SHANGHAI — It’s not every day that a chef tells you not to go to his restaurant, but Jean-Georges Vongerichten is not just any chef. The world-renowned French culinary master is sitting in the stylish bar area of his namesake fine dining restaurant in Shanghai’s exclusive Three on the Bund — and he's raving about Shanghai’s street food.
“I wouldn’t recommend an American tourist coming to my restaurant in Shanghai, because I’m already on every street corner in New York. I would go for street food for breakfast, and I would look for all the Shanghainese food and soup dumplings I could eat,” said Vongerichten, who is here for his semiannual visit.
His advice may be sage: After all, China is not known as a fine dining Mecca — yet.
But the Alsatian-born and New York-based Vongerichten is part of a growing crowd of chefs looking to change that image. He is a pioneer in bringing Western-style fine dining to a country fiercely proud of and devoted to its own culinary tradition. He is finally making some headway after putting in nearly a decade of work and opening his only fine dining restaurant outside of New York here in Shanghai.
Eight years ago, when he first arrived to begin opening Jean-Georges Shanghai, the idea was to serve an international clientele living in and visiting the city. But like everything from clothing to cars, Chinese citizens are looking for the best from the West, and they've flocked to his restaurant.
“For the first four years, the restaurant’s clientele was around 80 percent expats. Today, it’s 90 percent Chinese,” Vongerichten said.
In fact, business is going so well that Vongerichten has converted the restaurant’s large bar area into a new casual dining venue called Nougatine, similar to his restaurant of the same name in Manhattan. The hope is that the cheaper menu might attract new Chinese diners to the Jean-Georges worldwide brand, which includes 25 restaurants on three continents.
“I’m probably not as well known here as in the U.S.," he said. "But I have been working in New York for 22 years now. In China, it is just a matter of time and exposure."
Despite an increasingly wealthy Chinese populace, few fine dining chefs initially followed Vongerichten to China. Recently, though, the scene has begun to change.
In the past three years, Daniel Boulud and Joel Robuchon, two giants of French cooking, opened restaurants in Beijing and Hong Kong respectively. In addition, several promising young chefs, like Paul Pairet and David Laris, are making their mark by opening independent restaurants in Shanghai. Vongerichten believes the economic downturn in the United States might prompt more chefs to make the move.
“The economic crisis could lead to chefs coming over to China. In New York, people still go out all the time, but we don’t sell water by the bottle anymore or people don’t order dessert. Business has definitely been affected by the economic crisis,” he said. “China can give a lot of opportunities to chefs.”
But it’s not just Westerners who are producing fine dining cuisine in China. Several Chinese cooks have begun making a name for themselves in China’s high-end culinary world.
In fact, Vongrichten just promoted Lam Ming Kin to executive chef at the restaurant, the first Chinese chef to ever run the kitchen here. Lam, who previously worked in top Parisian restaurants like Apicius and Le Chiberta, is one of an increasing number of young Chinese cooks who trained abroad and returned with an expertise in fine dining. Even the famed haute French culinary group the Escoffier Society now has a branch in Beijing.
“The techniques of Chinese chefs are great," Vongrichten said. "They are more serious here in China than chefs working in the U.S., and are very diligent and passionate."
Chinese cuisine, however, remains stuck in tradition, which has partially led to its low-end reputation abroad — think inexpensive take-out and greasy sweet and sour pork. But with Michelin, the famed food guide, recently launching a Hong Kong guidebook — and with many expecting a Shanghai guidebook to follow — fine Chinese cuisine is geared for a renaissance.
Vongerichten thinks it’s about time.
“There will definitely be some Chinese chefs coming over to the U.S. in the future,” he said. “I am surprised that Chinese food has been stuck for so long. There are a few chefs that are updating the cuisine like Jeremy Leung, but no one has brought new Chinese cooking to the forefront yet.”
Not that he’d recommend seeking them out on a visit anyway. Vongerichten can’t get enough of China’s wide array of cheap food.
He might even look to street food for inspiration: “If you ask me, here in China, I like the hole-in-the walls and the street food better than the fancy restaurants. I could definitely see incorporating some of those dishes into something for one of my restaurants.”
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