Jamie Pea encompasses everything that is food. Hong Kong born and New Jersey bred Pea is a chef, food stylist and a published writer. Her East-meets-West training and work experience (from the iconic Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong to a boutique bakery and a one-star Michelin restaurant in London), recently landed her a job as the Director of Special projects at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Shanghai.
Pea represents both innovation and tradition. She is astonished by how much culinary innovation has been happening in China over the past decades – “but the world is not aware of it,” she says. While traditional Chinese recipes and cooking methods are sacred to Pea, she also loves the scientific side to cooking.
Having worked with one of the frontrunners of molecular cuisine, Alvin Leung, at one-star Michelin restaurant Bo Innovation in London, she became smitten with the eagerness to find out how ingredients work together. “I learnt so much from Leung and although molecular cuisine has since gone out of fashion, I came to appreciate the discipline of applying logic and science-based experimentation to creativity,” says Pea.
Chinese food for the win
Pea dreams of writing a book about Chinese home cooking, – “but in a fresh way” – “something that is relevant and practical for modern life, and communicates with a global audience,” she adds. Both in her cooking and in the planning process of her book, Pea draws inspiration from other authors.
One of them is Fuscia Dunlop, a best-selling British author who spent decades in China. “As someone who started off as an outsider, she was able to explain Chinese cuisine to people who are unfamiliar with it, with precise recipes, pictures of condiments, and other helpful information along with evocative story-telling about the land and the people,” says Pea. Dunlop was the first westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu. And the connection with Sichuan, the South-western province of China famous for its hot and spicy flavours, is something she and Pea have in common.
Pea has written food guides for the Sichuan Tourism Board and has often visited her great-aunt who was born and raised in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. “One of my fondest memories is going with my great aunt to the market during Chinese New Year. She would haggle with the vendors for the freshest vegetables, chickens and rabbit, and bash out a sumptuous feast of colourful, flavourful and nourishing Sichuan dishes for the family to gather around,” she recalls.
With her ongoing side projects on Chinese cuisine seen through a fresh lens, Pea’s aim is to not only bring to light to respectable, traditional Chinese cooking methods, but also to prove that Chinese food is one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet!
“A colleague of mine recently joined a fitness class and was shocked to see how militant some people are about what they can and cannot eat,” says Pea, adding that the leanest and strongest she has ever been, unintentionally, was when she ate Chinese staff meals every day. She believes that every time you whip up something mainly made of vegetables with a little meat, some sesame paste and sesame oil, you are treating yourself to the most natural and nourishing meals.
“So, one day I would like to challenge my fitness pals to have at least one home-cooked Chinese meal per day – and never worry about calories and nutrients again,” says Pea. Author Michael Pollan, whom Pea admires, talked about “The American Paradox”: the more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become. In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan encourages readers to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. A culinary philosophy that Pea, herself, swears by, and believes Chinese home-cooking traditions accomplishes well.
Passion and female intuition
Like almost any other chef, Pea works long hours. Although it can be stressful, she has stopped saying: “I have to do this and that” and learnt to start saying, “I get to do this and that”. “On the busiest days, I tend to forget that five years ago, I would have been over the moon for small catering jobs and being asked to be a gust chef at events – and that I got into this business because it’s made me happy to make others happy through food,” she says.
While Pea acknowledges that there are still more male than female chefs in the world, she has seen an astronomic rise in female cooks at fine dining restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing. She strongly believes it is important that female chefs put themselves out there. She sees female chefs as being more intuitive with their cooking – especially when it comes to traditional and comforting cooking methods. “Cooking takes a lot of intuition, experience and love – it’s an interesting contrast with the more “male” style of cooking, focused on equipment and pushing scientific boundaries,” says Pea.
When it comes to female versus male cooking styles, she is hugely inspired by New Zealand chef and writer Margot Henderson. Henderson couldn’t help noticing that the food that women love – regional, instinctive cooking – is not being celebrated in the top-fifty lists. In an interview with Madfeed.co, Henderson said “I worry for all the young men who want to be superstars with a probe in their pocket, and have forgotten what their grannies cooked”.
Jamie Pea will neither forget what her granny cooked, nor what her great-aunt picked up at the market in Chengdu. In going forward by looking backwards, she has already become a source of inspiration for Chinese home cooking – in a fresh way.