Kong's Queen of Cakes
Maria Lee: Hong Kong's daytime diva of good taste
With a regal sweep of her arm, Hong
Kong's celebrity of gastronomy, Maria Lee Tseng Chiu-kwan, ushers her 14
North American lunch guests into her surprisingly understated dining room.
These are modest digs for someone who, at
her pinnacle, ruled over an empire of cake shops that stretched across the
Pacific from Taipei to San Francisco.
Called The Queen of Cakes, 73-year-old
Maria Lee is so well known and beloved in Hong Kong that taxi drivers
transport her for free, auto mechanics have refused to charge her and
hundreds of Hong Kong residents seek her advice not only on cooking, but on
everything from romance and child-rearing to home decoration and fashion.
When the Asian economy went bust, Ms.
Lee's chain of cake shops collapsed. Pausing for only a heartbeat, the
former cooking-show host, Chinese opera singer and entrepreneur mastered the
computer and transformed herself into a dot-com doyenne. Her Web site, which
she maintains herself, offers recipes, celebrity interviews and, most
wonderfully for food lovers visiting Hong Kong, an opportunity to join her
for a home-cooked meal at her apartment in the posh Jardine's Lookout
section of Hong Kong.
Her e-invitation has become such a hit
that more than 4,000 people, including politicians, movie stars and
diplomats, have taken her up on it in less than a year. The Queen of Cakes
is a tall woman, with black hair, red lipstick and meticulously drawn
eyebrows so animated they command the attention of the guests she is seating
at her big round dining room table. She seems so pleased to have guests, she
almost hops with excitement. "I hope you enjoy my food today. You just
call me Maria."
Doctor Lee -- she has received the
honourary title several times over, fills a room with swift, large movements
reminiscent of another cooking legend, Julia Child. Ms. Lee giggles at such
comparisons with the divas of North American daytime television such as
Child, Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart.
"Ree-eally?" she stretches the
word out just long enough to see she is considering the comparison and,
after three seconds of thinking about it, agrees.
Her dining room is crammed with photos of
herself with New York governor Mario Cuomo, Asian gazillionaire Li Ka-shing,
the Duchess of Kent, the Reagans and 20 or so other "big shots" as
she calls them.
At this lunch, guests, all older,
well-heeled Americans, are treated to bits of yam, pork rib marinated with
curry in a bamboo basket, exotic soup of white fungus and chicken, crispy
duck with taro. Each course comes in a colourful dish in the shape of the
animal being eaten.
Ms. Lee works the room like a veteran Las
Vegas entertainer. "I hope you will like my lunch. If you don't, let me
know." Who wouldn't like one of these six-course lunches or 12-course
dinners, especially when Ms. Lee is there, hovering and chirping over
absolute strangers as if they are her best friends. She admits she is
happiest with a houseful of people, but never expected her little late-life
hobby to turn into one of the trendiest things to do in Hong Kong.
Although this very public persona claims
she never got into this for the money, she realizes her runaway success
could be profitable. So now, in addition to the gourmet Chinese banquets and
MSG-free lunches, she is offering culinary tours to her country house in
Guandong in China. There she will ply guests with gourmet meals, cooking
classes and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit on her patio overlooking
the lake and sing karaoke until the sun comes up. - by
Judith Ritter National