Chinese cuisine is finally getting the global respect it deserves

Hong Kong (CNN) – In 1997, restaurateur Danny Yip returned to Hong Kong from Australia.

Having worked in the food and beverage industry since the 1980s, he vowed never to open another restaurant again.

“It was extremely exhausting,” he recalls in an interview with CNN Travel.

Instead, upon returning to his hometown, he founded a successful internet business.

It didn’t take long for him to break his vow.

Missing the industry action and fun, he sold his business in the 2000s and opened President, a humble two-story Cantonese restaurant located on a quiet side street in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong.

It ended up being a smart move – today the president is widely regarded as the epitome of modern Chinese restaurants.

First Chinese restaurant to win No. 1

The president won the first place of this year Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Award – the very first Chinese restaurant to win this distinction, decided by an academy of 318 voters spread across Asia.

“It’s a simple restaurant – no frills, no gimmicks, just brilliant Cantonese cuisine focused on ingredients,” says William Drew, content director for the world’s 50 best restaurants, which organizes the awards.

Maybe part of its success is because diners reevaluate what is most important and conclude that unattractive destinations that are truly dedicated to finding the best ingredients and creating imaginative and delicious dishes should be very. appreciated. “

An obvious example of this is the President’s “Camphor Wood Smoked 7 Spiced Goose”, which took months to develop – and it’s not even on the menu. Customers need to pre-order it.

The president’s famous dish “Smoked Goose in Camphor Wood with 7 Spices” takes three days to prepare.

President

First, the goose is marinated in the juice of chicken, duck, pigeon and goose for two days. Then it is steamed over low heat for eight hours.

Finally, it is smoked over a soft camphor wood fire, with a chef having to change the wood halfway through the process.

Three days of work results in tender, moist slices of goose meat and extremely intense flavors that do not require any accompaniment.

“The President stands out for his consistency over the years, but at the same time he has never stopped. He doesn’t try to be something that he isn’t, but the culinary team explores without stops new ingredients and creates new dishes, ”adds A Drawn.

For Yip, winning first place is a victory for Chinese cuisine in general.

“Being a Chinese restaurant was a special time not only for us, but it means everything to anyone who works in Chinese restaurants,” he says.

“Many young chefs will not consider Chinese cuisine when they first join the industry. Internationally, there are many cuisines that have ranked higher than the Chinese – French, Japanese, even Scandinavian and Southern. -American. Many doubted China, wondering if there was any energy left for this old kitchen. “

The world’s complicated relationship with Chinese cuisine

Looking at previous lists of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2013, only Lung King Heen – Four Seasons Hong Kong’s three-Michelin-starred upscale Cantonese restaurant – has managed to move closer to the top, ranked 9th and 10th respectively in 2014 and 2016.

The president came in second last year. It was also the only Chinese restaurant to make the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, ranking 41st. (The 2020 edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards has been canceled due to the pandemic.)

Fresh and steamed flowering crab from the chair.

Fresh and steamed flowering crab from the chair.

Courtesy of the President

When it comes to the Michelin Guide, it is also rare to see Chinese restaurants to be applauded outside of Asia.

In 2009, when the first edition of the Michelin Guide in Hong Kong and Macau was published, Lung King Heen became the first Chinese restaurant to earn three stars in the 109-year history of the French guide.

Today, five of the ten three-star restaurants in the 2021 guide are Chinese.

Elsewhere in the region, Sazenka recently became the first Chinese restaurant to receive three Michelin stars in the 2021 Tokyo guide.
Over there in Europe A. Wong, which serves pan-regional Chinese cuisine with a modern twist, became the first Chinese restaurant to earn two Michelin stars outside of Asia with the publication of this year’s London Michelin Guide.

So why is it rare for Chinese restaurants – despite their worldwide popularity and long history – to achieve international recognition, compared to cuisines like French or Japanese?

London restaurant A. Wong has two Michelin stars.

London restaurant A. Wong has two Michelin stars.

Murray Wilson / A Wong

Andrew Wong, chef-owner of Restaurant A. Wong, offers a possible explanation.

“During the Cultural Revolution, imperial leaders emigrated to England, the United States, Canada and other parts of Europe. This is important because it has held back the growth of Chinese cuisine globally, ”explains the chef, who studied anthropology before taking over. the Chinese restaurant that his grandparents founded in London.

“These chefs have traveled, used their techniques and successfully integrated them into other cultures. They have made Chinese cuisine one of the most popular cuisines in the world.

“However, because we enjoy such a long history of interpreting and reinterpreting our cuisine in international cities, some things have been lost somewhere along the lines. Communication on technique, craftsmanship, dedication, sourcing and obsession with ingredients has been lost within Chinese Gastronomy. “

However, things have improved for Chinese cuisine over the past decade.

More modern Chinese establishments are popping up around the world, in line with an increased willingness of diners to try unfamiliar cuisines.

The “Taste of China” menu by A. Wong, for example, takes London diners on a journey through China, serving well-researched local dishes well seasoned with historical stories.

“The stars are now lining up and international chefs will be looking to learn more about the technique, ingredients and new flavors from Chinese chefs,” says Wong.

The president’s master plan

It’s impossible to talk about the President’s success without highlighting the soul of his cuisine – Chef Kwok Keung Tung, better known as Keung Gor (Brother Keung).

Yip asked Kwok to join the president after tasting the seasoned chef’s version of dry fried beef noodles – a classic Cantonese dish that tests the skills of a wok chef – over a decade ago.

“It takes courage to create this ‘wok hei’ (wok blast) in Chinese cuisine,” says Yip. “And there aren’t a lot of dry fried beef noodles that can pass that test in town.”

To attract Kwok to his team, Yip promised the chef complete autonomy in the kitchen, allowing him to create a cuisine he had never experienced before.

“The traditional way of doing things isn’t a bad way, but it could be boring,” Kwok says.

“Sometimes you want to try something new. At Chairman, Danny offers a much bigger box. Here we could find the strangest ways of cooking. When you see something, you will be inspired.”

Chef Kwok Keung Tung (left) stands with President's Founder Danny Yip outside the restaurant.

Chef Kwok Keung Tung (left) stands with President’s Founder Danny Yip outside the restaurant.

Maggie HIufu Wong / CNN

Outside of service hours, Yip and Kwok spend hours together, refining and reinventing their menus.

While visiting CNN Travel, they debate some of the most difficult Chinese dishes to cook, reaching consensus on cold ground chicken, a simple dish in which poultry is scalded in hot broth and then dipped in ice. cold.

“It’s hard to refine cold ground chicken any further,” Kwok says. “The traditional recipe doesn’t allow enough time for the flavors to penetrate every square inch of the chicken.”

Yip agrees, adding, “It’s the easiest way to cook chicken, focusing only on the original flavor. But our version is pretty good – and different.”

According to the president, the chicken is brined in cold broth for hours, allowing them to maximize flavor without overcooking it, Yip says.

Working together since the restaurant opened in 2008, the duo have developed hundreds of dishes together, fostering a deep sense of mutual understanding.

This is a different take on traditional Chinese restaurants, which are primarily recipe-oriented.

By focusing on the ingredients, concepts and essence of food – a central concept in Cantonese cuisine – the president created his own interpretation of Chinese cuisine and identity.

“Don’t you find it boring that all Chinese restaurants serve the same menu?” Yip asks.

Authentic Chinese cuisine with international appeal

The Chairman’s success has inspired other Chinese chefs far beyond Hong Kong.

“I was delighted that the president won. For me, it sent the message that Chinese cuisine is finally holding its head high internationally, ”says Xu Jing-ye, young chef and co-owner of 102 House in Foshan, China. It helps the international food and beverage industry to take Chinese food more seriously ”.

Xu’s small private kitchen-style restaurant was included this year on the inaugural “Essence of Asia” list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.

“Many restaurant chefs follow the recipes passed down by their own mentors. But they haven’t thought about the reasons behind the recipes.” said the young chief.

“The president is breaking the very strict boxes for traditional Chinese cuisines. It inspired me a lot. They create authentic Chinese cuisine that is internationally appealing.”

A plate of 102 homemade dried and braised noodles with sole.

A plate of 102 homemade dried and braised noodles with sole.

Jim Cheung Hin / 102 House

At 102 House, Xu cooks traditional Chinese cuisine while experimenting with different techniques and ingredients. All dishes strive to achieve the essence of authentic Cantonese cuisine: clean, filled with umami, crisp, smooth and tender.

“A lot of people have confused internationalization with simply adding Western ingredients or presenting it,” says Xu.

“But it’s not about internationalizing Chinese cuisine. What we need to do is help the international public understand Chinese cuisine.”

Thanks to a new generation of young chefs passionate about revolutionizing Chinese cooking styles while preserving the essence of cooking in their own way, this process is already underway.

“When we think creatively, we would be very close to rising to the top at the international level,” says Yip.

“Chinese cuisine has a solid and broad base in cooking techniques. Our ingredients are abundant, our heritage is rich. I don’t think it is difficult for Chinese cuisine to catch up on the international stage.”

Top image: Interior of Hong Kong’s The Chairman restaurant.




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