A Chef's Path to Chinese Tea Culture

published on 16 November 2020

Most people in my life call me Chef since I have been a chef since 1989. I am also the founder of the New York Tea Society, an ever-growing tea club for tea enthusiasts. The only prerequisite for membership in NYTS is a genuine passion for tea and tea culture. I want everyone to see tea as more than just a beverage…to experience the true nature of tea…to drink tea not just for flavor alone, but also for the enlightening feeling which fills you when you drink a high-quality tea.

Currently, I am in the process of developing a cookbook in which I am combining the two great passions of my life… cooking and tea. Arriving at this junction in my life has been an amazing journey!

In my culinary world, I have had the honor of working alongside NYC’s finest chefs in restaurants, hotels, high society clubs, and banquet halls. I have traveled to various countries to introduce my cuisine and explore theirs. I have cooked for countless celebrities and met thousands of amazing people.

In my tea world, I have explored the beautifully hypnotizing tea producing villages of China, where tea culture thrives, absorbing as much tea knowledge as possible from the tea farmers, distributors, and vendors, with whom I have developed life-long bonds and friendships. I founded the New York Tea Society where we hold gatherings, events, outings, and virtual discussions with today’s foremost leaders in the tea world.

Yes, it has been an amazing journey indeed, a journey that continues to this day, leaving me excited for what tomorrow may bring.

Sowing of the Tea Seeds

I did not grow up on a tea farm or even with tea drinkers. I grew up in New York City, in a Puerto Rican family of coffee drinkers. Not moderate coffee drinkers, but rather, obsessive coffee drinkers. Both of my parents needed, not wanted, needed, to drink a minimum of three to four cups of coffee before starting their day. Although I agree that the aroma of coffee is quite special, too much of anything, even of a good thing, can ruin an experience. This is precisely what happened to me. The smell of coffee in my house every morning traumatized my senses and I now become a bit nauseous anytime I am around the strong aroma of coffee beans. So, although I agree that coffee is a very special beverage, and I completely understand how many people can fall in love with it, my childhood traumatization of the coffee aroma prevents me from enjoying it in such a way.

My first introduction to tea came from my grandmother who would often prepare tea for me as a child. It was not the type of tea that I would drink today, but as a child, it was most enjoyable. It was Lipton’s orange pekoe tea bags brewed with ginger, milk, and sugar. When I say sugar, I mean sugar! It was an ultra-sweet dessert-like beverage.

In these early years, my mother would also serve me tea. She would prescribe tea at the first sign of sniffles. It was believed in our home that tea could prevent most illnesses if caught in time. Lipton tea with ginger, lemon, and honey was the prescribed medication in my household for healing most ailments. I grew up believing that this fantastic beverage had special healing powers!

As I grew older, many of my friends and family members would enjoy a cup of coffee or espresso after a meal. I always opted for tea. Yes, it was tea bags that I was steeping, for I had not yet heard of loose-leaf teas, but without loose leaf teas in which to compare the tea bags with, the tea bags were just fine. The teas available to me in these years included orange pekoe, earl grey, English breakfast, jasmine, mint, chamomile, and ‘green’. I must put the word green in quotes here because although it was labeled green tea and it probably was actually green tea leaves being used, the quality of the early green tea bags was so poor that it in no manner resembles the whole leaf green teas which I enjoy today.

My first experience with using tea as a cooking ingredient came many years later, in 1994, while working as a sous chef. The chef I was working with at the time was requested by a food publication to submit some of his tea-inspired recipes for an issue they were working on about cooking with tea. Being in the midst of our busiest season, the chef delegated the project to me. He requested that I incorporate tea into some of his already existing menu items. This project made it possible for me to see tea in a whole new light. I no longer would see tea as merely a beverage. A seed was sowed deep within me which continued to grow strongly throughout the years to come.

After this introduction, I began to see tea as more than just a beverage. I slowly began to experiment with the flavors, the bitterness, the astringencies, and the color variations which tea can produce as an ingredient to food.


The Gongfu Awakening

During a family gathering, in Vancouver, I was introduced to Lester, who although I did not know it at the time, would ultimately become my mentor in the tea world. Hearing from the family that I was interested in tea; he had planned to treat me to a tasting of a special aged tea. After dinner that evening, he looked over to me and said, “Roy, I hear that you enjoy tea very much.”

“I do.”, I replied excitedly.

He got up from the table, walked over to the counter, took out a step stool, and began to climb it. As he opened up the cabinet he looked down at me and asked, “So Roy what kind of teas do you normally enjoy?”

I looked up to him and yelled, “Oh, I enjoy all teas. I mostly drink jasmine tea, mint tea…any kind of tea actually.”

His face changed from pride to disappointment. The round object in his hands, which he was carefully removing from the cabinet was tapped back onto the shelf as he closed the cabinet door and began to come down from the stairs. “Oh, I see.”

Noticing that he did not bring the tea out of the cabinet, I asked him, “Is that tea you are bringing down from there.”

“It was, but I’ll have my wife brew some jasmine tea for you instead.”

“Actually, I am extremely interested in seeing what kind of tea that is. I’ve never seen a tea like that before.”, I pleaded.

He dismissed my plea with, “Oh, it’s ok…this tea is somewhat of an acquired taste. It may not be what you are used to drinking.”

I pushed on a bit as I was truly intrigued, “ No, really, I would love to try it if you don’t mind.”

Reluctantly, but politely, he reached in for the tea cake and brought it down to the table. He cleared the table, set up a teapot and tasting cups in front of us, and carefully began opening the wrapper. He explained that this tea was a Pu’er tea cake that was 35 years old, aged in Hong Kong. He explained to me how the weather in Hong Kong is more humid than in other areas, producing a distinct taste known as ‘wet storage’. He explained the characters and symbols on the wrapper. He discussed the look and shape of the tea leaves. He showed me the neifei, which was steamed into the cake for authentication purposes. He explained that these types of cakes are counterfeited and sold for highly inflated prices. The tea discussion continued for over an hour. This was my first true tea experience!

The brewing began. He poured boiling water into the clay teapot to warm the pot. He poured the water from the pot into the fairness pitcher and then from the fairness pitcher into the tasting cups. He explained that all the tea vessels need to be warmed so that the tea is not cooled down upon being poured. He placed the tea leaves into the warm pot, covered the pot, shook it a bit, removed the cover, and passed the pot to me so that I could smell the leaves. An aroma that I had never smelled before arose from the leaves. No tea which I experienced previously had ever smelled like this. It had an aroma that cannot be described accurately by comparing it to a flower or a fruit or a vegetable. It is more accurately described by comparing it to the smell which I remembered from my childhood, playing in the mountains in Puerto Rico after the rain had moistened the forest floor. It had an aroma that had the power to conjure up memories, feelings, and emotions. Lester carefully looked at my face as I took that first smell and noticed that I understood!

He went on to pour boiling water over the tea leaves and quickly poured the tea into the fairness pitcher and into the tasting cups. After my long introduction to the tea, the moment had come to taste it. The taste resembled mushrooms, it was earthy, and slightly smoky, unlike any tea I tasted prior. I instantly realized that my tea drinking experience would never be the same again.


The Rabbit Hole Door

I knew that I had to learn more about this kind of tea! I asked him to teach me more about it and excited to find another tea lover, Lester agreed. He continued to brew teas with me until 6:00 AM the next morning. After this day, my desire to go to China to learn about tea culture was born. My journeys into China to acquire more knowledge about how teas are grown, sold, brewed, and drank began the following month and continue to this day. The magic in learning about tea is that every question answered results in ten more questions. I believe this to be part of the mystique of the tea world. You will never reach a point where you know everything about tea.

During my travels to China, I learned about famous green teas such as the Longjing, Bi Luo Chun, Lu’an Guapian; white teas such as Silver Needle, White Peony, Gong Mei, Shou Mei, and Moonlight White. I learned about oolongs such as Tieguanyin, Da Hong Pao, Rou Gui. I learned about black teas such as Lapsang Souchong, Jin Jun Mei, and Dian Hong. I learned about tea processing by staying in tea farmers’ homes, waking up early to pick tea leaves on the mountains, spending the day processing the tea leaves, and ending the night sharing stories with the tea farmer’s family while drinking baijiu (white wine).

Most importantly, I learned about the tea-drinking custom of sitting around a tea table. I observed first hand how this mystical beverage has the power to bring people together from all over the world, from different paths, to share stories about their journeys and experiences, forming unbreakable, life-long bonds.


The Search for a Tea Family

It was at the end of my first journey to China that Lester reminded me that in the USA it would not be easy to find others with the same passion for tea that he had awakened in me. I thought about this but did not realize how true this statement was until I returned to New York. I invited my friends, who had never heard of gongfu cha, to enjoy some of the special teas which I had brought back with me. Although they showed interest in the gongfu table, the teapots, and the brewing method, it was still just tea to them. They did not understand the mystical allure of tea and after tasting a cup of tea they wanted to quickly rush on to other activities. They did not understand that I had planned for the tasting to last several hours.

This is when I began to seek out other tea enthusiasts. My search was unproductive, to say the least. I then decided to form a tea club. I created a meetup site hoping to find a dozen or so passionate tea lovers. To my surprise, membership in the meetup rose to over 100 within the 1st month and quickly grew to over 500 members. It appeared that there were many tea lovers waiting for a tea club to be formed. This was the birth of the New York Tea Society.

Today, I am busy with both my daily job as a chef and running the New York Tea Society, where we still do two gatherings per week. These events consist of virtual discussions, outings, and tea tastings. Most importantly, these gatherings bring the tea community together. NYTS members have become an ever-growing family where we share not only tea but our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. We support each other through life’s daily challenges…with tea…the most important item at the table and simultaneously the most unimportant.

If you have reached this part of the story, then you are aware of my passion to meet new tea friends and continue growing the community. Feel free to reach out to me with questions, comments or to set up a tea session.

Email: roy.lamberty@newyorkteasociety.com

Instagram: @newyorkteasociety

Facebook Group: New York Tea Society

New York Tea Society's Website

(Originally published by Roy Lamberty in MyTeaPal Stories)

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