Tastes Like Home

Text by Charlene Chan
Photography by Jovian Lim

Family can sometimes be our harshest critics. Just ask Vanessa, who, despite being the founder of Plain Vanilla Bakery, says only half-jokingly that her family sometimes prefers not to eat her bakes at family events because they’re “homemade”. But if our conversation was anything to go by, then it’s clear that despite their teasing, Vanessa’s family has had quite the influence on her current relationship with, and appreciation for food. Till today, she counts a good meal as the one thing that keeps her fulfilled during busy periods—a practice rooted in her family’s habit of always eating well.

Having meals together is something else Vanessa’s family always upheld while she was growing up. They don’t eat together as much as she’d like anymore, though it’s a tradition she tries to keep with her husband Phil. She recalls fondly the early days of Plain Vanilla, when she would leave the store close to midnight: the two always made it a point to eat dinner together, even if they did have 酸甜鸡球饭 (sweet and sour chicken rice) from Crystal Jade five times a week. “It wasn’t posh, but it makes you feel like life is not so bad because you’re eating something shiok and you really enjoy it,” she offers.

Sharing meals with her husband, in fact, has made Vanessa realise belatedly just how instrumental her family has been in defining the way she eats. Having grown up in England and lived in Hong Kong for a while, she explains, Phil didn’t have as many opportunities to sample the different cuisines as she did—though he did always have the luxury of eating home-cooked food, which tended to be British fare. Her mother and herself, on the other hand, both “have the same problem, which is we always order a lot. Even at home, there’s always a lot of variety.”

With her family shaping so much of her encounters with food, it’s no wonder Vanessa draws substantially from their shared experiences in her recipes. Instead of trends, which she tends not to follow, she introduces flavours she comes across on family trips, or dishes they prepare during quieter moments at home. As Vanessa recounts the events that have inspired part of Plain Vanilla’s menu (and even its name), it becomes apparent that her success hasn’t come by chance. The rich tapestry of stories behind each recipe has infused the bakery’s offerings with a kind of comforting familiarity—the kind only family can provide.

Read more in The X Press N˚2.