Peiran Gong graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2012, used to be a fashion designer, and accidentally became a chef. She now runs a Chinese food pop-up called Chinese Laundry with her best friend, whom she met in RCA. The food they serve at different pop-up restaurants and residencies are very personal and authentic to them, combining childhood memories and flavour profiles from different parts of China with seasonal British produce.
Q: Can you talk a bit more about what the structure of a ‘chef’s residency’ affords you and how this experience connects to the Quincunx project?
P: I don’t think any chef would see themselves as an artist. But the process involved in cooking and making art can be very similar, since they’re both creative processes and many chefs have big egos. I didn’t have any professional kitchen training, the only thing I knew was how to design. But I quickly found that the methodology I used to design something could also be used to make a menu work. Most of the time, chefs don’t have the money to open a restaurant, and at the same time, there are many commercial spaces that have vacant periods, during which they sit waiting to be turned into a mock-up restaurant. For Quincunx, it is the ingredients that come first as opposed to the ‘dining experience’. The other four artists are my ‘audience’. It’s helpful to have this structure in mind. Instead of using professional kitchen equipment, all the recipes and methods are adapted into home-cooking scenarios. The ingredients used here are in season, either easy to find in the grocery shop or they can be foraged in the city.
Q: As a chef, who is your audience and how do you reach them?
P: It takes a long time to find the right audience. It’s important to understand who you are, what your work is first, so you can find your audience. With confidence in your work, the right people approach you. At every residency we do, we always do something different, it’s a test for us. For our residency, at a wine bar at Finsbury Park, we changed the menu every day and the kitchen was very close to the customers, so we always chatted with them and could see their reactions. As a fashion designer, all the feedback I got was by season. In the kitchen, for me, every day is a battleground: you have pressure, but you also get the feedback very quickly. Interestingly, a lot of our customers are from the creative industries, perhaps because we share similar values.
Q: Do you think food can help people in physical and psychological ways?
P: [Laughs] I think planting, growing and cooking something daily are all kinds of therapy for me at this moment. I am also trying to create some recipes from scratch, like refining sugar, which is a creation process from zero. I guess if people can try such things at home, they don’t have to rely so much on industrialised food production, which is also more sustainable.
Q: You are one of five collaborators, does the number five influence your practice in the context of this project?
P: Five as a framework in this project makes total sense, especially when you are talking about the medicinal system and Chinese medical herbs. That’s all about fives: there are five elements, five albums, five flavours, five emotions and five human organs. In traditional Chinese medicine, we see five seasons: the summer is broken down into early and late summer. We also have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot! Perhaps I am going to create five recipes and five dishes? The Chinese five elements also have five corresponding colours with different medical functions: for example, white food is beneficial to the lungs. So, there may be five dishes with different colour-coding.
Q: How do you find working with people in different disciplines?
P: It’s really a new thing for me, and we are trying to keep it organic and see how it goes because everyone has different expertise. But I understand the others are also cooking and planting at home, so we started having cooking sessions to make connections between us, because some of us were strangers before Rachel invited us to collaborate. It’s interesting because we are all in our own bubbles right now, and this is one way we can really connect to each other.