Header image courtesy of Maison ES
Chasing a dream is never easy. Success or failure can be determined by various factors. Faced with a competitive industry in modelling and, later on, in the culinary scene in Hong Kong, Esther Sham built herself up as a renowned chef and devoted mother, experiencing highs and lows along the way. We sit down with the chef-owner of Maison ES and one of the first female celebrity chefs in Hong Kong to talk about how it all started with her culinary career and restaurant, and how she juggles work, family, and health.
I won’t say I’ve always wanted to be a chef. I grew up in LA and studied contemporary art at university. So, when I moved back to Hong Kong after graduation, it was with the intention to explore and figure out what I wanted to do in life. It was difficult for me to find a job related to my degree without any local connections. When I was job searching, I actually met the head of a modelling agency, which led me to work as a model for two years.
I never showed an interest in cooking when I was little. My mother was a very strict cook. My cooking style is unrestrained and more innovative. Being from a Shanghainese and Chiu Chow background, the cooks in my family valued traditional methods and recipes, but I have always wanted to create things and think outside of the box.
After working as a model, I discovered my love for international cuisine, especially French cuisine. So, I applied to work at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and that’s how I started my career in the culinary industry. I didn’t work in the kitchen at the time, but as a server, because I wanted to gather as much experience as I could in restaurant management. And I knew front-of-house knowledge would be just as important as knowledge about cooking.
I transitioned from the service side to the kitchen side relatively quickly. I then moved on from Robuchon and started apprenticing under chef Richard Ekkebus at Amber, which was instrumental in helping me open and operate my own private kitchen at the same time.
My roots are important in the food I serve. My parents are both from places filled with culinary delights, so Shanghainese and Chiuchow cuisines are big influences in my work. French cuisine is also another important influence. If watching my mother cook traditional Chinese food at home didn’t rouse my interest in cooking, it is French cuisine that made me want to be a chef.
I find that both cuisines have made their way into what I am now serving at Maison ES, which is a fusion between French and Asian cuisine. Whenever I cook, I always introduce a touch of sweetness into everything, which is the signature of Shanghainese cuisine, together with rich and bold tastes and intense colours. Everything around me also influences the food I cook. It could be something my friends have said, what they miss eating, or some fusion dish that they wished existed. I would use my knowledge of French cuisine as well as my Chinese cultural background to bring these ideas to fruition. In this way, the food I make is a part of me.
After the birth of my second child, I was suffering from post-natal depression. At the time, I had a decent career in Hong Kong as a female celebrity chef. I had quite a lot of interviews and media coverage of myself, including a cooking show on TVB. But after my second child was born, I realised I was working myself much too hard and I needed a break.
So, in a way, I wouldn’t be where I am as a chef without becoming a mother. My children taught me to put myself first, despite the fact that I am a responsibility-driven person who prefers to do things for other people rather than myself. Because I am responsible for my kids, I have to take care of myself. And I am grateful to them for making me realise this.
I have since recovered from post-natal depression, but the effects of my condition back then were long-lasting. Memories of my first and second children when they were young are very blurry, which saddens me a lot. It was then that I realised then I have to balance my personal and professional lives in a way that gives me enough time to prioritise my family as well as my restaurant, which remains my passion and career.
I’d like to think that I haven’t given up on my professional life as a chef because of my family, but they have helped me reach greater heights on my journey as a chef instead. Allocating sufficient time for my family and personal life means that I can only manage one restaurant, which helped Maison ES grow into the establishment it is today.
I think we are different from other restaurants in Hong Kong in that revenue and popularity are not the most important things we strive for in our daily operations. What matters to me and my team at Maison ES is customer satisfaction, and understanding their needs. With an acute focus on pleasing every customer that comes into the restaurant, for whatever occasion, we offer the best and most personal service and food to them. We are a family at Maison ES, and we welcome customers into our family each time they come to dine.