Before the early 1990s large restaurants in China were mostly state run, and chefs cooked in traditional ways without much room for creativity. Now private restaurants are flourishing, with individual purveyors of local cuisine competing with national and international chains. Cooking styles are changing, fueled by a younger generation more open to new and surprising tastes. And food safety scandals have led to growing interest in natural and organic food.
The world is noticing: In September Michelin stars were awarded for the first time to mainland Chinese restaurants. In all, 26 restaurants were honored, all of them in Shanghai, China’s financial center. Tony Lu is head chef at Fu, a family run group of four restaurants on a single Shanghai street, whose elegant vegetarian restaurant Fu He Hui is one of the Michelin star winners. Lu recently spoke with Smithsonian Journeys about China’s changing tastes and his own innovative approach to cooking.
How does Chinese society see the role of the chef?
Views have changed. When I started in 1993, you did it to make a living; it wasn’t a career you chose because of your ideals, you just didn’t have much choice. In our generation most chefs didn’t have any specialist training. You just started in the kitchen and worked your way up. I began after leaving high school, at 18, and eventually became head chef. Now there’s a lot more information, inspiring young people’s interest in the job.
But still, in China the investors and owner control a restaurant, not the chef. It’s a fundamental difference from famous chefs in the West. Here some chefs don’t want to be famous, and some restaurant owners don’t want them to be famous. So in China it’s relatively rare to find chefs with their own personality. It’s the same with our education system, which doesn’t want kids to have lots of odd ideas.
Fu made its name with high quality Shanghai food. Why did you choose vegetarian for the latest venture?
Traditional Shanghai food is actually not very healthy. It’s too sweet, it uses a lot of soy sauce, and then sugar to balance the saltiness. And Fu’s owner is a Buddhist. So some years ago he made a vow to start a vegetarian restaurant. And we also felt there was demand for it, because now we all have so much information: You can go online and see videos of slaughterhouses or factory farms. In the past people didn’t know where the meat in the supermarket came from. When we were young, we thought it just grew there! (Laughs.)
You’ve gone for a sophisticated, upscale approach at Fu He Hui. Why?
We wanted a place that felt calm. If you go into a lot of restaurants in China—wow! It’s so loud! So we wanted a restaurant on several floors, to break up the sound, with a calm environment and space, a unified concept. The design is quite Zen—the wood and fabrics we used—and very Chinese. If you walk into this place, it influences your mood. When guests come here they become a different kind of person.
How did the market react to a vegetarian restaurant offering only tasting menus ranging from around $60 to $120 a head?
Many people didn’t think it would work. When I told my friends my idea they all laughed at me. A lot of people think that if you pay 50 dollars for a steak it feels very normal; but if someone asks you to pay 50 dollars for a turnip dish, that’s really weird. But we think the key is not the value of the turnip, but how much added value you give to it, how you cook it. In fact, with vegetarian food you can taste even more clearly whether or not the chef has done a good job.
What’s special about your food?
In China’s [Buddhist] tradition, vegetarian food was always made to look like shrimp or meat. But this is really unnecessary: We feel that if your mouth is vegetarian, your heart should be too. And for many people now the point of not eating meat is to protect animals. So why would you make it seem like meat for them? So we decided that we would have no imitation meat.
Our food does combine different types of cuisine with Chinese: As a vegetarian restaurant, there are limits to our ingredients, so I think we shouldn’t limit our style of cooking. So we use French, Indian, and English methods—I had to learn some new things! We often experiment.
Is fusion becoming widely accepted in China today?
It is a trend now to combine styles. But many chefs avoid saying that’s what they’re doing; they think it sounds cheap and low level. Actually fusion food is much harder to make than simple food; you need to know the culture of many places, the spirit of the food. It’s just that some people don’t do it very well, so many people think it’s confusion, not fusion! (Laughs.) In fact, Shanghai was a melting pot in the ’30s, with its foreign concessions—the Russians, the French, the British, they all brought their own eating culture. And Shanghai could accept these ideas. So we’re good at adapting.
Do you still use many traditional Chinese cooking methods?
We have tasting menus, with a range of methods of cooking: steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried. But we mainly make light food. In China we traditionally make strong sauces and think we should add a lot of oil and flavorings, but I don’t agree with that. If you add too many flavors, it gets messy and changes the flavor of the vegetable.
Do you use many imported ingredients?
We try to use seasonal things, things we can buy locally. And we change the menus each season—not totally, but maybe about 40 percent of the dishes.
Does receiving a Michelin star make a big difference to you?
From a commercial point of view the restaurant is normally fully booked anyway, so we can’t fit any more guests in! I know some famous restaurants have two shifts, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and you have two hours and then you have to leave. But we won’t do this. We’re not going to rush our guests. It’s not meaningful, there’s no point. We wanted to make this an “experience restaurant”—you need to set aside three hours to come here, otherwise don’t come, I’d say! (Laughs.)
Will the Michelin awards bring more respect for chefs in China?
They may a bit. But Michelin is a prize for restaurants, not for chefs. It’s for the whole team of the restaurant: the service staff, the manager, the wine person, the people who wash the dishes. But the prize is still a good development. We don’t want there to be only one restaurant like us in the market; we aim to be a model. So I hope the prize will give investors confidence to back this kind of restaurant.
Recipe: Chanterelle Mushrooms
"I like this dish because it sums up Fu He Hui’s approach to cooking—simple, quite subtle, using Chinese techniques, with an emphasis on the original flavor of the ingredients,” says chef Tony Lu. Chanterelle mushrooms have great nutritional value, he says, containing vitamins, iron, calcium, and other minerals, “and are good for the lungs, the stomach, the liver, and the skin.” Lu cautions, however, that the mushrooms should not be eaten by pregnant women, and that diabetics and people with gout “should not eat large quantities of the dish.”
120 grams fresh chanterelle mushrooms
120 grams green asparagus
20 grams fresh corn kernels
100 grams high fiber flour
4 grams sea salt 8 grams white sugar
48 grams water 8 grams olive oil
20 grams vegetable stock *
Mix the flour, water, and 2 grams of sea salt into a dough, and roll it into long thin sticks. Steep in oil for 10 hours. Then fry the dough sticks in a pan of hot oil at 270° Fahrenheit. Remove them when they turn golden yellow and set aside.
Boil the asparagus on a low flame, add the sugar, then liquidize in a blender.
Pour 4 grams of olive oil into a wok, add the liquidized asparagus and the corn kernels, and stir fry. Then add the vegetable stock, and flavor with salt to taste.
Fry the chanterelle mushrooms in 4 grams olive oil on medium heat for half a minute, adding 2 grams of sea salt to flavor.
Spread the asparagus mixture on the plate, add the chanterelles, and garnish with the dough sticks.
*Vegetable stock ingredients: Dried mushrooms (shiitake mushrooms work well, but other kinds may be used), cabbage, and carrots.