Hawaii's celebrity chef Alan Wong brings his cuisine to the Chinese mainland, telling Xu Junqian he expects the city to shape what's on his plates.
Consistency should be the last thing you expect at Alan Wong's Shanghai, the much-anticipated outlet of the Hawaiian celebrity chef. That, however, is no knock on the food quality or service.
"Hawaii is the melting pot of Pacific Ocean," says Wong, who is known as one of the 12 co-founders of Hawaiian regional cuisine. "I don't want to make French or Japanese food in Hawaii. But I can take the French technique and use it on Japanese ingredients. That's what Hawaii and modern cuisine is about," he says.
"The biggest mistake about Hawaii is to think that if you are from Hawaii, you are a Hawaiian, and so is the food," says the Tokyo-born Hawaiian, who has a Japanese mother and a half-Hawaiian, half-Cantonese father.
Wong has been to Shanghai eight times in the two years he's been developing the new restaurant, but in an exclusive interview with China Daily just ahead of the opening last month, he concedes that he is still deciding what to "melt" in his Shanghai pot. Calling the menu 100 percent Hawaiian at the start, he says he's committed to bring in Shanghai flavor. Soon it will be 90 percent Hawaiian and 10 percent Shanghai, he says, "and gradually more Shanghai than Hawaii".
"I don't think it's possible to capture the taste of a place over such a short time. I'd like to pick it up piece by piece," he adds.
Wong thrives on variety at every one of his "culinary studios", where new ideas and new flavors are objects of experiment. He operates two restaurants in Honolulu and for a time had an outlet at Tokyo Disneyland.
The founding group of what's come to be known as Hawaii regional cuisine made an art of such experimenting, highlighting Hawaii's locally grown ingredients and diverse ethnic styles. In 1992, they teamed up to compile a cookbook, The New Cuisine of Hawaii, to be sold for charity.
Besides being famous for its original cuisine, Wong's original restaurant in Hawaii is also known for visits by US President Barack Obama, who invited the chef to cook a luau for the annual White House Congressional picnic in 2009. Three years earlier, as a guest judge on the season finale of TV's Top Chef, Wong welcomed contestants to lunch in Hawaii and then challenged them to cater his birthday luau.
His accolades include being named chef of the year by Sante Magazine in 2001, the same year Gourmet Magazine ranked one of his restaurants No 6 in a listing of America's Best 50 Restaurants.
Eager to bring some of that magic touch to Shanghai, one thing Wong has embraced is the city's famous xiaolongbao, which he is re-creating at his Hawaiian "lab" with a little tweak - duck meat wrapped in rice paper, with a touch of foie gras for the broth. He has named it Duck Duck.
Duck Duck is still being perfected and will be introduced to its "hometown Shanghai" once finished. But what he calls its "cousin" - seared Hudson Valley foie gras topped with li hing mui chutney - appears on the chef's tasting menu both in Shanghai and Hawaii. The velvety foie gras, is perfectly balanced by the sweet-sour li hing mui (literally dried plum for traveling) on top.
The snack popular in China's southeast was believed to have been brought by Cantonese laborers to Hawaii early in the 20th century, and became widely used in cocktails and as flavoring powder.
"I can be inspired by anything," says Wong, from a staff colleague's lunchbox to a photo in a magazine.
The You Have Been Shanghaied cocktail, for example, which fuses VSOP Cognac and ginger ale with li hing mui, takes its inspiration and is created in memory of those unwilling to set sail from Shanghai to the US in the 19th century as laborers.
And the Wong Way Martini is a personal variation of the original, containing only vodka and pineapple. The fruit, which is also the logo of Wong's culinary chain, is the nickname he got as a teen while working at a pineapple plantation. It's also an international symbol of hospitality.
The cocktail is an example of how Wong uses what he calls "palate memory" and how he prefers not to know the recipe for something he tastes and likes. "When I re-create it," he says, "I can do it in my own way and nobody can sue me for stealing his recipe."
He calls the five categories of flavor - salty, sweet, acidic, bitter and spicy hot - the foundation of cooking, without which creativity usually makes little sense.
But more importantly, he believes that the types of food one grows up eating as a child shapes how one cooks later in life.
Wong's own influences are mainly Asian, as his Japanese mother had worked at restaurants there before the family moved to Hawaii, and his Chinese grandpa, of Cantonese origin, gives him the sense of seasoning.
After working at various restaurants in Japan, New York and Hawaii, Wong made his breakthrough in the 1990's while creating a new American regional cuisine with other top chefs in the 50th US state.
But his education is continuing now in Shanghai.
"What I really enjoy here is that when I tell people I want to learn from them, they really take it to heart. As I learn and grow, my thoughts about food and people change. When I change, my food changes," he says.