The Art in Hospitality: Claudia Lau and Kevin Cheung

Words by Eliza Ackland
Photography by Jana Langhorst

From food stems the rituals and idiosyncrasies that make up the fabric of our being. The Art in Hospitality uses food as the stimulus to explore the minds of artists and creatives—because from food comes everything: necessity, nourishment, culture, ritual, connection and delight.

We revel in the opportunity to be guests in an artist’s home and realise the potential of the art in hospitality. As we fill our minds and bellies, we learn about the artist and their practice, discover their relationship to the rituals of preparing and sharing meals and talk about the philosophies embedded in the ceremony of cooking, eating and hosting.

Hidden down a small street in Collingwood, past some offensively loud construction, ceramicist Claudia Lau and her lifelong friend and creative counterpart Kevin Cheung share a space that feeds their domestic and creative needs. Claudia is a Melbourne-based ceramic artist and the Creative Director of House Editions, and Kevin is a photographer, stylist and art director. The pair have been friends since they were kids and now live together pursuing their creative projects in parallel.

On a Wednesday morning, armed with green tea from Cibi and half a dozen perfectly moulded canelés from Morning Market, we visit Claudia and Kevin in their hybrid home studio where they empty some of the contents of their creative minds over the breakfast table.

We enter their home on the ground floor, where Claudia has her ceramics studio. The shelves are meticulously laden with containers marked ‘wood ash’ and ‘oyster shells’. It’s here that Claudia experiments and finesses her creative projects that fall under both her self-titled brand Claudia Lau and House Editions.

While Claudia’s work spaces are neatly positioned over each level of the house, Kevin’s creative magic is condensed to his bedroom. His wardrobe is a meticulous archive of pieces that he dips into for shoots and styling projects. A unique chair made from an assortment of different fabrics is being used as his desk chair. The chair is Kevin’s latest project and first time experimenting with furniture design. It’s clear that Kevin’s work may revolve around fashion and textiles but isn't limited to a specific medium.

Sitting on Claudia’s workbench is the outcome of a recent collaboration with Melbourne sustainable dining geniuses Parcs, whose philosophies are written backwards in their name—scrap. Commissioned to design an oyster platter that aligned with Parcs low-waste menu, Claudia experimented with oyster shells from the restaurant to create a glaze. The result is a single function platter imbued with the lifecycle of the oyster. Experimentation seems to be a big part of Claudia’s practice. Standing in her lab coat in her studio she signifies a chic scientist in pursuit of beauty and divine perfection.

Like layers of a cake, each floor of the house serves a different purpose yet builds to a delicious whole. As we move up through the centre stairs we pass; a stock room for House Editions, the kitchen and lounge area, Kevin’s bedroom and inner sanctum, and a large open space on the top floor reserved for desk work that doubles as the perfect spot to host a hotpot dinner with friends. A constant presence in the house is Pie Pie, Claudia’s ‘more human than toy (poodle)’ as stated in his Instagram bio. As chic as his housemates, Pie Pie lounges on a Yayoi Kusama plush pumpkin or hides away in his 1960s Ovalia style egg chair.

On this particular morning we gravitate to the kitchen where Claudia and Kevin have prepared an effortlessly elegant breakfast spread. It’s hard not to see everything as a creative endeavour in this house. Kevin’s outfit is a prime example. For our casual Wednesday breakfast he’s donning white heels with a perfectly french manicured pedicure, hands dripping in carefully curated rings and an outfit that looks like he's stepped out of a Vetements campaign.

The kitchen and living area treasures a collection of precious items. Vintage furniture, a silver nutcracker shaped like a walnut, a small teapot shaped like a rockmelon, and traditional Japanese glassware formed using a rare technique originating from the Meiji period. Sitting proud on the kitchen table is Claudia’s most valuable kitchen item: a rice cooker.

We gather around the table as Claudia talks us through what’s for breakfast. It’s a continental-style spread with orange juice, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, clotted cream, prosciutto, tomatoes and two perfect eggs sitting in silver egg cups. Claudia has set the table with her favourite flat silver knives, a sweet silver salt and pepper set shaped like a pair of boots, and, of course, a kaleidoscope of House Editions seconds. Pink grapefruit sits on a plate glazed in Orange Seed, a round of pale, yellow cultured butter pairs well with the OxBlood glaze, and kiwi slices sit pretty upon Drunk Beauty. But the main event on the table is a singular, perfectly smooth pancake.

Claudia Lau: We’re having pancakes! Or Pancake. I’ve made a pancake in my rice cooker. Have you ever been to Top Paddock? I’ve always wondered how they make their pancakes.

Eliza Ackland

Top Paddock pancakes are iconic.

CL: Pancakes are such a big thing in Japan too. In Aoyama Garden there's this amazing pancake restaurant where they serve a perfectly round pancake. So I took inspiration from that and Top Paddock to create something similar.

Tell us about your breakfast rituals. Do you often make time to sit down and share a meal like this?

Kevin Cheung: We have pretty different schedules but we do often make time for something like this. And usually, we would invite one or two of our closest friends to have an elaborate breakfast. It's a ritual we did a lot during lockdown, probably twice a week, but now we’re back to work! So maybe we’ll have pastries, sit down and do work together, and then go off to our different schedules.

CL: But this is the breakfast we want to eat. Our ideal breakfast.

So the days you don't have time to do this ideal continental holiday buffet, what do your morning rituals look like? What are the things that ground you in the morning?

KC: I usually start off with a coffee…and a cigarette, but you don't have to put that in.

And then I make a green smoothie with spinach, banana, avocado, dates, kiwi. If I have time I’ll do a ham and cheese toastie in the pan with a shit tonne of butter. So it’s a balance with the smoothie.

CL: I always have tea in the morning regardless of timing. And then I don't eat breakfast until 10am, when I have miso soup, maybe last night's rice, a croissant, or sometimes just a boiled egg.

I’ve been having my morning cappuccino in this mug that brings me so much joy. The vessel itself, not just the coffee. Are there any particular objects in your kitchen that bring you joy?

KC: I feel like everything that Claudia finds at the markets or all around the world that she brings together in this kitchen are special. When you purchase items you have this idea of where they’ll go in your house and then when you use them they spark the memory of when you purchased them. Claudia loves silverware and I love collecting weird things.

CL: This set of silver boot-shaped salt and pepper shakers and the copper pot on the island are from Les Marché aux Puces, a flea market in Paris that has hundreds of small vendors. They’re from the same lady and it's kind of amazing because in her store she has a tower of candy sitting in a tiered champagne bowl. I remember discovering it a couple of years ago buying the salt and pepper set. I rediscovered the shop on another trip, again, drawn in by the smell of the candy and found the copper pot. This is the best store in Paris!

Sounds like something from a dream.

CL: All my cutlery I’ve pretty much collected. Every time I go back I get more forks and more spoons. And I’m collecting this same style. It’s nice to collect things over time.

Stefanie Breschi: It's so different in style to the House Editions range but I think they work well together.

CL: Yeah I think it's the contrast of old and new.

And Claudia, your practice is inherently linked to food and other people’s rituals. What’s it like to know that the pieces you create end up on other people’s tables? Is that something you think about when you’re creating?

CL: I think subconsciously yes. I try to create things that are beautiful enough that they can sit on their own but can also be used every day. When I first got the House Editions samples it just changed how we ate. We can eat the simplest things but on these plates they become special.

KC: It makes the experience more joyful. Knowing that Claudia made everything that we’re eating on makes me so happy. And this is the only way we’d eat. Claudia says “We’re only using samples from House Editions.” She’s so particular, she picks out one of every batch with the biggest quirks and keeps them upstairs, not to use, just to have, to look back on. It's nice to see how meticulous Claudia is and how important it is for her to bring these plates into her everyday life. It brings her joy, but it’s also her work.

I feel like even the way you’ve set up your life in this house where your domestic space is layered between your creative practices, it's fitting that the ceramics you create make their way into your every day. Those things are very interwoven in both of your lives.

Our conversation is paused by the cutting of the outwardly flawless pancake. Still steaming hot with a perfect crumb on the inside, we all gawk at Claudia’s rice cooker creation.

Our series is about art and hospitality and the rituals and traditions around food and hosting. What rituals or traditions have you inherited from your families?

KC: I grew up in Shanghai and we’re pretty big on family in China. I lived there for eight years and then my parents separated, my mum remarried and we moved here. My mum has always made an effort to put on a Sunday dinner at their house. Even though it's not always a traditional Chinese meal, it’s for us to be together and have that sit-down meal.

But also my mum has taught me a lot about cooking. I don’t consider myself a good cook but I can follow instructions! As a kid growing up I’d always see my mum in the kitchen making elaborate meals. She can make anything, including Western food, but her mastery is in Chinese cuisine. Her mapo tofu—the best. Also salt and pepper chicken ribs. Uh, all the things!

My favourite dish is a nothing dish. Spring onions that mum fries, and then she uses the oil and crispy onion to mix into noodles—it's so good. She always made it for me after school as my pre-dinner snack.

My mum used to own nightclubs, and my dad had two restaurants in Shanghai. So I grew up around hospitality.

Do you have many memories from that time?

KC: Yeah it was really fun. My Dad had a Chinese restaurant called China Moon and Jackie Chan would go there and they’d take photos together. And then there was another Vietnamese restaurant in this gated complex. It was like a restaurant/house/mansion… it was literally a mansion, but also a restaurant and a bar. As kids, I remember us running around for hours inside.

My mum had a night bar called Long Bar that was part of the Sheridan Hotel. That was fun because it was vibey and they’d do shows there all the time with lots of ex-pats. That was great, but also my parents were not really home much, which is why they made it a thing to have Sunday sit-down dinners. And they also took us holidaying a lot.

And what about you Claudia, what rituals around food have you inherited from your family?

CL: Every Sunday we have family dinner at Mum’s restaurant, Shark Fin Inn in the city. In terms of rituals, that's a non-negotiable. And that’s with extended family because I’m an only child so my parents always make an effort to make sure my cousins are there.

In terms of cooking, because my mum was at the restaurant most of the time and my dad worked a lot, my parents don't really cook much. I cook a lot and love cooking. Everyone thinks that because I come from a restaurant background that’s where I get it from. But it’s actually the opposite because growing up, especially if I wanted western food, I had to ask for it. I’d cook a lot when I was a teenager as a necessity. And I didn't know what so many things were, like sourdough. Things that are so important to me now, I didn't discover until I was 18 and that was all from watching TV.

Mum, Dad and I would go out to dinner every Friday and try a different restaurant. It was nice to discover different cuisine outside of Chinese. From a desire to understand different dishes at restaurants, I watched a lot of TV to try and learn techniques. And still, now a lot of my cooking is very process driven. I think that’s why I love baking. I wanted to be a baker when I was little. I think ceramics and baking are very similar, just one of them you get to eat.

Speaking of baked goods prompts us to turn our attention to the canelés we brought with us. Claudia had confessed earlier in the week that canelés were a current obsession of hers. We’d spotted one upstairs next to her cup of tea on her desk.

How long have you been obsessed with canelés?

CL: Since Morning Market opened. They’re just so good. It’s a small enough pastry it’s almost like it doesn't count.

It’s funny that you’re drawn to these. The copper moulds are an indexical medium that you cast something from, like all your slip casts.

CL: Yeah it’s the consistency. You know they’re always going to be the same.

As we each eat a canelé and marvel at their perfect crust, custardy centre and touch of salt, Kevin shares how he and Claudia met when they were kids.

KC: When I moved from Shanghai to Melbourne my parents didn't come with me. I stayed at a home stay where Claudia and I met in 2005. I couldn't speak any English.

CL: And I couldn't speak Chinese.

KC: Claudia didn't live there but she went there after school. So we’d do our homework together. We had Motorola flip phones and we’d always film acting videos or commercials, or runway shows, or pretend to host a show.

CL: We’d just entertain ourselves.

KC: There was this lady there, we called her Aunty Emma and I stayed with her for four years. And I think she taught us, or taught me a lot about table manners, table settings, not having elbows on the table, how to hold chopsticks properly.

CL: Our parents are from Hong Kong and Shanghai, so different cultural backgrounds. Aunty Emma was Chinese but her husband was Australian so I think we had that mix of a western etiquette that helped us as kids.

KC: It was hell though! We hated it! But I definitely appreciate it now.

CL: And I am an only child so that’s why Kevin and I are so close. Kevin is my closest thing to a sibling.

As the past flows effortlessly into the room, we probe into memorable dishes—those unique to just Claudia, and those shared between them.

CL: Yum cha. When we were little, my mum would work on Sundays, so after ice skating, we’d go to Shark Fin Inn for yum cha. It was nice because it was like going to a buffet. You can get whatever you want. And then yum cha extended into my weekday meals as well, but in a deconstructed way. In the mornings my dad would give me two steamed siu mai and for recess sometimes I’d have chicken pie. I think I got sick of it for a period of time but now when I have it, it’s a comfort food.

What’s the best yum cha dish at Shark Fin Inn?

KC: Chicken feet. I love chicken feet.

CL: Cheong fun, with the donut inside. It's the perfect hangover meal. It's steamed, it's fried. I think that’s my favourite, the double carb.

What other meals do you two often share in this space?

KC: I recently cooked a big Chinese meal for my mum. Which is the first time I cooked for her. I made a traditional eggplant dish with fish sauce, mapo tofu, rice, Chinese broccoli, and pickled cucumber with vinegar.

She was really surprised because she treats me like I'm still 11. If the weather is cold she says “Make sure you wear a jacket today!” and she’ll call me to tell me “Drink more water! Drink more water!”. Often she’ll call for two seconds and say “What are you doing? Ok. Bye!”

CL: My mum will call to ask what I’m doing but not really listen.

KC: I think they’re just calling to see if we’re alive.

CL: My mum is the opposite though. If I tell her I’m cooking something she’ll ask “Can you box up another meal?”

KC: Mum would never say “Oh your food is amazing” but she’ll take photos and send them to the whole extended family saying “Look what Kevin made!”.

If you were doing something other than your work as an artist, is there anything else you’ve identified you’d like to achieve in your life?

CL: I could easily be a cheese maker or something. It's something about the quiet life and doing something with my hands. Process driven, structure, and I guess with food there’s a different reward. And it’s nice that you can share that with people in a different way. The ceramics are amazing because I can have people over and I’m cooking but it’s also my work on the table and that’s really nice to have those two linked together. I’d probably be a baker or a cheese maker. Or a mochi maker!

KC: I’ve always wanted to be a dancer or an actor. Or maybe get into martial arts. Something active or performative. I do really like that aspect of work. I enjoy choreography or movement.

CL: I think with Kevin’s work and all his styling it's never plain Jane. He’ll literally custom make ball gowns for a shoot.

SB: I like that as a tagline “Never plain Jane”.

KC: I need a slogan T.

But, all that links back to my work. When you’re directing a model you’re kind of moving with them so they pick up on your movements. You’re responsible for the dynamic.

Claudia offers us a piece of the perfect pancake we’ve all been eyeing off. We each take a slice on a little House Editions plate with a spoon of tea jelly from Paris. Kevin cracks open his dippy egg and sprinkles it with salt using the silver fingernail ring he’s wearing on the tip of his pinky.

Our conversation ebbs and flows from food, to Claudia and Kevin's creative practices, to Pie Pie and fashion. They reminisce about the time they hosted a garage sale that resulted in a queue down the street and one in one out club-like door policy. After a tour of their wardrobes it's no wonder people were lining up to get their hands on some of Claudia and Kevin’s treasures.

It’s easy to imagine these two following their creative pursuits in this house, almost like ants busing themselves in a nest that encompasses their professional and domestic needs. And while they pursue their projects in ceramics, hospitality collaborations, fashion, photography, costume design and furniture design, it’s nice to think of them making time to meet back in the kitchen and connect over food. Maybe it’s as simple as sharing a piece of fruit—Kevin carefully removing all the skin for Claudia just the way she likes, only to eat his own slices of oranges straight over the sink. And sometimes it's as lavish as a fish, clay baked in Claudia’s studio downstairs for a dinner party upstairs, smashed open at the table. Whatever the details may be, food and hospitality seem to be a constant source of joy for Kevin and Claudia.

Follow Claudia and Kevin on Instagram @claudialaustudio @house.editions @kevincheung_

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