Fuchsia Dunlop deserves a lot of credit for being the only serious writer in the West who has consistently championed Chinese chefs over the years, and with beautifully evocative prose. Her coverage of Yubo and Dai Jianjun among others have ostensibly been responsible for launching these chef’s into the global limelight, and helped spawn a new wave of interest in China’s rich culinary heritage. Her latest story in FT about rising Chengdu chef Lan Guijun is no exception. I’m consistently impressed by her pulse on the Chengdu scene and intimacy with its key players despite being based in London. Lan Guijun is a chef who has long been well-known amongst culinary aficionados in Chengdu, but only in the last few years morphed into his current incarnation; ambassador of refined Chinese gastronomy. After disappearing off the scene in a long sabbatical during which time he studied traditional cuisine and the art of pottery-making in Jingdezhen, he has returned with a mission: to shed light on the intricacies of Chinese cuisine, and to do it an an elevated level of aesthetics and presentation on par with the most progressive cuisines in the world. Its about time this was expressed.
After reading her article, I was inspired to book a ticket to Chengdu and use the excuse of a family reunion to go to his restaurant Yu Zhi Lan. It did not disappoint; 25 precise courses and practically every single one was on point. The setting is on a quiet tree-lined street in the centre of town, black unmarked doors lead into an intimate four-room house where several set-menu options are available based on price. We chose the starter option at 500 RMB per head. A single, perfect fig began the meal, and quickly progressed into 8 cold appetizers, arranged on an array of custom-made porcelain. A memorable dish of “golden thread noodles”, a Chengdu snack-house favorite, was taken to a next level of precision with free-range duck egg yolk noodles, hand cut to a thousand silken slivers. The meal progressed with a finesse I associate with the kaisekis of Kyoto; characteristically complex flavours from Sichuan were somehow made more delicate with a focus on the “yuan wei” or original flavour of its ingredients and a noticeable lack of additives and artificial flavouring. Attention to detail was paramount. The final dessert of “crystal mango jelly” came wrapped in the skeleton of a leaf so iridescent it glowed.
See the Flickr album for all the photos from this meal.
I leave you with this, the best expression of Chinese cooking I’ve heard in a very long time.
“I’m not fanatical about authenticity,” he says. “I’m from Sichuan, so whatever I cook is Sichuanese. Today’s invention is tomorrow’s ‘tradition’ anyway. We Chinese should stop droning on about our ‘four great inventions’ and all that, and look to the outside world. We shouldn’t forget our roots, of course; we should preserve our traditions. But we shouldn’t be too conservative. I want to cook in a spirited way, not like a machine.