Shanghai doesn’t lack for chefs. But CELEBRITY chefs, chefs that don’t just cook, but those that stick their bold-face names on restaurants and collect royalty fees– those have been, until recently, a rare thing in Shanghai. That changed two or three years ago. Why? To my black heart, it’s basic greed. Often (though not always), the chefs are past their expiration dates, and China is a new and undereducated market. To someone less jaded, they might be described as being drawn to a new and exciting fine dining market.
It’s a trend that is only going to accelerate as the world’s private equity funds and $$-minded chefs pair up to find green fields to play on, and China is one of the biggest. The number of internationally famous chefs that pass through Shanghai every year is staggering. Their visits go mostly unmentioned, except within the F&B community, but no doubt that while they are doing their “research” or whatever brought them to Shanghai, they are assessing the business opportunities here as well. A very abbreviated selection of who has passed through in recent years: Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese Food), David Chang (Momofuku Group), Ferran Adria (el Bulli, etc), Alain Ducasse (Ducasse Group), Mario Batali (Eataly, etc), Emeril Lagasse (Bam!), Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance), Jamie Oliver (no intro needed) and David Thompson (Nahm).
I compiled the following list based on my faulty memory and my history here. It is not perfect. How I define celebrity chefs is indistinct and sometimes is based on Michelin-star status (having two or three) and sometimes based on general international renown. I do not endorse them; I might rib them a bit. They are businessmen first and foremost, and if we can recognize that, and not pretend they are behind a stove, there is little room for argument. (But not none.)
So, in roughly chronological order, here are the 16 celebrity chefs that have touched down in Shanghai.
Restaurants: Jean Georges, Mercato, Chi-Q (closed)
Jean Georges arrived in approximately 1918 and has been operating restaurants on the Bund ever since. His commitment to this city is laudable, as is the level of chefs he sends from New York to operate his restaurants. He recently refreshed his namesake restaurant with a gorgeous, feminine design from Neri + Hu, showing that he’s still plugged into this city and adapting to its changing character. To another 100 years!
The Pourcel Brothers
Restaurants: Fuck, what was that one called… in Bund 18… and then their other one on Shaanxi Lu
Success? Not quite. I can’t even remember the name of their restaurants
The Pourcel Brothers, who at one point had three Michelin stars in France and a network of restaurants in both Europe and Asia, were also early adopters, coming into Shanghai in the early 2000s with the renovation of Bund 18. They were in the space that is now Mr & Mrs Bund, and were charging four figures for dinner back in 2004. I didn’t go then, and I only went once after they lost the Bund 18 spot and moved into the Red House on Shaanxi Lu. When you exited the elevator, a creepy video of the two bald brothers staring back at you was the first thing you saw, and perhaps their only presence in the restaurant. I had the distinct feeling of them being pirates, serving outdated French food to rich Chinese who didn’t know any better, a trend that continues to this day in other dining rooms around Shanghai. So, in that respect, perhaps they were pioneers. My favorite review on TripAdvisor: “Must have got his Michelin star on Taobao.”
Restaurant: Restaurant Martin (closed)
Success? Never a concern
Restaurant Martin, in the one-time EMI Building that its in Xujiahui Park on Hengshan Lu, was a bolt of lightning when it opened about a decade ago. Berasategui, an endlessly celebrated Spanish chef, had three Michelin stars at the time (still does) and for him to choose Shanghai for his first restaurant outside of Spain – well, it seemed the heavens had struck Shanghai. Berasategui himself showed up for a lavish opening party. And then never came back. Slowly it dawned on us. This was purely a licensing deal; the man had sold-out royally, and, by doing so on the other side of the world, felt inured to the effects. The Spanish papers got themselves in a tizzy writing about the opening. China was the new frontier! When the inevitable closing came a few years later, after the restaurant limped along well past its expiry date, the newspapers were nowhere to be found, and what seemed like lightning revealed itself as nothing more than a cheap flash from a strobe light.
Mattagne is a Belgian chef famous for his seafood cooking at the Sea Grill in Brussels. He has a long list of awards including two Michelin stars, but no mention of that time, back before the Expo, when a rich Chinese lady went shopping for a Michelin chef and landed on him. That lady was Zhang Lan and she was the head of the South Beauty restaurant group, which used to be a presence in Shanghai and Beijing. She was glamorous, rich and ambitious, and she leased the entire building on the northeast corner of Guangdong Lu and Sichuan Lu, right off the Bund. It was a Lan Club, decorated in expensive Chinese style, and was a grand place. I struggle to find something to compare it to today. These ego projects were bigger then. Anyway, it was not complete without a fancy Euro chef, and Zhang’s budget covered two stars, so Mattagne it was. A failure from the start. My favorite anecdote was how they conducted human resources. After hiring their team, they lined them all up on Guangdong Lu – by height. The manager then went down the line and assigned the short people to the lower floors, the average people to the middle floors, and the taller people, to the upper floors. That type of thinking pervaded the entire place, and it closed not long after opening. Mattagne never came back to China.
Christian Le Squer
Le Squer has three Michelin stars for Paris’s Restaurant Le Cinq. He is also the face of
Le Cake in China, a delivery dessert business with deep pockets. I don’t know anything about his arrangement, but his high-profile and early decision to sell his image to China makes him notable.
Restaurants: L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and a bakery at Reel
My buddy, my bro, my main squeeze, Robuchon was a Michelin-star factory. His greatest innovation, apart from figuring out how to charge 400 rmb for an egg, was cracking the Michelin Guide’s own formula, and then designing restaurants specifically engineered to scoop up stars. In another field, he’d be called a hacker. Michelin can’t stop him — he used their own formula against them — and now his restaurant empire has more stars than the night sky over the Sahara. Unfortunately, the man himself passed away earlier this month, and so I’ll reserve any more criticism of him. I’ll even go so far as to say his bakery at Reel makes an outstanding croissant – flaky, buttery and fragrant – and only 14 rmb. RIP.
Restaurant: MARC (closed)
Meneau is a chef’s chef, two Michelin stars, and part of the graying brigade. His time in Shanghai was brief and unremarked on, probably because it was at the “seven-star” Wanda Reign Hotel on the south Bund that fizzled on take-off. MARC opened in 2016 and closed not long after. Another case of China $$ buying European heritage for a veneer of respectability.
Restaurant: Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire
Success? To Be Determined
Gagnaire is another graying legend, who has been in Hong Kong for ages. He rather arrogantly determined in 2017 that Shanghai is now “ready for fine dining” but it seems he wasn’t ready for Shanghai: his restaurant at the Capella Hotel on Jianguo Lu got off to a rocky start. Things seem to be getting better, if you believe TripAdvisor reviews (cough cough), and they have opened a bakery and patisserie downstairs that has been gaining recognition.
Restaurant: Maison Lameloise
Success? It’s been a month
Lameloise is a three-star bro, at the top of the food chain, who appears to be trying to translate pastoral French cooking to the ultimate urban environment: a 128-story office tower in a metropolis of 25 million people where grass and greenery is guarded by security. See what we had to say about it here.
Restaurants: Table No.1 (now Oxalis, which he is not involved with), Commune Social, The Shanghai EDITION Hotel
Jason Atherton is his own category. He is young, active, hands-on with his restaurants, and appears to me to be the rightful inheritor of Jean Georges in Shanghai. He does an excellent job at keeping menus contemporary, changing and reasonably priced, and he has sent very talented and committed chefs to our city to keep his restaurants running, namely Scott and Kim Melvin. Now he’s working on the EDITION Hotel and has been in town for at least a month to get a handle on things. I am a fan.
Spanish & Latin
Restaurant: Estado Puro
Success? It’s packed
Roncero is a relatively young guy (born 1969) from Spain who won two Michelin stars for his avant-garde cooking. He’s also the founder of extremely controversial “full sensory dining experience” Sublimotion in Ibiza, which borrows more than a little from our own Ultraviolet. The Financial Times covered this in depth: “The most ambitious — and expensive — restaurant in the world opened in Ibiza in 2014. Unfortunately, there was already one just like it.” Roncero and Pairet are no strangers; I will leave it there.
Estado Puro doesn’t run in these fine-dining circles. Instead, it’s a vaguely creative Spanish tapas bar and meat market in Xintiandi that has been absolutely packed every time I’ve been in there, so chalk up a victory for Roncero.
Success? Uh, it’s now Chop Chop Club
Colagreco is Argentinean, working on the French Riviera. I never understood how his cuisine, which is based on the produce in the garden of his restaurant, was supposed to work on the Bund in Shanghai, where the only things that grow wild are venereal diseases and beggars. Nonetheless, he signed a big contract and tried his hand at the China market, powering the restaurant through several years of business before it ultimately closed and was handed over to Paul Pairet to become the Chop Chop Club.
Restaurant: Alan Wong’s (closed)
Alan Wong, Hawaii, tropical fine-dining, big in the 1990s. Or was that the 1980s? He was searching for a new audience from his perch at the Portman Ritz-Carlton on Nanjing Lu, but alas, he never found it, and the restaurant closed in December 2017.
Restaurant: Wolfgang Puck’s
Success? Still up in the air
The guy who sold “nouveau” pizza to rich Hollywood types in the 1980s. He is still going. Still selling pizzas. Still looking for new revenue streams. He’s dug two wells in Shanghai, one at Xintiandi and one at Disneytown, and I have heard absolutely nothing about either of them. No interest! Next!
Restaurants: Bo Shanghai
Success? Dianping says yes
Alvin Leung is the self-styled “demon chef”, the “bad boy of Chinese cooking” a pretentious, idiotic persona that turns me off. He might be a good cook. His restaurant might be doing innovative things with Chinese ingredients. I just can’t get over the moniker and the Dianping price estimate (2,148 rmb per person) to see for myself.
Restaurant: Café Gray Deluxe
Another graying cook, this time Swiss. Kunz burned bright in Hong Kong hotels in the 80s and in New York restaurants in the 1990s, at the four-star (New York Times) Lespinasse. Then he had a long fallow period, documented here, and shifted from fine-dining robes into something more casual. He’s since taken up refuge in Hong Kong, where his Café Gray Deluxe on the 49th floor of Swire’s Upper House Hotel does gangbusters business. Some say it’s for the view, not the food. Now that Swire has come to Shanghai, with the new Middle House hotel, Kunz’s Café Gray Deluxe has come along, his first mainland China venture. Verdict is still out on this one; it’s too early to say.