Masterchef China: Best restaurants in Guangzhou

Several young Chinese chefs have emerged as masters of China's traditional cuisine, holding court in the culinary city of Guangzhou.

This article was first published in The Business Times on July 4, 2015.

IN the tourism stakes, Guangzhou is like the snotty-nosed little kid in the playground that nobody wants to play with. It has no scenic wonders like Guilin or West Lake; no blockbuster antiquities like the Great Wall, Forbidden City, or Terracotta Warriors. In architectural star power, it's no Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong. Tell friends you're visiting Guangzhou and the response is always, "Why?"

The answer is akin to snotty-nosed tyke opening his lunch box and becoming the most popular kid on the block. Because when it comes to food, Guangzhou has no equal.

Sea cucumber dish by Chef Howard Cai from Howard's Gourmet Workshop in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

Guangzhou is the capital and largest city in China's southern Guangdong Province. In ancient times, it was called the "Barbaric South" because of its proximity to the imperial capital. It was where out-of-favour court officials and their families were banished, to rot in oblivion. It was also a land of opportunity; the Cantonese, the most populous ethnic group in Guangdong, were anything if not great opportunists.

Thanks to their resilience and business acumen, Guangdong flourished commercially and culturally - Guangzhou in particular. An artistic renaissance saw an exchange of ideas between China and the outside world. The Cantonese were renowned connoisseurs, and their cuisine was always evolving. Although Cantonese coexists with Teochew, Hakka, and Shunde as the main food styles within the region, it's Cantonese cuisine that has become synonymous with Guangzhou in the eyes of foreigners. In Singapore, Cantonese cooking is predominant, and many popular dishes here would be recognizable in Guangzhou.

But the Cultural Revolution and the decades-long closed door policies that followed have decimated the gastronomic profession, forcing chefs to flee the country bringing cherished recipes and techniques with them. Fortunately a group of contemporary chefs - young, Chinese, and global-minded - have emerged to 'save' tradition in China through the path of private dining. Here are some of the brightest talents cooking now.

Howard's Gourmet Workshop

6th Floor, Fangyuan Building

28 Tiyu E Road

Tianhe, Guangzhou, Guangdong

Telephone: +86 186-8801-7177

Marinated raw sea mantis, a dish by Chef Howard Cai from Howard's Gourmet Workshop in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP
Chef Howard Cai from Howard's Gourmet Workshop in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

In modern Chinese fine dining, there are just two chefs of note who are leading in terms of trends and directions. In the north is Beijing-based Chef Dong Zhenxiang, or simply Chef Da Dong, who fuses his formal training in the northern Lu cuisine of Shandong with outlandish western plating. The other is Chef Howard Cai, who works out of Guangzhou and practises an understated style of cooking and presentation.

Chef Cai is an ethnic Teochew who graduated with a degree in Science from Melbourne and worked in Los Angeles from 1993 to 2005. In his free time he set up a food laboratory to explore ways of improving his cooking. His epiphany came when he was tasked to cook for a group of Ningbo government officials visiting the US. His braised sea cucumber was so well received that he was invited to return to China to open a restaurant in Ningbo.

Chef Cai's unfamiliar cooking style didn't catch on immediately in the city, and he lost 100,000 yuan in the first year. But after that minor setback, his business took off; a seat at his restaurant today costs a minimum of 1,200 yuan. He serves refined Teochew food incorporating his unique cooking methods. "We eat with our mouths, therefore I trust my tastebuds when it comes to refining dishes," he says. His ardent fans agree, and they include politicians, showbiz celebrities, and connoisseurs. A recent well-publicised gig was for David Beckham, where Chef Cai personalized a dinner for the soccer star at the launch of his in-house whiskey den, the Haig Club, in London.

Chef Cai's Teochew heritage is evident in his cooking, which is so deceptively simple, it almost seems home-cooked. "I'm persistent when it comes to R&D in the kitchen," he says. "I'm constantly improving cooking techniques to meet my own requirements as well as suit today's palate." Flavours and ingredients are deconstructed into their individual components than reassembled on the plate. Things look different yet familiar notes flit over the tongue.

For example, marinated raw mantis prawns in Chinese wine has none of the prominent spicy elements such as garlic and chili. The flavours instead playing peek-a-boo with the sweetness of the prawns. In his signature Braised Sea Cucumber, the superior broth again takes a supporting role. The torched sea cucumber is packed with broth flavour, and the caramelised layer of the echinoderm is the star, adding sweetness and balance.

102 House

Guicheng Shi Ken, Huanghe Fang

Yi Xiang Yi Hao

Foshan, Guangzhou

Telephone: +86 132-8843-2145

Salt-baked chicken by Chef Xu from Guicheng Shi Ken, Huanghe Fang in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP
Chef Xu from Guicheng Shi Ken, Huanghe Fang in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

Bored with cooking banal food in a hotel after graduating from cooking college, Chef Xu Jingye roped in a few friends and rented a two-storey bungalow in a village with a beautiful pond next to it. It became his private dining dream nine years ago.

Although only 30 years old, Chef Xu has held a long interest in traditional Cantonese cooking, particularly that of Fushan where he was born. He spends his leisure time scrounging for old recipe books in flea markets, and trawls the Internet looking for rare cookbooks at auction. Fortunately, he has a mentor who guides him in the research and refining of recipes.

Masterchef Chen Daben is retired and is one of the most respected chefs in Guangzhou. He has passed his vast culinary wisdom to his young protégé, and today Chef Xu works to preserve, master, and showcase this amazing heritage at his exclusive three-room restaurant in Foshan, Guangzhou.

Not only are the dishes a legacy, so are the crockery and cutlery. Chef Xu and his business partner Yao Min spend their spare hours hunting rare and exquisite, antique tableware to do justice to the forgotten recipes Chef Xu brings to life.

"Most of these recipes were lost, especially during the '60s," moans Chef Xu. "When the old masterchefs and food manufacturers died, so did their recipes and techniques. The tastes of yesteryear are hard to emulate but I try, with the help of my teachers, friends and suppliers." And that is not mere lip service; because Chef Xu rears his own chicken to meet his requirements of taste, texture and weight. He also hops to Hong Kong every month on sourcing trips, especially for dried delicacies such as sea cucumber, and fish maw. "Every detail matters in my cooking," he smiles.

Gao Zhuang Farmer Private Kitchen

Shiji Zhen, Jinshan Cun

Gao Zhuang Hehua Tang

Panyu, Guangzhou

Telephone: +86 3455-4022

A restaurant by Gao Shifu, Hong Kong-born celebrity chef cum TV personality. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

Chef Gao Rongxin, better known as Go Shifu, comes from a family of chefs and restaurateurs. His father ran a famous Chinese restaurant on Lockhart Road, Hong Kong, and Go Shifu followed in his footsteps, becoming a sous-chef in his father's kitchen at age 18.

In the '90s, Chef Gao was one of the poster boys of Hong Kong F&B; he owned a six-storey restaurant and appeared regularly on television and radio. During the SARS crisis, his business took a beating, leading him to move back to his hometown in the outskirts of Guangzhou, where he grew his own vegetables, made his own sauces, and opened a private kitchen serving Cantonese provincial cuisine.

Travelling to this private kitchen is an odyssey in itself; it is located in the midst of a rural farming village outside the city and the kitchen sits above a fishing pond. Amidst the rusticity - forget fine-dining ambience - Go Shifu presents his traditional dishes. "I like the idea of inviting friends to my home for a heart-warming home-cooked meal," Go Shifu explains. "Most of my customers are already stressed from day-to-day work. Here, they can feel relaxed, immersed in the green surroundings, and eat food cooked with things we grow ourselves." Those familiar with Cantonese cooking would find the experience like a celebratory dinner cooked by a family elder at home, replete with dishes such as Braised Mushrooms, Eight-Treasure Duck, Deep-fried Spring Chicken and Snake Soup if the season is right. Go Shifu laments the fact that chefs today, especially the younger ones, have forgotten how to cook from scratch, relying instead on pre-mixes and instant packets. "In my kitchen I emphasise 'kungfu' cooking," he declares. "Everything is prepared by hand!"

Jiang by Chef Fei

Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou

389 Tianhe Road

Tianhe District, Guangzhou

Telephone: 86 20-3808-8888

Team of cooks from Jiang by Chef Fei, a restaurant in Guangzhou, China. PHOTO: DAVID YIP

Even international hotels have latched on to private dining. When Mandarin Oriental Guangzhou was planning its F&B outlets, it wove a couple of intimate dining concepts into the mix.

Helmed by an acclaimed young executive chef, Jiang by Chef Fei has two rooms equipped with kitchen facilities and a table for four in each room. The idea is that the chef is able to provide an exclusive, tailored dining experience for you and your guests in privacy. For a minimum spend of 850 yuan, you can discuss the menu details with the chef, who, with his team, cooks and presents a complete gourmet meal right in front of you.

Chef Fei is a Teochew who, at a relatively youthful 42, has mastered the art of Cantonese cooking - both traditional and contemporary - and dim sum. Chef Fei is widely known and respected in Guangzhou, and his private dinners are sellouts. "We would normally discuss the menu with the customer prior to the engagement," explained Chef Fei. "The team and I would then prepare the dish in front of them. If the dish is too complicated, we would cook the food in the main kitchen and assemble it in the same room." For bigger groups or corporate events, the chef will still present a unique tailored dining experience, but in one of the two more spacious Breakout Rooms, which can seat up to 50.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.