"Tested" is our new column where we check out new goods and services. We see if they're worth you're time and money so you don't have to. You're welcome.
Over the span of just a few years we've seen the smartphone app economy evolve from a marketplace of on-screen distractions (think: Angry Birds) to a robust platform for the exchange of goods and services. Today we can transfer money, buy stocks, learn a foreign language, hire a chauffeur who drives a BMW 7 Series. And now you can even hire a private chef to come to your house and cook you dinner. Yes, there is an app for that.
What it is
Last November, a Shanghai-based company called Yek Technology released Shao Fan Fan. It connects the hungry, the busy, and the culinarily inept to professional chefs, using your smartphone's GPS function.
You can scroll through a list of chefs available in your area. Each listing provides the chef's background, areas of expertise, years of experience, specialty dishes, and ratings from other users. Pick one that's to your liking, and in some instances, they can even be at your home ready to cook on the same day you've made your booking.
It seems like a strange idea at first blush. Given the negative publicity that comparable services like Uber has been getting, one wonders why you'd want to invite a complete stranger with knife skills into your home, but hey that's why we're here. We tested it out for you.
What you get
We chose a chef named Li Ying Chao. Here he is, stir-frying some chili-peppers in my kitchen.
Li's got 12 years of cooking experience under his belt and currently works at Zi Lan Meng Xin Shi Jie in New World City for his day job. But on the nights when the restaurant isn't busy, he tells us, he moonlights with Shao Fan Fan. He's been with the company since its inception.
The guy was a consummate professional. He called us up the morning of to discuss dinner options—we chose a Sichuan dinner for two— and what kind of ingredients spices and seasonings we'd need to have on hand. That evening, he arrived at my apartment 10 minutes early. I hadn't even gotten home from work yet. The poor guy waited patiently in the rain for me and met every one of my effusive apologies with a "Mei shi!" That's Chinese for "no problem."
Once he entered my kitchen and got a lay of the land, he immediately got to work, setting up his mise en place on whatever horizontal surfaces he could find. There aren't many in my kitchen, so he improvised.
Within 30 minutes, the rhythmic thud of a knife on a cutting board gave way to the pungent sizzle of chilies in a wok. After two hours, this was the first dish to come out of my kitchen.
Yeah. I was impressed too. This is duo jiao yu tou, a fresh head of carp split in half and steamed with brined, pickled red chilies, and served in spicy broth with cabbage, glass noodles, and silk mushrooms. It's technically a Hunan dish, but I'll cut Li some slack. He did a good job. Slow steaming gave the fish an almost creamy consistency. Judicious use of sugar tamed the heat of the chilies just enough.
Here was his follow-up, the classic Sichuan dish shui zhu niu rou, or boiled beef.
It's an unorthodox interpretation of the recipe. I lacked a few essential ingredients for this, Li told us, so he had to improvise with what was available to him. Adapt and overcome. The end result was pretty delicious, though I think because we were a couple of laowai, he may have gone too easy on the spice.
After that, he brought out a heaping plate of this.
Chuanxiang chicken cartilage stir-fried with crispy deep-fried peppers and peanuts and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Lots of different variations on crunch here. Nice.
Dinner ended with a simple tomato and egg soup.
This one pretty much speaks for itself.
Is it worth it?
So was it worth it? Sure. This was a four-dish dinner that could easily have fed three people. It only cost us 169rmb (69rmb for the four dishes, and 100rmb to reimburse Li for the ingredients). It looked professional, even though it was made with my decidedly non-professional-grade kitchen gear. And I was left having to wash only the dishes we ate off of.
However, after Li left, I was mildly disappointed to discover that he'd employed a few short cuts in his cooking. He used a prepackaged Chongqing hotpot soup mix for the shui zhu niu rou, and that meltingly tender beef was given a dose of meat tenderizer. Where I'm from, this seems comparable to inviting a chef to your house only to have him make a dinner with Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-Roni.
Then again, maybe I'm missing the point. He did more with those ingredients than I could ever hope to, and the same probably goes for most of the people who use this service. Shao Fan Fan isn't positioning itself as a gourmet service. Rather, it's a convenience. It's for people without the time or the inclination to cook, and when viewed in this light, the service was a success.
It's worth pointing out, however, that, unless you commission Li, it's hard to guarantee that you'll have the same experience that we had. Li told us that there are two types of chefs who work for Shao Fan Fan: those who have jobs in restaurants and do this on the side and those who can't get proper restaurant jobs. The former, obviously, tend to be more talented. Unfortunately, the user reviews of Shao Fan Fan's chefs are overwhelmingly positive at the moment, which I find suspect. I'd bet money that Shao Fan Fan is trying prime the pump with planted reviews. So until these guys compile enough genuine user comments, selecting a chef could be a bit of a crapshoot.
How to use it
You can find it on Apple's App Store by entering "烧饭饭" (Shao Fan Fan in pinyin) into the search bar. Or, once again, here is at iTunes. The downside: the interface is only Chinese. The upside: it's fairly intuitive.
Once it's on your phone, you have to create an account by providing your mobile phone number. You'll need to create a password as well. In order to do that, you'll need to have a four-digit verification code sent to you via SMS. Just tap the button that says "获取验证码" (see below). The verification code should arrive momentarily. It expires after a minute, so enter it in the space provided immediately. Then you just go through the typical password creating protocol. You know the drill: Enter it once. Enter it again.
Once that's done, you enter your address (in Chinese, of course). Then you can start browsing for chefs. You can also filter your search by cuisine style by touching that little funnel-shaped icon in the upper right corner. Shao Fan Fan uses location services, so they'll be listed according to how close they are to you.
Choose a chef, and you can see all of his details—cooking background, areas of expertise, specialty dishes, hours of availability, and other users' reviews.
Once you're ready to book the chef, tap the blue outlined button that says "立即预约." From here, you select the time you want to eat. He'll probably need to show up about two hours in advance to prepare your food, so be sure to take that into consideration when booking. Once you've selected a time, you can select how many dishes you'd like prepared. You've got a choice of four, six, or eight for 69, 99, or 119rmb respectively.
Shortly after you book, you'll receive a phone call to hammer out a few more details: what cuisine you want, how many people are eating, etc. Then he'll show up at the appointed time, ready to cook.
You can buy your own ingredients, or the chef can purchase them himself and you can reimburse him. Most locals seem to prefer the former option. We chose the latter, though, and were satisfied with the end product.
It's also worth noting that there are certain ingredients that are almost universal in any Chinese kitchen. It might be good to have the following on hand.
Dou ban jiang (豆瓣酱), a sauce made from fermented soy beans
MSG or chicken powder
Yellow rice wine (made for cooking)
Sichuan peppercorn and chilies (if you're hiring a Sichuan chef)
Also, chefs don't bring their own equipment. They use yours, so have a wok, a good knife, a cutting board, and a maybe a big pot for making soups.