Phillip Lim | The Gourmand
Close friends Phillip Lim and Viviane Sassen have collaborated on More Than Our Bellies, which is as much a recipe book as it is a beautiful object that overflows with tenderness. To understand it is to go back to Lim’s family’s arrival in California in the mid 1970s having fled the Cultural Revolution in China and then the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The fashion designer went on to establish 3.1 Phillip Lim in 2005 and has since become celebrated for his pared back aesthetic. His newfound culinary flair has been driven by his desire to conjure up the rich and emotive flavours of his mother’s home cooking. The book draws on Sassen’s world-renowned ability to capture the spirit and humanity of roads less travelled through her photographs – here given a luscious, painterly treatment - to echo Lim’s equally vivid dishes that satisfy both the stomach and the soul. Now Lim opens up about this very special project.
How did your early relationship to food form?
My family are immigrants so food at home was what felt familiar and comfortable to us in a strange world. When I was a kid and I’d had a bad day, my mom would cook my favourite foods and in that moment everything was okay and nothing else mattered.
So she knows how to cook up a storm?
My mom is a superwoman. She was coming to a foreign land, working a full time job as a seamstress in a garment factory, looking after six kids and a husband, and still cooking three square meals a day. It’s incredible.
What incentivised you to start cooking?
I had been living in New York for a long time and surviving on take-outs. I didn’t know how to cook and it was making me ill. At the same time I was homesick. So three or four years ago I decided to try and make my mom’s basil ginger chicken [the first recipe in the book] from olfactory memory. I guessed all the ingredients and it worked. That awoke in me a discovery of cooking and the power of food. I got hooked on the alchemy of layering flavours and colours. It’s changed my outlook on life and reinforced in me the belief that you can make something out of nothing if you have the intention.
The same could be said of fashion.
Yes. My thing is about “romancing reality”. You can take the most simple fabrics and create something desirable and essential with pure forms. The main feedback I get from customers when they try something on is that it feels like it was made for them personally. And when I’m cooking it’s the same. I’m thinking about my guests’ tastes and what they should try. It all links to my desire to nourish, to clothe, to feed.
You call Viviane a “kindred spirit” in the book.
I’ve always been a huge fan of her work; she is a goddess of photography. She possesses an empathetic eye and sees the grace in the most humble things. Her work allows you to dream. From the first day we met it was like we’d known each other forever. She has since lensed multiple campaigns for me and we wanted to keep working together on a personal project, so she came up with the idea of a cookbook. She said, “You have this hobby, there’s a light that shines when you talk about food, let’s do it”.
How did you shape the concept?
I was hesitant because I’m not a chef, I’m just a normal guy who likes cooking, but she told me not overthink it and to view it as a dialogue between friends. So it’s a leap of faith. It’s a poem about my cooking intertwined with her one-of-a-kind art works of beauty in non-western cultures, of markets and of places where food is sold and shared.
What was the creative process like between you?
She brought me a cute little scrap box filled with hundreds of polaroids amassed from her travels. Here I am sitting in front of THE Viviane Sassen and she’s showing me these intimate works and telling me “They’re all yours”. It makes me giddy to talk about it. She’d ask me to respond to the images, I’d think about the recipes I wanted to include, and we’d go back and forth. That’s what it’s always like with us, it’s spontaneous and nothing is programmed.
Was it hard to choose just 12 recipes?
It was an internal battle. These are just dishes I cook every day, they’re not special and they’re perhaps naïve. But this isn’t a traditional cookbook. It’s me being authentic and sharing my joy. It’s a mixture of my mom’s recipes, my recipes and classic ones that I have interpreted in my own way. A lot of them are accidents and they range from simple to complex.
What does your mother make of it all?
I have a secret.
My mom doesn’t know about this book. She is the inspiration behind it but she’s in denial that I even cook. When I go home, I tell her I want to be her assistant, to see all the nuances of what goes into her dishes, and she looks at me like I’m crazy. She’s so traditional it’s like, “I’m your mom and I’m going to cook for you”. One day I am going to have to sit her down and cook for her and then she’ll believe me but as it stands, if she sees this book, she will be in tears.
As a seamstress, she must have been your inspiration in more ways than one.
It all comes from her. The way she treats everything with respect, and knows how to make something out of nothing. It’s hard to put into words but this book is for her. It’s full of my love memories of being in her kitchen.
Oxtail and potato soup
When I was a child, I’d think it was gross to eat oxtail and my mom would tell me I was being silly. Now I understand that it’s important to celebrate every single part of the animal and that actually, the tail is the most luxurious. The preparation takes a long time because you have to get the oxtail to fall off the bone. The dish is quite rustic but it seems very grand and when I serve it, everyone says it tastes like home.
Hainanese chicken rice (Kow mon gai)
This dish is prepared in every Chinese family’s home. It’s humble and it uses all parts of the chicken as part of a long, loving process. The result is a full meal with beautiful flavours – a meat, a carb and a soup. That’s how my mom has always managed to make multiple dishes.
Tom yam ghoong
I’ve become interested in knowing about all the purposes of ingredients such as herbs that are anti-inflammatory, detoxing or make you smell good. Lemongrass is incredible. When I visited Cambodia, I found out that locals don’t need to use mosquito repellent because their diet is so full of lemongrass. And as part of this dish, it is the perfect cure for jet lag. I travel so often that this has become my go-to.
Market roast duck noodle soup
I live in Soho next to China Town where I do all my shopping, and there’s something romantic about the idea of those roast ducks hanging in the windows. I don’t know how to do one from scratch but want to be as authentic as possible while accepting my limitation so I buy a duck, break it down and reconstruct it into a soup. This is my favourite food.
Photography: Viviane Sassen
Publication: The Gourmand