Photos: Brandon McGhee
Three years and a million crabs later...
I found Xu Jing in 2016. I was, as I always am, searching. Searching for new restaurants, new people, new 360rmb bowls of noodles.
In Xu, the owner of the Cejerdary chain
, a wisp of a man with a thin goatee and mustache who wears one set of thin robes and nothing else all year round, I found a puzzle. Here was a man who proclaimed his intention to change society
, and decided the best way to do it would be by making rich people cry with satisfaction into their bowls of crab roe noodles. Trickle down joy, the theory went. Here was a man who could barely speak in a straight sentence, every line a parable gleaned from his own searching, in the mountains of Shaanxi, but who had a lot to say. Here, finally, was a man morally and philosophically opposed to suffering, to the point that he played music to the crabs on his farm, to the point that he gave up eating meat, yet built his business on steaming, picking and serving hundreds upon hundreds of crabs per day.
Meeting him left me skeptical. The only truth I could find in his small shop on Kaixuan Lu
was in the noodles, a ridiculous but delicious luxury, a way to enjoy hairy crab season without all the fiddling.
Over the last few years, I’ve dipped back into the restaurant occasionally, watching as the humble store on Kaixuan Lu moved down a few storefronts, expanded and upgraded. I’ve watched as Cejerdary opened a massive store
just a few meters down from Three on the Bund. And, finally, I went to visit the 789 square meter location on the riverside
in northern Lujiazui, at MIFA 1862.
The noodles have changed slightly. But I was more interested in Xu Jing.
So last week, under a bright blue sky, I sat on his crab-shaped woven couches in Pudong, drank his ginger tea and we talked.
Some of the contradictions remain, starker than ever. To feed the appetite of his restaurants, he now has a factory employing more than 50 people whose sole job is to pick crab roe, gao
and meat for the restaurants. He refuses to count how many crabs a day that totals, looking pained when I asked. He’s still never tasted the noodles, though he claims that, “honestly speaking”, he’d really like to. He has one set of robes and an iPhone 11 Pro.
But what struck me most was the humility.
In the three years since our last encounter, Xu Jing has come back to earth.
No longer does he go searching for knowledge in the Zhongnan mountains.
“I’m waiting for knowledge to come find me,” he says.
No longer does he aspire to change all society, one rich person at a time.
“Before I had a direction, but now I know what path to take.”
No more does he put on airs about Cejerdary being a spiritual mission.
“It’s a business,” he told me matter-of-factly.
What’s caused this newfound pragmatism?
“I’m carrying 100 families on my back,” Xu explained, referring to the employees he has between his restaurants and his crab-picking factory. “It’s no longer just me.”
There have been other changes as well. Xu has made an obvious effort to improve the service and provide as many amenities to customers as possible, without raising the 360rmb price tag. Beverages — Evian, San Pellegrino, and Osmanthus-flavored suan mei tang — are all free. At the Lujiazui location, the expensive toilets are set into minimalist, wooden thrones.
In the ladies room, there’s a Dyson hair dryer, Jurlique hand cream and Jo Malone fragrance. People linger at the outside tables, drinking ginger tea and eating lightly sweet peanuts in the shell long after they’ve finished their noodles. The noodles themselves are now made with pumpkin on an expensive Japanese ramen machine, a step-up in flavor and texture from the previous plain wheat noodles.
Yet Xu scoffs at the idea that his noodles are a luxury product. “There are 12 crabs in each bowl during crab season, and more when it’s not crab season,” he argues. “I haven’t raised the price since I opened – still 360rmb. But look at all the things I’ve added.”
It’s a persuasive argument. Hairy crabs are not cheap, even if you’re the farmer, and even if they are small. To be able to eat 12 of them, without having to do the work and without getting even a fleck of shell, starts to seem like a deal, one that Shanghai has been quick to indulge in. All three Cejerdary locations have waiting rooms. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I had to wait 15 minutes and share a table. The time before that, a rainy Monday night, I watched as people came in to pick up noodles for takeout.
The recipe remains unchanged: copious amounts of roe, gao
and crab meat; a spoonful of fragrant pork lard; salt; and a splash of vinegar.
The vibe is still zen.
The waiters and waitresses still glide around in their own robes and give every table a present at the end (ginger candy at the moment).
Xu won’t allow us to photograph his face, claiming he doesn’t want to be bothered by people chasing selfies. (Though he has created a whole sticker set on WeChat based on his likeness.) He’s become an astute businessman, grounded in his responsibility to his staff and committed to changing society by those closest to him.
Whatever drove him to open the restaurant a few years back, spiritual or financial or a blend of both, has served him well.
His noodles are more popular than ever.
The contradictions have worked.
As I pointed some of them out, he smiled at me across the table and said, “I’m still Xu Jing.”