A veteran of the restaurant industry spills the beans on the kitchen which makes the note, reports Li Yingxue.
Zhao Renliang has worked in restaurant cooking for 57 years, and whether as an apprentice cook or as an executive chef, he has never left the kitchen.
In fact, not even a brief flirtation with retirement could persuade 83-year-old Zhao that his place is elsewhere than in the kitchen. He is too fond of creating new dishes and menus and working with young people to consider this possibility.
“Establishing a menu for a meal is like a doctor preparing a prescription.”
The chef must take into account both the preferences of the diners and exhibit different cooking skills during the same meal, he says.
Zhao, who has expertise in Shanghai, Cantonese, Sichuan and Western cuisine, was named a National Model Worker in 1994.
Three years later, he received the China Craftsmanship Award. In 25 years it has been won by 300 people, only three of whom have been chefs.
Zhao, born in Shanghai in 1948, started working in the kitchen of the famous Peace Hotel in 1964.
“When I finished college in the 1960s, there were no culinary schools.
He learned from Lin Jiu, a Cantonese chef, and for the first three years all he learned and practiced was the basic skills. He had to get up at 7 a.m. and go home only once a week, he said.
Knife skills were essential.
“Nowadays all ingredients such as ribs, chicken wings or chicken thighs are separated and cleaned before they are sent to the kitchen, but at that time a whole pig or chicken was coming to the area. Cooking.”
He can bone a fish and cut as much fish flesh as possible in a minute, he says. In a carving competition, he managed to cut chicken breasts into shreds in three minutes, with strict rules on size and dimensions. The judges put the shreds in a bowl of water to verify that each portion of the meat was completely and cleanly cut, he said.
“There isn’t a single dish that can be successful unless you have very good knife skills.”
Carving is another skill Zhao has become an expert in.
“Unlike some current dishes involving carving in which each part is cut separately and then glued together, when we were studying carving things had to be cut in one piece.
“My master taught me everything about crafts. He felt that by learning Chinese cuisine, you should inherit traditional skills, but also be creative enough to come up with your own style. You should not only master the skills. of each Chinese dish, but also have enough courage to break down the barriers between them and merge them.
In the 1980s, he was invited to be the expert for a Chinese restaurant in the Romanian capital, Bucharest. There he took part in a national cooking competition and won the gold medal and the best chef award with several Chinese dishes he created.
Zhao says he made a wax squash soup for this competition. He used the wax gourd as a container and sculpted birds and flowers on the outside, and he put wax gourd balls in the soup, a creation that delighted the Romanian judges.
In 1988, Zhao took up his post at a Shanghai cuisine restaurant at a Beijing hotel, Kunlun, and his dishes became so popular that a few years after he started working there, the restaurant’s daily recipes dropped from 10 000 yuan to 100,000 yuan. he says.
Zhao says one of his rules is that when creating new dishes you can’t be dogmatic about the flavor you get; rather, whatever flavor diners like is the right one.
From combining the ingredients of each dish to planning the arrangement of each meal, Zhao pays close attention to every step and every detail. He even shopped for the best ingredients to use in the restaurant.
He also pays a lot of attention to training young chefs, he says.
Chinese chef Su Dexing started working at the Peace Hotel in 1972 at the age of 19 and decided to try to emulate Zhao’s cuisine even though Zhao was only five years older.
“Zhao’s cooking skills were fantastic and we were about the same age, so I thought we could communicate well,” Su said.
He followed Zhao in the kitchen for many years until Zhao moved to Beijing.
“I thought about going to Beijing with him, but realized that I would never be independent if I did, so I decided to stay in Shanghai and called Zhao whenever I had questions. or difficulty cooking, ”says Su.
In 1988, Zhao participated in the second edition of the national cooking competition organized by the China Cuisine Association and won one gold, one silver and three bronze.
Five years later, Su entered the third edition of the competition. Zhao hatched a great plan that helped Su win the gold medal and placed him at the top of the nation’s Top 100 Chefs list.
After winning the award, Su had the chance to organize dinners for the leaders of many countries. Usually when he is making dinner, he calls Zhao and the couple discuss ideas, he says.
In October 2001, when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting was held in Shanghai, Su was responsible for preparing the gala dinner for the meeting attendees.
This time, Su invited Zhao to come to Shanghai and help him cook dinner together. “We had to serve 580 people at the same time, which is quite a challenge for the chefs,” says Su.
For the gala dinner, Su says, he and Zhao carefully selected seasonal local ingredients, then sketched out what the dishes would look like on paper before starting to cook them and adjust the recipes along the way. They had to consider the order of the dishes as they considered the flavors, Zhao said.
A beef dish the two created turned out to be a sensation, they say. They used beef from Dalian, Liaoning Province, and marinated it for 12 hours before pan-frying it to seal its juice. The beef was then steamed with vegetables for exactly 90 minutes, and after cooling, the beef was cut into individual portions, put on the plate and served.
The other challenge in this big event was to manage time, with all dishes to be served within a time limit, usually 40 minutes for four courses as well as the dessert and the fruit plate.
“For a gala, every second counts,” Zhao says. “For the chiefs, it’s like a battlefield.”
Even though working on such galas was exhausting, he says, doing them was a huge honor.
Zhao retired in 2018, but realized that he just couldn’t do anything, so he returned to Shanghai to help prepare the gala dinner for the first China International Import Expo.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, Zhao accepted the post of chef at the Chinese restaurant Macao at the Legendale Hotel in Wangfujing, Beijing.
“After I retired, I received job offers from all over China and refused, but Wangfujing’s job is only a 10-minute drive from my home, so even with my age , It’s okay.”
Zhao designed a special yellow croaker dish for the summer season, all dishes are prepared with yellow croaker but in different shapes and flavors.
He chooses high quality fish of the same size and bones them using only the meat in what he cooks.
From sea cucumber fish soup to fried fish strips, and seared ginger fish to sweet and sour fish, Zhao creates a yellow croaker feast using various cooking techniques, and he always cooks.
“If cooking skills are to be properly imparted to young people, you have to show yourself how things are done,” he says.
“The value of us chefs is that we have to cook. No matter what title I have, I always stand in front of the kitchen bench. I think the art of cooking is not the beauty of cooking. ‘arranging things on a plate: it’s about being able to add exactly the right amount of seasoning at exactly the right time. “
Contact the writer at [email protected]