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Eating At Chinese Chef


Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?




Eating at Chinese Chef



"When I was young all chefs used soapwood. Now most chefs use ironwood, though some like the wood of the tamarind tree from Vietnam. Listen to Third Uncle. Choose the wood that feels best under your hands. Forget the rest."


The first thing she saw was that he was a chef of national rank, which had to be near the top in the Chinese system, and there was a list of prizes and awards. That was fast, she thought. He'd been here only four years. Then she came to an excerpt from his grandfather's book, The Last Chinese Chef.


She looked up and out the window at Beijing. The urban shapes of progress gleamed back at her, the cranes with their twinkling lights, the tall, half-built skeletons. Clearly a city on the move. And yet this chef seemed to be reaching back into the past.


Master Chef Guo has had extensive training at the finest academies and has studied under the elite masters of this era. At the age of 14, Guo Wenjun became the disciple of Master Chef Ding Guangzhou, a seventh generation disciple in the line of royal chefs. Following this, in 1983 he continued his training at the National Youth Chef instructional program. In 1992 he had further training in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong International Haute training program.


Guo Wenjun places the upmost emphasis on tradition and traditional Chinese culinary culture, believing that: "One must master the art of following tradition before one can master innovation". Chef Wenjun therefore is a very strict teacher of his disciples, demanding only perfection in mastering the traditional Chinese culinary arts. As a result, all of his disciples, like their master, have become elite chefs in their own right. Standing on their firm culinary foundation, they have taken on the challenge of being chefs in major hotels around the world. Even though Master Chef Guo has reached the pinnacle of being a teacher and as a chef, he still is continuously learning and gaining new knowledge and understanding of his art.


Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest of ingredients, the most complex of flavors? Is it the rustic or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation? Liang Wei, The Last Chinese Chef, published Peking 1925


The green, gold and red restaurant is popular for its traditional architecture, wrap-around balcony with seating and views of Portsmouth Square, large round tables for sharing and downstairs banquet area.


On April 26, Bowien will appear as an honored guest at Asia in America: Celebration of the Arts at Asia Society in New York. In a conversation with Asia Blog, he discussed the future of Chinese food, celebrity chefs, and what he means when he talks about authenticity. The interview has been edited and for clarity.


I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't very exciting for me on Mind of a Chef, where we went to Chengdu and I cooked for [legendary Sichuan chef] Yu Bo. To have them eat and sign off on my food was very gratifying. But really, I don't think there was much pressure or pushback from other people as much as there was from myself. I wanted to make something that came off as authentic of me.


You are one of a group of chefs that has made a Eurocentric culinary world pay attention to Chinese food. What do you think of this accomplishment? Where do you see Chinese food moving in the future?


It's been a summer of devastating lows and impressive highs for Danny Bowien, but for anyone who's followed the career of the dynamic, wildly-unorthodox chef, that's to be expected. When Bowien launched Mission Chinese Food in 2008, he earned rapturous reviews for his brilliant riffs on fiery Sichuanese cuisine. An expansion to New York would follow in 2012, bringing more acclaim and massive lines to the Lower East Side. But Bowien's meteoric rise came crashing down when The Health Department shuttered the restaurant a year later due to "a significant mouse infestation." However, it would soon re-open with a Brooklyn Mission Chinese outpost to follow, marking a glorious second coming. The New York Times went so far as to compare his spaces to Andy Warhol's Factory.


Then, in 2020, scandal hit again when employees at the Lower East location brought to light allegations of abusive kitchen practices under Bowien's watch. The restaurant would eventually face permanent closure in September of that year, and last month, the Brooklyn location served its final meal. In response, Bon Appétit announced the definitive end of the "chef rockstar" era. (The San Francisco Mission Chinese is now the last one standing, although Bowien is no longer an owner nor does he have any managing control of the restaurant.)


But if there's something we've learned about Bowien, it's that after every re-birth, he has managed a more enlightened comeback. Now, the chef is introducing the world to his new cookbook "Mission Vegan" which offers equal servings of innovative recipes and thoughtful introspection. During an exclusive with Tasting Table, Bowien reflects on his wild, occasionally tumultuous past while looking ahead at the next chapter of his ever-fascinating life.


And my eyes were quite open. They were open to just the amount of food waste that's created. [I started asking] how we could be using food waste to help, as opposed to literally just wasting it, throwing it away? Because chefs adore Anthony Bourdain, they took it as a creative challenge. And I really enjoyed seeing that process happen, the level of creativity that happened in kitchens. And I do think that project had a huge influence on that.


Yeah, that's a great question. So I remember when I was in culinary school in my baking and pastry program, which I was hugely not successful at because I was a young ... I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to throw all my different ideas together. And if you bake, you have to follow a very precise recipe. And it is definitely your roadmap. It is not a loose thing you can take and just add this or that, or not add enough baking soda. It doesn't turn out properly.


I've been taught when I was going to school to work away from that. But if you look to other cultures, you really do see that bitter as a flavor, that it's embraced. I feel like it's just as intoxicating as eating something that's really spicy. It pushes you. It challenges you to accept it. And I love that about it. So with the lemon sauce, when we were recipe testing it, there was always this inkling, "Should we add sugar? Should we balance this?" But I love it's just really in your face.


But on a larger scale, to me personally, in my journey, this whole book is really about self-discovery. I feel very, very fortunate that I've been able to go along on this journey and I've had the opportunity to explore, to a degree, my own heritage. And there are a lot of moments in the book where I'm like, "Wait. This is a food that I would have been eating had I grown up in Korea." Some of them. Not all of them. But I didn't have Korean food until I was 19.


She was basically just saying "It's okay. It's going to be okay." And every time you have a moment, every time in my life since then when I've had a moment that I felt unsure, I referenced that point. Because I was able to be really vulnerable and say "Look. I'm sorry." And I was younger, that was a while ago. That was probably seven years ago or so. There's always this mentality that in the world of chefs, back in the day especially, that the chef is always right or supposed to have this wealth of knowledge. And I did not know what I was doing a lot of the time. And I was very humbled. And it felt really cleansing and great to be able to say, "Hey. I'm sorry."


You, more than most, have felt the ups and downs of what it is to be a celebrity chef, which was something that Anthony Bourdain, who you worked with, questioned a lot. Can you reflect on those ups and downs of being put on that pinnacle from where you are today?


Okay. This is probably going to be the most chef-y-sounding thing I'm going to say, it really does captivate me. Kimchi, it's never exactly the same every time. When I traveled to Korea I would go to eat at certain places I would know. And somehow I would go to certain places and it would just always taste the same, right? But this one person's always making it. I know that Young-mi's aunt, or her aunt's house, she has an amazing kimchi collection she grows the stuff in the backyard and makes it all there at her house. And so I really try to capture the essence of that. But it is, for me as a professional chef, it feels like an impossibility to always replicate and make it exactly the same. And I've actually embraced that.


James Beard Award-winning chef Ming Tsai is revered for his fusion cuisine, which draws from his Chinese roots to reimagine classic American and pub fare. After publishing several cookbooks, opening two successful Boston restaurants (Blue Ginger and Blue Dragon), launching his own range of vegan products and winning awards for Simply Ming on PBS and East Meets West with Ming Tsai on Food Network, there is little that chef Tsai has not done in the world of food.


Two questions thereby occur: First, does any chef have to be from the country whose food he or she cooks? And if there are plenty of excellent French and Italian restaurants in the U.S. run by non-Italians or non-French restaurateurs or chefs, is there anything to back up an assertion that it would be much better if they were?


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