The figure of a mentor has been around forever, since the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It’s often a great story to see that people can be both mentors and friends, seeing each other grow and succeed as a result of their mutual help and advice. In the F&B world, there are many mentoring relationships, which can also be competitive. For those who truly appreciate each other for their beliefs and talents, and thus become lifelong friends, the trust and support they share are not easily obtained and are vastly valued. Danny Yip, Owner of The Chairman in Hong Kong which earned the No.1 spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, and Xu Jingye, Head Chef of 102 House which was awarded Essence of Asia this year, are like skillful kung-fu masters, with their ‘swords and shields’, marching proudly and shining brightly in the martial arts world of gastronomy. While they are each climbing to the mountain top, for me they are more like companions on the road to success.
This article is not a restaurant review that I usually write, but more of a reflection on a short film. I haven’t known Xu Jingye for long, but I’ve always found Xu to be a spectacular chef: his passion about food, his humble personality, his diligence to constantly refine culinary skills, and his willingness to study ancient texts in order to better understand the gorgeous food culture of Lingnan. Just like Chef Wang Yong at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hangzhou, Xu is a such a talented yet amiable chef who has kindly helped me with my book list in order to understand more about Cantonese cuisine. Since 102 House opened in Shanghai, I have formed a good habit of visiting at least twice for each seasonal menu that comes out.
Before I met Chef Xu, he was already well-received by a number of friends in the food industry, including David Yip, a renowned journalist, chef, and restaurateur who has had an association with gastronomy in Singapore and Hong Kong for many years. During my interview with Xu, he mentioned that his greatest culinary influence was from Danny Yip of The Chairman in Hong Kong. I’m a longtime reader of Mr Yip’s columns, and his writing, in short: expert wordsmithery, book knowledge, critical elan – and an ability to resonate with readers. If food connoisseur is the highest title I could give to a chef, Mr Yip is a much respected one.
Originally, the film was intended for introducing 102 House Shanghai, and Chef Xu and owner Yao Min’s passion to honour the traditional Cantonese cuisine and the rich food culture of Foshan as they brought 102 House to Shanghai this summer.
However, I was more intrigued by the friendship between Chef Xu and Mr Yip. To surprise chef Xu with the short film , I contacted Mr Yip through my gourmet friend Margaret Lam, and he instantly accepted my invitation to do the interview. Mr Yip is a low-key person who much prefers to let the restaurant and its cuisine do the talking. It was such an honour to interview him, and it was clear how much he valued Chef Xu.
Director of our film, Norman, arranged a cameraman friend Luis in Hong Kong, to interview Mr Yip via a video conference, hoping to convey the story of food and friendship. In the film, Xu recounts the many influences that Mr Yip has had on him, including breaking the notion that soup is a must in a Cantonese meal. In Cantonese cuisine, the soup is usually made from aged chicken, lean meat and ham, which is used to flavour the dish and is considered the ‘soul’ of Cantonese cuisine. Mr Yip, however, believes that soups should be prepared based on what dishes are on the table, a concept that one-starred Michelin Sichuan restaurant Yu Zhi Lan also upholds. If art is what we are talking about here, Mr Yip is a veritable artist.
There are many similarities in their approaches to dishes, such as simple plating, and highlighting the original flavours of ingredients. David Yip may have noticed this and introduced Xu to Yip, saying that Xu is also crazy about finding best ingredients and bringing out the best in them. The first time Xu visited The Chairman, the two instantly knew they should be friends. Mr Yip even invited Xu to his place and they spent the whole night chatting and have since become very close friends despite their age difference. They also searched for lost recipes in ancient books, and together they transformed the lost dishes into the real thing. In addition, the only four-hands dinner of The Chairman was done with Chef Xu’s 102 House in Foshan back in early 2018, which received wide acclaims.
For Xu, Mr Yip is an experienced mentor who has helped him grow and see more possibilities of life. Although this is a world where you can basically eat what you want if you feel the need, it is not as easy to understand the subtleties as it may seem. As a chef, one must love food and care about eating well in order to make good food, but the idea of noticing and mastering subtleties in it is up to the individual. With common views on good food and many other things in life, Xu and Yip appreciate and motivate each other to become better selves.
Xu and Yip both have an air of chivalry and gentleness: Yip is like Li Mubai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a master of legendary fighting skills, while some say that Xu’s aspiration to revive Chinese cuisine is like that of Huang Feihong, the famous martial artist and folk hero also from Foshan.
Communication is both competition and inheritance. Without the baggage of cuisine faction, the two are more comfortable fully demonstrating their skills and proficiency in the competitive jungle. This year they both shine on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list: The Chairman is the first Chinese restaurant to win No.1 on the list, and 102 House Foshan is included in the Essence of Asia collection. For decades, the importance of international accreditations was not fully recognized by the Chinese restaurant world, and Chinese food has been under-appreciated on the world stage. That’s finally changing. This year’s achievement for The Chairman does not only belong to Mr Yip, but also to the whole industry. The bond of friendship connecting them becomes even more profound.
Six hands Dinner: Japan DEN × The Chairman × 102 House
Danny Yip commented on 102 House: “Their dishes are old-fashioned, so old that some are even near the brink of loss. The ingredients they use do not come easily, and there is work and effort in their dishes. Simple as it may look, but in fact it is rather the opposite. The pristine and authentic Cantonese taste can best define the restaurant’s cuisine, masterfully crafted and warms your heart.”
Due to the pandemic, the scheduled four-hands between 102 House and The Chairman in Shanghai has been postponed indefinitely. With a little sentimentality but also happiness, I’m glad that we got to reunited through the screen.
This is my first time completing remote filmmaking and editing of a documentary. It gave more courage for someone like me, who cannot travel outside of the country, to make more productions like this. I would like to let more people know about the fine-dine industry and behind-the-scenes of Chefs — besides the glint and flash of cold sword, there’s also precious friendships.