Phénix in The Puli hotel. For the past few years, it has been the domain of Australian chef Michael Wilson, who won the restaurant a Michelin star for his modern, really damn good cooking. This is the place that made the stuffed duck neck sausage (with head) that you may have seen on your Moments over the last year or two.
Wilson's Whole duck neck sausage, still on the menu, 540rmb
Wilson left in April and now the restaurant is in a weird position. Do they continue serving his food and hope that will be enough to let them keep the star this September, when the 2020 awards come out, or do they bank on a new chef to earn his own star for his own food?
It’s really a high-stakes gamble, with lots of strategy and guesswork, and it’s very debatable — I asked ten well-known chefs and professional F&B managers in Shanghai about it this week and got ten different answers for what they should do. The responses ranged from scrap Michael’s menu and start new, to keep the best sellers and replace the rest, to make slow and incremental changes.
Losing the star would be a real slap in the face for the restaurant and the hotel, but there’s no well-defined path for them to follow. As several people who would know told me, in Europe, if the chef of a chef-driven restaurant left (and under Wilson, Puli was chef-driven), Michelin would likely take the star back at the yearly assessment and make the next chef try to earn it again. Others told me that's a myth.
The chef. Pierrick Maire. Maire was last at The Beach House and before that at Yannick Alleno’s one-time restaurant in Beijing’s Shangri-La hotel. He’s from Marseille. He’s been at The Puli for three months. The star is his cross to bear. Meanwhile, he's also got to juggle breakfast, lunch, brunch and room-service from The Puli's undersized kitchen. Fun times!
I went last weekend after seeing all the hotel's press on social media about Maire and his menu, to find that he has changed just five dishes. Befitting his hometown, four of them come from the ocean. The fifth is a duck dish with seared foie gras under a drift of elderflower with cherries on the side. I liked the cherries. That’s the best thing I can say.
Duck breast, foie gras, cherries, almond nougatine, yuzu-cherry sauce, 230rmb
Where Wilson’s food was upfront with flavor and drama (see the duck neck, the frogs legs or the strawberry vacherin), Maire’s food is exceedingly mild and overly careful; I get the sense he is playing it safe. Two of the five dishes lean on the crutch of a spoonful of caviar on top. The duck dish uses the foie gras to similar effect. Gratuitous luxury. For a Phénix devotee like me grown used to Wilson’s cooking (much of which remains on the menu), it was, quite bluntly, a let down.
Sea urchin, oscietra caviar, green apple gelee, vanilla-celery bavaroise, 250rmb
I also found it disingenuous that the 8-course tasting menu, which is how chefs show off their skills, was 50% Wilson’s old dishes. I asked a chef friend how that would be seen in the industry. He said “it was like wearing someone else’s underpants.”
Seafood soup, sea scallop, saffron-tomato broth, 110rmb
Beyond the plate, there are bigger questions and forces at work here. Who owns the dishes that Wilson created while working for The Puli, him or the hotel? Should the hotel be entitled to use them as they see fit? How long after taking over the stove should the chef change the menu? If the hotel seems reluctant to wipe the menu of Wilson’s dishes, which earned them the star, why are they simultaneously promoting Maire and his personal history to the media? Can they have it both ways? My sounding panel of industry people was split over these questions. Several were hardliners who said that Maire should have changed the menu immediately. Others said he should get a grace period of up to six months.
Langoustine, Champagne-lobster sauce, fresh herbs, 290rmb
Perhaps this is inside baseball, too detailed and irrelevant for the reader to care. All hotels have their own quirks and problems, and chefs must work within their system to offer the public the best food they can produce.
Barramundi, clam ragu, potato puree with caviar, lemon-verbena emulsion, 280rmb
I wish Maire the best in the face of heavy pressure, from the hotel (I am assuming), from Michelin, whose inspectors were just in town, and from filling the large shoes of the chef before him. The dishes I had aren't to my taste, but maybe he's yet to really find his groove. Good luck, chef.
Phénix Eatery & Bar, 2/F, The Puli, 1 Changde Lu, near Yan'an Xi Lu. Full listing here.