The chef transforming Taipei’s farm produce into haute French cuisine
After honing her culinary skills in France, Vanessa Huang is championing the farm-to-table concept at her Michelin-approved Restaurant Ephernite.
A mere five-minute walk from Liuzhangli MRT Station in Taipei, you’ll find Restaurant Ephernite discreetly tucked away in a quiet street.
Facing the back of Shangri-la's Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in the Daan district, its cosy interiors are simple yet elegant. Inside this space with an intimate seating capacity of about 20, diners are greeted by a modern minimalist aesthetic, with chic black walls and dimmed tungsten light bulbs.
But what really grabs the attention here is, of course, the food, which earned a Michelin Plate recognition in the Taipei edition back in 2018.
Ephernite was founded by Taiwanese chef Vanessa Huang and managed by her husband, Claude Chen, who is also the restaurant’s sommelier and maitre d’. “If I have to describe my food or define it, it is French food without a doubt. But it’s unique French food built around my own personality. I’m not interested in copying traditional dishes. I want to bring my ideas and philosophies to my guests,” she explained.
Huang’s passion for French gastronomy was something she stumbled upon during her university days in Paris, where she majored in filmmaking and art. “My host family were bakers and I learnt some baking techniques from them. They take what they eat seriously; always mindful about food,” she said.
After graduating, she returned to Taiwan to work for her family’s trading business. But her heart remained in France. Not wasting any time, she went back to study cooking at the Ferrandi Paris School of Culinary Arts, and secured an apprenticeship at the acclaimed three Michelin-starred Astrance. That was also the time she met Chen, a French-born Taiwanese who, at that time, was managing his family-owned restaurant in the suburbs of Paris.
"I’m not interested in copying traditional dishes. I want to bring my ideas and philosophies to my guests."
“When I first went to France, I originally wanted to open a small cafe in Taiwan. However, I saw a whole different world when I attended cooking school. The scale of a three-starred Michelin restaurant, the French culture, and French tastes that Claude introduced to me had some impact on me,” she shared.
The couple left for Taiwan in 2014 and opened Ephernite a year later. The name was a play on the words “ephemeral” and “eternity” – for the dining experience to remain in one’s memory. Their main objective was to provide Taiwanese people with a relaxed and calm environment that offers high-quality French cuisine. Combining Chen’s keen knowledge in wine-pairing and Huang’s culinary works of art, it’s safe to say dining at Ephernite does evoke a French experience.
Huang also shared her pride in being part of the global farm-to-table social movement, which supports the local farming industry by sourcing fresh produce from farms within Taipei. One of her regular suppliers is Zheng Ru Yen of Grass Mountain Farm, who specialises in micro-farming.
The close relationship between farmer and chef is something she also discovered while training in France. “This is more than a collaboration between restaurant and farmer; we are like a team,” she explained.
Like many top restaurants, Ephernite’s menu is wholly dependent on what is in season, so there is no fixed menu to speak of, as it changes every day. “After we receive the ingredients, we take into consideration the weather that day, and also what we think our diners would like to have. We have to come up with new ideas and experiment daily. When the weather and ingredients come together perfectly, we’ll make the dish,” she said.
More importantly, Huang adopts a zero-waste approach to the use of ingredients in the kitchen. “Take radish, for example. We use the good-looking ones to make dishes and non-good-looking ones are made into mashed radish. We even use radish stems to make pickles, radish leaves to make salads, and radish flowers to decorate the dish. We use everything,” she said.
"Some people may find my cuisine too fine, too feminine, too Asian. As long as there are customers coming, I will keep doing what I do."
Although intrinsically informed by classical French techniques, a large part of Huang’s creations – such as the signature vegetable terrine – are Taiwanese-inspired and vege-led, as she grew up in a vegetarian household. “We use 12 different kinds of vegetables, not including those we use to make the broth and stock. There are also sides with different fresh vegetable salads and our pickled green mangoes,” she elaborated.
You can certainly feel Huang’s passion and respect for the ingredients in her food. Every dish on her degustation menu is beautifully-presented with a colourful combination of flowers or leaves – a true reflection of her soft-spoken, feminine and delicate demeanour.
“Some people may find my cuisine too fine, too feminine; or some people may think that these French dishes are too Asian. As long as there are customers coming to my restaurant, I will keep doing what I do,” she said.
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 8.30pm.