Celebrating Cantonese fare

Jiang by Chef Fei at the Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou may have just received two Michelin stars, but the restaurant is not in the business of resting on its laurels, Li Yingxue reports.

Last June, when the first edition of the Guangzhou Michelin Guide was released, eight restaurants were awarded one star each. However on July 16, when the second edition was released, 12 stars were given out but only one restaurant received two – Cantonese cuisine restaurant Jiang by Chef Fei.

The synopsis for the restaurant in the guide reads: “At the Mandarin Oriental’s upscale Chinese restaurant, the chef creates innovative dishes with Japanese and Western inflections based on traditional Cantonese cooking techniques.”

Huang Jinghui, also known as chef Fei, the chef de cuisine at Jiang by Chef Fei, says he had the feeling that he was going to gain two stars when all the one-star restaurants were announced, and his restaurant’s name was not called out.

“I was nervous, but not as nervous as last year,” says Huang, who couldn’t sleep well in the months leading up to last year’s announcement.

“To gain Michelin stars is a dream for most chefs, but my rule is to always serve the diners the best quality food with or without a star,” says Huang.

Before the Michelin guide focused on Guangzhou, business at Huang’s restaurant was already brisk, but the stars have helped to bring in more customers.

With two stars, the restaurant now has to be booked around 10 days in advance.

Huang thinks the stars are both a reason for pride and stress for his team as the diners following the Michelin guide expect a lot.

“The judges of the Michelin guide need time to explore the delicacies of Guangzhou, and I believe that in the future there will be three-starred restaurants in our city,” says Huang.

Guangzhou is where Huang started his culinary journey at the age of 16 when he left his hometown, a small town in Chaoshan region in Guangdong province.

At the age of 20, he became an executive chef leading a team of 20. During the early years he took the time to practice his culinary skills, from cutting to frying. He has filled six notebooks with notes on cooking and other knowledge he had gained.

“I would volunteer to cook the staff meal at the restaurant, so that I had more chances to perfect my skills,” says the 46-year-old, who remembers that for one staff meal, he had a large bunch of cucumbers to chop.

From cucumber to carrot, radish to ginger, Huang has perfected his skills of dicing, slicing and shredding.

“Unlike today, when chicken chefs dealt with specific parts back in the 1990s, they had to clean and deal with the whole bird by themselves,” says Huang.

In 2012, Huang started to make preparations for the launch of Jiang by Chef Fei, the first Cantonese cuisine restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel to be named after its chef.

According to Huang, he trains his chefs in a military style with strict rules for each dish, from cooking to plating. He also examines each dish before they are served to diners, and he throws the food away if the dish is not cooked as he wants.

“I tell the chef what is wrong with the dish and ask them to make it again,” says Huang, who calls over all the chefs in the kitchen to listen to him correcting the problem so that no one repeats the mistake.

“All the chefs in my team respect me, but not out of fear,” says Huang.

After creating a new dish, Huang not only teaches his chefs how to cook it, but also tells all the servers how it is made and lets them try the dish so they can explain it better when serving it.

Huang is very strict about cleanness in his kitchen. The floor of his kitchen has to be kept clean and dry for the entire time no matter how busy the chefs are.

“I tell my chefs to clean the kitchen each day after cooking, because sanitation is the key to ensuring food safety,” says Huang.

Huang knows the temperaments of each of his chefs and handles them accordingly. Even when some of his chefs leave the team, Huang continues to guide them.

“I wanted to be an executive chef the moment I walked into the kitchen 30 years ago, and I hope my chefs can understand the importance to have a clear goal for the future,” says Huang.

Anthony Tyler, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental in Guangzhou, says Michelin’s recognition of the restaurant is a testament to the unique position it occupies in the city.

Huang is also a consultant to several other Cantonese restaurants under the Mandarin Oriental group, and he wants to spread the cuisine to more places outside of China.

He crafts innovative dishes from simple but top-class seasonal ingredients.

Traditional wax gourd soup features ham and dried scallop, but Huang also adds steamed Alaskan crab meat to give the dish more freshness.

He also pays a lot of attention to the plating of his dishes, which he compares to what stylish clothes represent to people.

“The key to the cuisine is seasonality, both for ingredients and flavor. In winter the dishes are rich and in summer the seasoning is light.”

To celebrate the Michelin accolade, Huang has six special “mustorder” dishes for diners in Guangzhou, three of which are newly created, including the poached Australian abalone with black truffle sauce.

Huang poaches the imported abalone, which weigh a minimum of 700 grams each, in chicken broth with Chinese ham for 24 hours.

Another recommended dish is the poached lobster in spicy and sour soup, which has a seafood broth and is made with fresh tomatoes. Huang then adds a hit of fresh chili to the dish.

For dessert, there’s stewed imperial bird’s nest with pear and orange blossom wine. Here, the tender and smooth texture of the pear is a perfect match for the delicacy favored by Chinese nobility – imperial bird’s nest.

To attain three stars, Huang thinks besides the quality of food, all elements during the diners’ whole eating experience matter, from tableware to wine pairing.

As for his immediate ambitions, Huang says: “I hope diners from outside of Guangdong province or even from abroad, will come to enjoy the authentic Cantonese cuisine at my restaurant.”