook much at my own house. However, if I want to eat I normally go round to my parents’ house for some Hong Kong traditional cooking. My dad was a chef for a number of years and he still loves cooking and has retained his competitive edge, so he’s always keen to show off his cooking.
Who’s the best chef in the world and why?
Every chef has their own chef who they look up to and admire. For me, French chef Joel Robuchon has to be up there with the best. To have the impact he did across the world and to achieve so many Michelin stars in so many places is incredible. I recently read Gordon Ramsay’s autobiography and was inspired by his incredible story and also David Chang over in the States. He was probably the guy who made me want to be a chef and his story is similar to mine in that he fell into a career in kitchens late on through his love of food. By coincidence, he even worked at a restaurant called Craft early on in his career!
Is the customer always right?
No… I’ll leave it at that!
Share a cooking tip
Always follow the recipe, especially when cooking pastry, and don’t try and put your own spin on it.
What was your favourite food as a kid?
Pizza – and it still is!
Food heaven and food hell?
Heaven is anything that’s bad for you and really indulgent, or that you shouldn’t really eat lots of. Like a proper croissant, made with ludicrous amounts of butter! Hell is celery. I can’t stand the stuff.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?
I would say beef tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach and I actually enjoyed the taste and texture of it.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
A biochemistry researcher.
What do you recommend from this evening’s menu?
BFC Chicken (Birmingham Fried Chicken) and for dessert the souffle.