Friday, November 25, 2016

When China's top chefs ate at the French Laundry

TYLER COWEN: In one of your books you tell a story of taking some number of very renowned Sichuan chefs and you bring them in the United States to a restaurant called The French Laundry, one of the best and most famous American restaurants. Cooking at a very high level. How did they react to that?

FUCHSIA DUNLOP: Oh, total culture shock. You see, I was delighted. I was so excited. I’d taken these wonderful chefs, all of them extremely accomplished practitioners of Sichuanese cuisine, and here I was. I got a table at the best restaurant, held to be the best restaurant in North America, with some of the finest the West had to offer.

There were all kinds of things that they found very difficult. The first was our reservation was at 9:30. Chinese people like to eat at 6:00 or 6:30, so they were already in a bit of a bad mood by the time we started.

COWEN: As I would be.

[laughter]

DUNLOP: Then it was a four-hour tasting menu. Chinese meals, even very good ones, tend to be rather fast by this standard. For them, it was a long, tedious, late-night thing to sit and have dish after dish of complicated food.

They weren’t used to eating dairy products, so anything creamy, not particularly nice. They were really disturbed. One of them actually refused to eat the most beautiful lamb, because it was a little pink and bloody in the middle. Of course, in China traditionally only barbarians eat raw meat and you just don’t eat raw meat.

[laughter]

DUNLOP: They thought the olives tasted like Chinese medicine.

[laughter]

DUNLOP: In China a meal should always leave you feeling very refreshed and relaxed, and that’s why you finish in many regions with a light, refreshing palate-cleansing soup or with fresh fruit.

At the French Laundry, we ended, like at many classic Western tasting menus, with a whole sequence of very heavy, sweet dishes, which was not very comfortable for them.

COWEN: Also known as dessert. [laughs]

DUNLOP: As dessert. The most interesting thing was Yu Bo, one of the chefs who’s now very famous — one of the best chefs I’ve ever met in China, the most accomplished — he was sitting in front of this beautiful plate of food. He said, “Fuchsia, this is all very interesting, but I really cannot say whether it’s good or bad.”
--Fuchsia Dunlop, Conversations with Tyler, on the analogue of Westerners eating sea cucumber