In 2017, SmartShanghai's former Dining Editor Chris St. Cavish returned to our ranks to cover... well... basically whatever interesting "food-related content" he could formulate, provided we wouldn't also make him write about burger chains or the latest Western restaurant to open up in town.
That's fine. I'll eat at White Castle. Your majesty. Mr. Fancy Pants. I like it.
In a commercial landscape where it behooves a lifestyle media business to create content more consumable as numbered bullet points and a gif on a cellphone, SmSh was honored to host Chris' writing again in all its classic "long read" format glory. As part of the year-end listical jamboree, SmSh asked Chris to revisit the year in his writing, follow up on any developments after the fact, and elaborate more on his pieces.
Here's CSTC in 2017. If you missed any of these, block yourself off about four days to catch up.
I’m not on the expat gravy train. I don’t get invites to the newest restaurants. The Ministry of Media Dinners has erased my name. That’s the way I like it.
I like hunting down stories no one else has told, and shining a spotlight on places and people in the wilderness, in the scary untamed unknown beyond the expat dining circle, and this year, I’ve told a few.
These things got history
After a quiet January, I started the year in earnest with a scree about the history behind KFC’s egg tarts, and how they went from being an Englishman’s attempt at modifying a Portuguese staple to becoming canonized as “Macanese”, the recipe sold to KFC for an untold sum, and the tarts themselves spread far and wide across China.
Tao Qingjian, still hammering it out
In spring, I wrote a piece about Tao Qingjian, the last man in downtown Shanghai to still make woks by hand. This was an emotional article to write and report, and was the culmination of a year of visits and interviews, a couple in which Tao himself cried at how difficult life has been for him and those in his generation, and how, when things were finally going well and this handicraft he’d picked up to support the family was earning him a reputation, the powers that be in his neighborhood changed, and he found himself out of work and on the wrong side of the chengguan around the time I published the piece (no relation). I’m happy to report that after a break for a couple of months, Tao has found a new location to strike his woks and he continues on (his wife takes order at the original location on Zhoushan Lu), though for how long is anybody’s guess.
Behind the scenes at the greatest show on The Bund
I also wrote the Last Word on Xiao Long Bao, and visited Ultraviolet’s kitchen with photographer Charlie Xia for a look at UV-C, the three Michelin star restaurant’s newest menu.
Rong Yaozhong: bouillions dollar smile
In May, I traveled to meet two very different people: Rong Yaozhong, the man who invented chicken-flavored MSG, and Dai Jianjun, who runs a high-end locavore restaurant in Hangzhou’s tea fields. It’s not entirely accurate to say I traveled to meet Rong; instead, I bumped into him while on tour at the 320 million RMB factory out in the Jiading suburbs that he once owned and has since sold to Nestle, after leaving the gift shop and visiting the 8-meter high statue of chicken powder but before seeing some of the 30,000 actual chickens that would be steamed and then ground up and made into chicken sprinkles that day. It was a lucky break. With Dai, it was the opposite. What I had hoped would be half an hour with the man responsible for creating an international destination for foodies, for Ph.D students interested in his complex supply chain, and for any Fuchsia Dunlop fan, turned into a five-hour lunch and a non-stop discourse about all things rural, food and China. With excellent tea.
Andy Hall, for part of the Designers on Design series
It was around this time, late spring, early summer, that I thought to myself ‘I need an easy series of photo-based articles that I can knock out quickly.’ That led me to think about restaurant design – everyone likes to look at pretty pictures of pretty restaurants, right? – but in proper St. Cavish style, it didn’t turn out to be easy to do or quick. After talking to Andy Hall, the first designer on my list and the man behind The Nest, among many others, I became fascinated with the thought processes that these interior designers use to create unique, striking but ultimately practical spaces for business and commerce, and so I struck out to interview the designers in depth for a series that we called Designers on Design. Some of these were published on SmartShanghai and others on sister website CreativeHunt.
[Ed's note: the rest of the Designers on Design series includes the minds behind Saigon Mama; Michelle Garnaut and Stephanie Clift on Glam's refresh and Song Yuxin of the incredible Yu Ba Xian restaurants, among others.]
Suzhou noodles - worth seeking out
June saw me correct a major misconception I had about noodles in Eastern China, after my eyes were opened by a trio of restaurants on one street in Suzhou. I was so enamored with them that I organized two tours for friends and friends of friends to day-trip out there, stuff our faces, and day-trip back, and I’ve been back multiple times this year to eat at all three restaurants. Unfortunately, bad news struck in early November, and Yu Mian Zhai, my favorite of the three, closed temporarily while one of the family members recovers from a serious and unexpected health condition. Nonetheless, Suzhou stands as a monument to noodles for me, and, I hope, a few of you now too.
I don’t often write about specific restaurants these days, as I find the longer I am a food writer, the less I write about food and the more I write about people.
I bucked that trend over the summer to introduce Sasano to a larger audience. The Japanese restaurant is mid-range but operates on such a large scale with impeccable service that it seemed a shame it goes unnoticed by those not following the Chinese crowds. Crabs remain their highlight, though the black garlic and avocado salad are on my table every time I go too.
Everyone is making a killing at these cocktail bars...
My pedantic side got the better of me a couple of times in 2017, and I wrote a few Explainer articles with the help of professionals. The first was a diatribe about how much your cocktail costs, and why, and could not have been done without the shocking transparency of one of this city’s best bars, who agreed to open their books and share their actual numbers with me. The feedback ranged from people not believing a bar would actually do that, and so I must have faked them, to people believing no successful bar would do that, and it must spell demise. I’ll never say which bar it was but I promise you that not only were the numbers real, the bar is successful and if you’re a cocktail drinker, probably on your rotation.
I went full-on Professor Dumpling in my attempt at a follow-up to the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index of 2015. I decided to take on shengjian bao, and describe why it’s not possible to measure them in the way I measured soup dumplings (‘crunch’ is a sound more than a tactile sensation), but then offer a double-axis scatter graph that people at home could use and my Pantone swatches for those charting the difference in color on the bottoms. As I write this, in the last days of November, no has taken up the challenge – yet.
Also restaurants... so much money in restaurants...
Other classes in my "How The City Works" series included a very interesting chat with Alexander Jaques about how retail property functions in this city, and, later in the year, a sit-down with Italian lawyer Nicola Aporti to get into the nitty gritty of opening a restaurant, and what steps those damned fools who choose such a path should take. (Kidding.)
I was on the other side of the pedant when I finally had meal with Zhou Tong, a non-Shanghainese know-it-all with an encyclopedic mind for food culture and history. Zhou and I had spoken several times and I always came away tired but better informed about this city around me, and it was a shock and a pleasure when he suggested Lao Fan Dian, literally The Old Restaurant, as a venue for lunch. Like most of us, I’d never given a thought to this dusty old restaurant for tourists, and thanks to Zhou, I saw something new and exciting in the restaurant’s hometown cooking. Zhou might not be from Shanghai but he’s a hell of an ambassador.
It... looks delicious actually.
I developed a debilitating dependence on Coke Zero in 2017. At my worst, I was drinking up to ten bottles a day – that’s five liters – disgusting. I tried to wean myself off of it by indulging in real sugar and diving into the sweeter side of this city, which was great for my mood, and then, about an hour later, terrible for my mood. Ultimately, I kicked the habit cold turkey but not without it kicking back. The first two days of my withdrawals, I slept 16 hours each day, completely shattered with exhaustion. By day three I was okay. These days, I stick to an occasional pastry and avoid the black juice like the plague.
That's just cray
I did a lot of traveling in the second half of the summer, with trips to Xuyi in northern Jiangsu province, the hometown of crayfish, where I met the crayfish god, and then down south to the Huangshan area, where I spent a week with a rental car and some friends exploring the area’s uptick in minsu, which sort of translates as bed-and-breakfast, but might better be described as small-scale independent hotels.
By October, the weather had cooled and I was up in Beijing to spend a weekend with one of my favorite artists, an ink and water master who paints gluttonous, discombobulated scenes of food and lust, Li Jin. I’d been casually following his work after seeing a show he was in in Beijing back in 2006 or 2008, and he was everything I hoped for: knowledgeable, open, willing to tell his story and to think about the meaning of food; and still the casual Beijing guy at heart, eating boiled peanuts, soybeans and zhajiangmian while drinking Maotai with his artist friends in his 20 million RMB villa. In November, Li was in Shanghai for a spell (he’ll be spending an extended trip down here in spring to make work for a coming exhibition), and he turned me on to this restaurant, which I tried and hope to have more to say about in 2018.
Just like in Italy...
I ended the year with a scree on Shanghai’s most interesting terrible restaurant, the New Richard, which draws from historic menus to make modern day awful food, and then by linking up with Anna Solovyeva.
20 specialist coffee shops to check out... among the 2000
Solovyeva had me hooked almost as soon as we’d met and she began telling me about the 300+ coffee shops she’s been to in Shanghai, which she catalogues in a spreadsheet. This was a kindred spirit, willing to embark on a food folly for who knows what purpose other than filling her bank of arcane knowledge and exploring the city, and when she told me about the Russian professor who analyzes her cups of coffee remotely and precisely, based solely on the rings of foam residue… well, you’ll just have to read it.
[Ed's Note:... and then the sequel.]
On that note, thanks to all of you for reading and commenting over the course of 2017, and I look forward to writing and sharing more with you in the coming year.