A rather incredible evening on Monday… At short notice, I was invited to a dinner at Mosimann’s for a gathering of the Club des Chefs des Chefs – an elite association of chefs working for heads of state around the world. The reason: so that I could accompany the Chinese delegation, who might otherwise have felt stranded in a sea of non-Chinese-speakers. It was surreal and wonderful to meet the chefs in charge of the kitchens at the White House and Buckingham Palace, as well as the chefs attendant on the King of Thailand and the Irish President, among others. Interestingly, the Chinese delegation were not the personal chefs of the Chinese President, but two of a team of thirty-something culinary experts from all over China who produce state banquets at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Visiting heads of state do not stay in the Chinese president’s official residence while in Beijing, but in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, and we know nothing about the Chinese president’s private catering arrangements.) It was fascinating talking to the Chinese chefs, who were originally from Jiangxi and Liaoning (they and their colleagues take it in turns to attend the Club’s international events), and also a pleasure to be able to make them feel more at home. Continue reading…
Banquets, Beijing, Chefs, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Politics, Sea cucumber, Sichuanese cuisine / 3 Comments
While I was in Chengdu in March, I found myself staying in the same hotel as Michelle Obama for a couple of nights. Despite our proximity, I didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her, although the hotel restaurant was swarming with White House people during her stay, and I was penned in at the side of the road outside the hotel one evening while her imposing motorcade swept past. As you can imagine, the question at the top of my mind was: of all the possibilities, where are they going to take the First Lady to eat?!
In the end, according to newspaper reports, the organisers settled on two restaurants: a Tibetan restaurant, and a hotpot restaurant. And while I fully understand the reasons for choosing a Tibetan restaurant, and love the riotous fun of eating hotpot from time to time, I’m sorry that Mrs Obama didn’t also have the chance to enjoy a more typical Sichuanese meal. Hotpot, after all, despite being a fun experience and an example of the mala (numbing-and-hot) exuberance of Sichuanese cooking, is hardly a showcase for the broader cuisine in all its dazzling variety. Continue reading…
Anissa Helou beat me to it with her blog post about today’s culinary collaboration! Anyway, here’s mine. Anissa (a brilliant cook and food writer specialising in Middle Eastern culinary cultures) and I had been planning a joint Sino-Lebanese lunch for months, and we finally did it, sort of, because in the end it turned out to be Sino-Moroccan. I was in charge of the first course, Anissa of the main course and dessert. As I was cooking at home and planning a ‘Chinese takeaway’ delivery to Anissa’s place, it seemed like a good opportunity to use one of my Sichuanese cuan he ( 攒盒), the gorgeous lacquered boxes that are sometimes used for banquet appetisers. Each box comes with an ornamented lid – in this case a dragon and phoenix (see below), and a neat jigsaw of detachable compartments for the food. The smallest boxes have one central compartment with four others around: this is known as a ‘five-colour’ box. The one I used today is a ‘nine-colour’ box, although I cheated slightly because I only made eight dishes (as you can see, one is duplicated in two compartments). Continue reading…
Recently I went with the head chef of Barshu, Zhang Xiaozhong, to give some presentations at the Worlds of Flavour conference at the Culinary Institute of America (generally known, amusingly, as the CIA). As we were driving back to San Francisco after the event, I asked Chef Zhang about his plans for the Chinese New Year, and he replied with this wistful little poem about the life of the chef, slaving away over a hot stove while everyone else celebrates with their families:
他人家中聚 Other people gather in their homes
我望锅中油 I gaze at the oil in the wok
妙手烹万物 Using my subtle hands to cook ten thousand
厨房度春秋 Working in the kitchen as the seasons pass
Chefs, Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants, People, Restaurants / 13 Comments
Francis Lam has written an interesting piece on the history of General Tso’s chicken for Salon.com. And I think it may clear up one of the niggling little questions that has been perplexing me since I gave a paper on the subject last month, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the discussion that followed my talk, I realised that I didn’t have any idea how to explain the fact that, although the Taiwan-Hunanese chef Peng Chang-Kuei seems clearly to be the originator of the dish, and although the Chinese name of the dish on the menu of his restaurant in Taipei is Zuo Zongtang’s chicken (左宗棠土雞 － Zuo Zongtang is the full name of General Tso), he translates it as ‘Chicken a la Viceroy’. It didn’t occur to me to ask when and how the English name was changed from ‘Chicken a la Viceroy’ to ‘General Tso’s Chicken’ – and I’d resolved to ask Chef Peng and his son about this detail next time I talk to them. Continue reading…
Awards, Chefs, Chinese restaurants, Hong Kong, Restaurants / 1 Comment
Some time ago I wrote a piece for the Financial Times about the Michelin Guide’s awarding of its maximum accolade, three stars, to a Chinese restaurant, for the first time. While researching the article, I interviewed the director of the Michelin Guides, Jean-Luc Naret, on the controversy over whether one could judge Chinese and Western restaurants by the same criteria. Since I spoke to him, I’ve had one more niggling question, which is: with most Chinese restaurants, you really need to go with a large group to see what they can do, so aren’t they at a disadvantage when the judging is done by lone Michelin inspectors on repeated visits? Perhaps the inspectors don’t go alone, but it’s hard to imagine that their expenses budget would cover repeated visits with a party of people. If you visit a typical high-end Chinese restaurant alone, or with one dining companion, you are likely to be able to try only a few dishes, and to miss the excitement that comes from a really well-planned and diverse dinner for a group, which can be a kind of showcase for different cooking methods. In general, it is international hotels with Chinese restaurants that offer something equivalent to a Western tasting menu: could this explain the much-criticised focus on hotel restaurants in the inaugural Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau? Hmm…
Chefs, Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants, Hong Kong, Restaurants / 4 Comments
I promised to write a little more on this story, and ended up doing a piece for the Financial Times, which you can read here. It was an interesting subject to research – and I had a very robust discussion on the phone with the director of Michelin guides, Jean-Luc Naret. I pushed him quite hard on the subject of rubbery things, which I honestly don’t believe most Europeans can appreciate (it took me years). His argument was that Michelin inspectors, as professionals, are duty-bound to understand the cuisines they assess – including alien aspects such as texture foods. Which conjures up a rather amusing picture of Michelin inspectors munching their way through piles of fish maw, sea cucumber and bird’s nest, trying to grasp the finer points of slitheriness…
For the first time, Michelin has awarded its maximum honour, three stars, to a Chinese chef - Chan Yan Tak of the Lung King Heen restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong. The amazing accolade came in the first Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau.
I had lunch at the restaurant in May, and briefly met the chef himself. As this was at the tail end of an exhausting gastronomic tour of China, I wasn’t capable of embarking on a full tasting menu, but enjoyed some of his delicate dim sum.
I’ll be writing more about this later, but wanted to flag up an interview I did for the BBC last night – not sure how long it will remain on their website, but you might just catch it!
The other night I was introduced over dinner to Li Enhai, a famous noodle chef. Apparently he is noted in the Guinness Book of Records – his claim to fame is being able to pull noodle dough into strands so fine that you can fit thirty-nine of them through the eye of a needle! The other guests told me that his noodles are so thin they resemble cobwebs. After dinner, there was a loud clanking as we prepared to have a photo taken together. I wondered what this was, and then saw that it was Master Li rummaging in his bag for his gold medals, won over the years in the Chinese culinary equivalents of the Olympics!