Why isn’t Chinese fine dining more of a thing?
There are expensive Chinese restaurants in Shanghai, but the introduction of the Michelin Shanghai Guide in September highlighted the lack of creative, contemporary Chinese fine dining. Why doesn’t more of it exist, and what would help it take off?
When Michelin launched its inaugural Shanghai Guide on September 21, awarding 35 stars to 26 restaurants, residents were bemused by the selections. The prevailing sentiment in our office, summed up by Co-CEO Julien Lapka, was “unbelievable”.
Of the eight restaurants awarded two stars or more, three were Western and four, including the only three-starred restaurant, T’ang Court, were Cantonese. The guide’s selections bypassed many of the city’s most beloved cuisines, including food from Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Dongbei.
There are several reasons why the Michelin guide doesn’t really work in mainland China. Contemporary fine dining is in many respects a Western conceit — Michelin, which helped to define it, is, after all, a French company.
Lawrence Lo, a TV food critic at Shanghai’s ICS with almost 710,000 fans on Weibo, points out that “the majority of emigrants that left China in the old days were from the coastal Guangdong area. As such, Cantonese is the legacy cuisine that Westerners are most familiar with.”
“I think as more books and information are published about China and Chinese cuisines, more foreign audiences will get a chance to explore different regional cuisines, and this will influence Michelin to feature other Chinese regional cuisines.” he says.
In China, Cantonese food often includes expensive face-giving dishes like sea cucumber and abalone, which allow them to charge higher prices and invest more in decor and presentation, important criteria in Michelin’s selections.
The Michelin Guide also tends to privilege creativity and individuality over tradition and collaboration, which are more celebrated in Asia, knocking many Chinese restaurants out of contention. And yet, Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world. If sushi chefs can earn Michelin stars, can’t Shanghai dumpling chefs — the anonymous authors of the renowned xiaolongbao — do the same?
Paul Pairet, the chef behind Shanghai’s “psycho-taste” French dining experience Ultra Violet, which received two Michelin Stars, says, “Why not?”
He believes Chinese fine dining could become more representative of Chinese cuisine — beyond the Cantonese food that originated over 1,200 kilometres away — but only “if Chinese chefs develop a real identity and don’t reproduce classic or pseudo creativity by drifting on Western creations.”
One of the obstacles to that is business practices. Pairet says Chinese chefs are “generally kept in the shadow by Chinese restaurateurs to avoid reaching a celebrity status that could be costly and could translate in opportunities — thus in losing them.”
Who’s the Alain Ducasse of Chinese cuisine?
Choosing to write about food after graduating from Harvard law school, Liz Kao both infuriated her father and developed a curious writing style. She covered restaurants in a distinct voice, disciplined and diligent, “like someone writing a legal memo,” she says.
She has since grown the audience on her Facebook page, Self-taught Gourmet, to over 50,000 followers, in part by focusing on fine dining in Taipei, which she says means writing disproportionately about Western and Japanese restaurants. Chinese cuisine, so popular among lower and mid-priced restaurants, is less popular at the high end, especially with talented Taiwanese chefs.
“Young chefs these days like to learn Western cooking, but not our own cooking,” Kao says. “Even though they were trained in Chinese cooking, they still go abroad to train in Western cooking, and come back to open a Western restaurant. It’s because they look up to celebrity chefs, most of whom cook French, they cook Italian. There are no role models in Chinese cooking or Taiwanese cooking. You don’t see Alain Ducasse cooking Chinese.”
In a culture obsessed with food — the most viewed items at Taipei’s National Palace Museum are rocks resembling pork and cabbage — Chinese chefs aren’t celebrated. “It was France that first gave chefs a respectful identity,” Kao says. “Back here, chefs are very blue collar. We don’t really respect chefs. That’s why young chefs all look up to Western chefs.”
“When you look at the development of celebrity chefs it’s very interesting how chefs become entrepreneurs, artists, stars. Here in the East it’s starting to emerge but it’s still not so prevalent.”
Lawrence Lo says that while in China the focus remains on the restaurant and the brand, rather than an individual chef’s creativity, chef Lan Guijun, who runs Yu Zhi Lan, an 18-seat restaurant in Chengdu, is one example of a chef developing the creative contemporary Chinese fine dining that Michelin loves to shout about. The man the Financial Times calls "the new emperor of Chinese gastronomy" is certainly well on his way to celebrity status.
- Article by Sam Gaskin and Stephanie Fan