Shanghai’s chefs had to work harder than ever in 2017 to keep up with competition, international rankings and the changing habits of diners (put down the damn phone already). Here then is 2017, in the words of seven of this city’s finest chefs.
Sean Jorgensen: Highline
Sean Jorgensen is the co-Executive Chef of Highline, with Anna Bautista. He and Anna joined Highline at the end of 2016.
"Our year revolved around Highline and making it what it is. In this economy, raising a restaurant is much harder than it ever was. So saturated. Plus, a lot of people are upping their games. You can go a lot of places to get good meals. It’s not just a handful of your friend’s restaurants like it used to be. There’s a ton of competition, and every time one concept opens that’s really good, two more follow with the same concept. That’s not new. The difference now is the second two are actually good!
The whole social media thing has become crazy this year, everybody cares what’s going on Dazhong Dianping. It’s so important to the business. Our red velvet cheesecake is number one on Dianping. Everyone comes for it. We sold 10,000 slices last year — because of Dianping. Our whole restaurant is built on being Instagrammable. It’s something I never thought about before. That’s what I’ve learned this year, to make food that is picture worthy.
Everyone’s trying to break the market. I’ll give you an example. The Nest sells 1 kuai oysters (part of their three-year anniversary deal) — he broke the market. Le Bec opened a little deli, he’s selling wines at 40% less than you can buy anywhere in town because he imports them himself — broke the market. So now at Highline, if it’s your birthday and you can prove it’s your birthday: free bottle of Champagne. Perrier Jouet. That’s crazy. But everyone needs a hook like that, something no one else has done. It’s not just about having a big-time chef anymore. There are big time chefs all over the city now."
Paul Eschbach: Jean Georges and Mercato
Paul Eschbach is the Executive Chef for China for Jean Georges and Mercato. In September, Jean Georges Shanghai won its first Michelin star.
"We had a lot to pay attention to this year and chef Nikolai, of Jean Georges, and I tried to nail that as best we could. It was an intense period up to September (when the Michelin results came out), and a great feeling afterwards. We focused a lot on identifying our weaknesses and eliminating them. But right now, what’s important is that we want the restaurant to be successful. At the end of the day, you can have all the stars in the world, but if you’re not putting people in the seats, it doesn’t matter.
Mercato, upstairs, was super busy. That’s business as usual. It just keeps getting busier. It’s a steamroller, it just keeps going. If I wanted to have my own restaurant, I’d want to own a Mercato, let’s put it that way. We do 300-400 people per night, and the feedback is positive, so that’s the most important thing.
For 2018, the next big project is Guangzhou Mercato at the k11 Mall. It’ll launch in early spring 2018, and I’ll be shuttling down there to help with that. "
Paul Pairet: Ultraviolet, Chop Chop Club and Mr. & Mrs. Bundm
Ultraviolet won three Michelin stars in September 2017, only the second restaurant in China to do so.
"That’s it, retirement! We are looking for retirement. No, it’s been a very good year for us. I opened UVC (the third menu at Ultraviolet) at the very end of December 2016, then I opened Chop Chop, and this has kept us busy until now. I don’t know how many recipes I’ve done this year, maybe 100, and we’ve done a lot of things at Mr. & Mrs. Bund. I might start in 2018 if I feel like working on UVD, we’ll see. The three Michelin stars were a good thing. I really felt like it was a strong gesture of modernity from the side of Michelin. I think they have tried to understand a bit more than what they do normally. We’ve could have stuck at 2 Michelin stars, it’s not a bad thing, right? Does it reflect what we do? No. It’s a combination of things, the sole, completely different restaurant in all of the restaurants on that list. It was a visibly tremendous achievement for years of cooking that will stick with me regardless of what happens afterwards. To get this with Ultraviolet, I’m happy about it.
Did the business change? What you want to say, it’s already booked out, it’s ten seats. It doesn’t make much difference.
If you ask me what we will do for next year, I have no idea! I will probably have the time to do one new thing, locally — and I cannot tell you what. It will depend on the location, and the location will call for something or for something else. There is a whole list of things I want to do."
Jason Oakley: Café Gray Deluxe, Sub Standard
Jason Oakley has been a fine dining chef for many, many years, mostly recently running Coquille and Scarpetta. He left that position in 2017 to become Chef Consultant for old-school legend Gray Kunz on his new restaurant at Taikoo Hui, Café Gray Deluxe, and to launch a couple punk rock sandwich shops.
"2017… 2017… The biggest thing has been visas. Visa restrictions are just insane right now. That’s why it’s tough to find good candidates for positions in 2018, especially with all the hotels. Everyone is looking for good chefs all around the world. I lost a pastry chef who was two points off from the visa requirements. Even at Unico, they had to shut their band down, because they didn’t have the visa to play. Hopefully that will ease in 2018.
There’s so many new celebrity chefs, quote unquote, coming to China, I think the competition is going to get a lot fiercer. And then the hotels: Edition, Bellagio, Bulgari, Middle House. Hopefully if any more Michelin starred chefs come to China, they won’t be from France. Come on Americans! Come on anyone else! Just bring more diversity than old French chefs. No offense to Gagnaire and everybody else but I think chefs from the San Pellegrino list, for example, would be a lot more exciting than the classic copy/paste Michelin chefs.
For me, 2018 is going to be a lifestyle transition. I’ve got a young son and I want to spend time with him, being a dad and controlling my own schedule. So, I’m going to be opening a few sub shops slash delis, like I used to go to in the college town I lived in. Subs and sandwiches and pizzas. That’s the concept. I think a lot of people do sandwiches in this city but very few get them right. Mine is going to be called Sub Standard, kind of urban, '80s punk on the stereo, you know, The Clash, The Ramones, Beastie Boys — it’s a sub shop. The first one is at the Mercedes Benz Arena, right next to the Family Mart. That will open in March. The second one will be in Jing’an in June."
Scott Melvin: The Shanghai Edition
Scott Melvin was the executive chef of Jason Atherton’s Commune Social from its opening until late 2017, when he became Executive Chef for the upcoming Shanghai Edition hotel.
"I’m still with Atherton — he’s taking over the F&B of The Edition as well, so we’re still working in partnership. That’s one of the reasons I moved in 2017. Jason is still the guy who’s running it. Now my wife Kim is doing operations at Commune Social, doing what I did, and running it as a day-to-day business until the chef new chef comes in.
Commune Social had quite a successful year, but business still slowed a little from 2016, which was an amazing year. It’s hard to have two amazing years in a row, especially in Shanghai.
A lot of Chinese restaurants opened up in our area this year, and I think that’s made a difference to our business, especially at dinner. One of the things I’ve noticed is that Chinese restaurants are starting to catch up to western restaurants in terms of design, and getting a younger crowd, so the younger crowd has gone back to them. There’s a lot more competition from the local guys. They’re thinking the same way we do: get a good designer in, pay for the design, make sure the kitchen is clean, offer value for money. The young crowd totally understands the food. And a lot of them are pretty good — I go to them myself. I think it’s not just our neighborhood either, but that it’s Shanghai-wide.
For 2018… Kim has a new restaurant she’s working on with the same designers (Neri + Hu) that will open in March or April. It’ll be more of a family sharing place — they’re still working on details — but a bit like Commune Social with bigger platters, bigger dishes in the middle of the table, Sunday lunch-type family dinner. That’s down near The Cannery.
For myself, I’m moving to the Edition, which is also looking to open around March or April with three restaurant concepts. One is going to be Sosharu-based (Atherton’s popular Japanese izakaya in London), the other is all-day dining, so a little like Berners Tavern-esque (in the London Edition), and then a third one, which is a Chinese concept, which we’re hopefully working with a Hong Kong brand on, but it’s still in the early stages, so I can’t really say. "
Brian Tan, The Gourmet Library
Brian Tan is a Malaysian-Chinese pastry chef, consultant and businessman who has opened multiple pastry shops in his 16 years in China. His latest project is a shared kitchen known as The Gourmet Library.
"I sold HoF (House of Flour) in Lujiazui this year and tried to downsize, because more and more people are looking for consultants. One of them was Fangshuo, a bookstore chain from Guangzhou that approached me to help them with their spaces. I had inspiration from Books for Cooks in London, a famous bookstore that has a small kitchen in the back, and then from France, a place called The Library, and I thought: why doesn’t China have things like that? So, when they approached me, I said why don’t we do something with food? We came up with a social kitchen.
At the same time, a lot of “private restaurants” — sifang cai — that were being held in apartments were shut down because they were basically illegal.
So, we wanted to offer a place for the chefs of these sifang cai restaurants to be able to cook using proper plates and a proper kitchen, et cetera. We’ve had a lot of Chinese young chefs, who maybe worked in starred restaurants in New York or in Europe but now have come back to China, do dinners. We’ve had a lot of pop-ups from people like Yang Jing Bang, and now I’m starting to get Chinese chefs ask me, “Can I have the space once a week?” because they know opening a full-time restaurant is high-cost and high-risk, and really, they just want to cook. I don’t want to call it an incubator, but it’s a platform for people to play with. At the same time, we have cooking classes, baking classes, wine classes and a lot of brands who use us for team-building.
For 2018, my next major project will also be with Fangshuo. They’re going to open an 8,000-square meter space next to the Mandarin Oriental in Lujiazui, and that’s going to include 1,000 square meters for kitchens. The tables will be low, at the right height for kids, and we’ll have plastic knives so they can cut bananas and strawberries, and they’ll be able to play with pizzas and cookie dough. We want people to connect with food by learning."
Christopher Pitts: Sosharu
Christopher Pitts was the Chef of Table No 1 until summer 2017. He is currently in London, training at Sosharu, for his new role at the Shanghai Edition hotel, as chef de cuisine of the Shanghai branch of Sosharu.
"2018 will be the year that everything changes. In a city of restaurant oversaturation, only the delicious and trendy survive. There is now a long list of five-star hotels lining up to take a piece of the action. Scott Melvin and myself have joined up once again under Jason Atherton to launch the Shanghai Edition hotel next year. We had both been at our positions for five years each and it was time for a change.
Personally, this was a move to head up the Japanese restaurant Sosharu which has been racking up accolades in London. As I write this, I’m in London working 96-hour weeks, absorbing every drop of knowledge I can. As a professional chef, you are lucky to see a technique or recipe once a month that interests or inspires you. Little did I know that I’d find myself picking up 20 or 30 concepts/ideas on a daily basis. This is what chefs live for — to expand their knowledge. This year will be the highlight of my career and I can’t wait to get it started on a high note.
I remember my first day asking why the serving trays were an off-looking triangle and the chef saying “because they are representative of Mt. Fuji” and in that moment, it really hit, that these guys really think the concept down to the bone in how they want to execute. How many concepts do you see that happening with in Shanghai, much less the rest of the world?"