In just two short years since opening, Mercato is already an institution on the Bund and a fixture of Shanghai’s dynamic restaurant scene. Jean-George’s first foray into coastal Italian cuisine and third venture in Shanghai is his most casual but perhaps most successful mainland China venture to date.
Designed by Shanghai-based Neri&Hu, internationally renowned for their interior work at The Waterhouse, Mercado presents an upscale atmosphere that is at once old-world–rustic and port-city-industrial. Stripping down a century of renovations to the building’s bare structural elements, Neri&Hu reveal the Three on the Bund’s original steel columns and complement them with reclaimed wood, sensuous leather and intimate lighting. The resulting atmosphere feels edgy and modern, unfinished yet organic, an industrial chic that is completely unique on the glamour strip of the Bund.
Helming the kitchen is Sandy Yoon, the 27 year old Korean-American chef whose meteoric rise in the Jean-Georges empire has drawn much attention from media and industry insiders. Within four years of starting as a line cook at ABC Kitchen in New York, Yoon was plucked by Jean-Georges to open Mercato in 2011. “When I first came to Shanghai, it seemed like the city and especially the Bund was defined by its luxury, glitz, and glamour” she recalls. “When Mercato opened, with its stripped interior and reclaimed wooden floors, it was a completely new experience for most people.
Mercato has been able to turn rustic into something trendy and top quality without the prices that people generally associate with it.” The average cheque at Mercato is around 300 RMB without wine, while the average cheque in Jean-Georges downstairs hovers around 700 RMB. As ingredient-driven cooking becomes more important to Chinese consumers, Mercato appears to be leading the pack in the “farm-to-table” trend. Yoon notes that “more and more Chinese people are looking to understand and fully appreciate where their food is coming from. They are asking detailed questions about the quality and provenance of ingredients, and I love seeing that.” Yoon’s team sources locally and seasonally whenever possible. Most of the seafood comes from Dalian, and all the fresh vegetables and herbs come from organic farms near Shanghai. The ricotta is house-made and fresh burrata is purchased daily from a fromager in Shanghai. Sandy has even been able to influence the supply of ingredients that were previously unavailable on the market, like broccolini for example. “It was practically impossible to find broccolini in China before we opened”, she says, “but that’s what’s so great about chefs getting involved in the sourcing process.”
In addition to driving food culture in China, Sandy’s celebrity as one of the youngest executive chefs in the city is inspiring a legion of new cooks and followers. The art of cooking is a profession that has suffered for decades from a lack of public standing and esteem in China, Mercato’s kitchen, made up entirely of aspirational young Chinese chefs buoyed by Yoon’s example, is leading the way to reversing these cultural precedents. This article appears on Jing Daily It was such an absolute pleasure to spend an hour with Sandy, she was humble, graceful, eloquent, charming and funny. Such an inspiration to be around. Here are some outtakes from my conversation with her, enjoy!
Mercato is known for its fresh and seasonal approach to cooking. Can you tell me more about the ingredients in these dishes?
We use seasonal ingredients and try to source locally whenever possible. The kingfish came from Fujian, but it is paired with olives and a very special olive oil that you can only find in Italy, so we import that. The pizzas are made with imported flour from Italy, but the broccolini and fresh herbs on it are all from a local farm. It was practically impossible to find broccolini in China before we opened, but that’s what’s so great about chefs getting involved in the sourcing process, it creates demand for things that were previously unavailable. We get our mozzarella and burrata from a Korean-American lady who makes them fresh daily in Shanghai. There’s simply nothing that beats market fresh ingredients. The biggest challenge with sourcing seasonally is that availability is never guaranteed, so that’s why we always need to be ready with Plan B, C, or even D, so that we can deliver a consistent experience for customers every time.
You moved to Shanghai from New York a year and a half ago, what has surprised you about cooking for the Chinese palate?
When I first moved to Shanghai, I was taken under the wing of Ken Lam, then head chef of Jean Georges downstairs. He was from Hong Kong and had to learn his way around the mainland Chinese palate when he first moved to Shanghai as well, and gave me invaluable insights. First he told me that everything I’m used to cooking is too salty. We’re used to a lot stronger flavours in New York, and I had to really dial down the use of seasoning. We use a coarser grind of kosher salt here than we did in ABC Kitchen. The second thing I learned was that the Shanghainese like a mix of sweet with their savoury courses, not just at the end of the meal. Our house-made ricotta with berry jams were a big hit when we introduced them. One thing I’ve really noticed is that Chinese people are becoming a lot more conscious of where their food is coming from, and are asking some very detailed questions about the provenance of certain ingredients, and that’s really awesome for me to see! When I first came to Shanghai, it seemed like the city and especially the Bund was defined by its luxury, glitz, and glamour. When Mercato opened, with its stripped, industrial interior and repurposed wooden floors, it was a completely new experience for most people. But I’m proud that Mercato has been able to turn rustic into something trendy and offer a top quality experience without the prices that people generally associate with it.
On her meteoric rise in the Jean-Georges empire
I remember when I was first made sous-chef (at Jean-George’s ABC Kitchen in New York). I was shell-shocked. I had only been on the line for about a year. All of a sudden my schedule changed and I had to do everything differently. But the moment I became sous I decided to lay everything else aside and focus on my job wholeheartedly. Only with that level of devotion can you improve consistently. I owe so much to my first Chef Anthony Ricco, I still consider him a God. Now that I’m an employer myself, giving others their promotions, I realize that like him, I tend not to give it to people who are ready, but rather to people who have the potential to fill the shoes. To make it in this industry you need talent, hard work, and also luck, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
On cooking and her cultural heritage
I was born in the US to Korean parents. All of my memories growing up featured food in some way. Breakfasts and dinners were always Korean food – soup, rice, kimchi, the whole deal. I loved watching my mother cook, and begged her to allow me to help in the kitchen. She would always give me the most mundane tasks, like peeling garlic. But I took so much joy in doing it I didn’t mind at all. I smelled like garlic all next day, but even that was comforting for me. It baffles me today when I see young chefs who complain about repetitive tasks like that! It will all come back to Korean food for me. In 10-20 years I see myself opening a Korean restaurant, but for now I’m still a student of Jean-Georges and of Italian cuisine. I’m lucky though to be working with a chef who has just as much respect and appreciation for Korean food (Jean-Georges is married to a Korean woman and is currently planning to open a Korean concept restaurant in the Three on the Bund building). You may not realize it but there’s chilli in practically everything at Mercato!