The story appears on

Page A12

January 15, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

A simple place with simple fare

AUSTRALIAN cook Craig Willis was casting about, thinking what kind of restaurant to start. Then it hit him: "It's really hard to just have a nice simple meal." The rest is history, reports Alex Linder.

Shanghai is a city of tens of thousands of restaurants offering dozens of different cuisines and competing to serve millions of mouths. Amid this chaos Australian Craig Willis has made a name for himself (literally) by keeping it simple, though his life is anything but.

Willis owns two restaurants in a historic building on Anfu Road that serves as a base for the Wagas family of restaurants. La Strada, an Italian-style pizzeria, is on the ground floor and Mr Willis, his personal creation and namesake, occupies the third-story loft.

If you're looking for Willis, this big wooden room with a farmhouse roof would be a good bet. He hardly leaves.

His home is for the rare times when he has time to sleep. His fridge is empty save for champagne (a gift) and coffee (a necessity). His friends have to sign up weeks in advance for a chance at a get-together on his night off.

"There's this kind of waiting list," Willis laughs. "Like, 'I would like to have dinner with you - but can it wait six weeks? Well, there's only six Mondays until then'."

In his blood

It is this kind of nonstop life that attracted Willis to Shanghai when he first came in 2000 as a guest chef and why he has had such trouble leaving.

"Michelle Garnaut from M on the Bund suggested I come for three months. Then two and a half years later she said, 'Well you can go home now'," he recalls.

Willis did reluctantly return to Australia, but he couldn't settle down. "I just couldn't stand it," he says. "I couldn't commit to anything; couldn't take a full-time job. Really, I just wanted to be here, I enjoyed it so much."

"Once it's (the city's) in their blood, they just can't leave," he says.

In 2005 he returned to Shanghai to become a group chef at Wagas. At the time there were only three café locations in the city. Willis worked as more of a restaurant manager - waiting tables, answering phones and designing menus. Soon the sandwich and salad shop started popping up on every street corner and inside every shopping mall.

Willis had proved himself more than able, so he was offered the chance to design his own restaurant.

A place of his own

Willis realizes how lucky he was. Not many cooks are given their own space to shape and mold as they see fit, especially in the middle of the world financial crisis.

But running his own restaurant has always been Willis' dream, and he accepted the risk.

He put everything he had into it, which wasn't much. He told family and friends that restaurants don't make money and he fully expected the enterprise to go bad. "I know I'm going to lose everything, but I'm going to try."

Of course, it didn't go bad and Willis hasn't lost everything and returned penniless to Australia. It turned out that Willis had made some friends and collected some admirers in the city who were very interested in what he was doing.

"It was just like a fire - 'Craig's got a restaurant, let's go' - I guess people had seen me and valued my energy and were happy to see me," he says. "It was amazing how people responded to me. I feel like I live life walking around not feeling anything or saying anything, so to have that feedback is really amazing."

Simple food with friends

Willis knew that he needed something to set his restaurant apart.

He looked around the Shanghai dining scene and saw a great variety of dishes, designs and decoration. He saw high-end places with gourmet dishes that can be hit-or-miss while leaving you starving with a thin wallet, and ethnic restaurants where you can find unique food, but often the pageantry takes precedence over the food.

What's missing, Willis thought, "It's really hard to just have a nice simple meal."

Willis says he tries for the kind of meal that you find at a friend's apartment (if that friend happens to be an excellent cook with a large oven). He serves up big plates of home cooking so that friends could share, and he quickly discarded white table cloths when he saw they making his diners sit too rigidly and talk too quietly.

"I'm not here to entertain you," he says. "I'm here to stick a whole chicken in your stomach and make you full and you've got to do the talking to your friends - that's your part."

But Willis is always up for a chat. A big part of the restaurant is him being there - greeting diners coming through the door, checking on tables or cooking in the open kitchen.

He has made friends among the regulars and enjoys learning their habits like the couple with their baby who always sit in the corner or the lady at table six who they always offer a pillow for her back.

Another life

Willis says that he longs for some peace in his life. He'd like to use his hands for something other than preparing food like planting herbs and flowers in a garden or throwing some paint around on a canvas.

But right now the job doesn't leave time for a secret life as a hobby artist. In 10 years, Willis says he'll consider his options. He thinks he'll be committed to staying in Shanghai and working at the restaurant that bears his name for another decade, but there's a chance that he'll sell all his worldly possessions and buy a little beach house in the Australian countryside.

"I don't always want to be Mr Willis," he explains. "I'll always be cooking, but it'd be nice to have a lovely outdoor environment that you could come over tonight and we could sit around and I wasn't cooking for 100 people."

The loss of things he loves about Shanghai could make his departure easier. He remembers the sadness he felt when the red lane houses were torn down to make room for the highway through downtown, and now he fears the loss of street food and wet markets to the ubiquitous supermarket.

"The wet markets are so fresh," he says. "Spinach in a wet market one day it will last, but the next day no one will buy it. Once you move into supermarket, it'll get packed in plastic and shipped from Shanghai to Beijing to Shanghai and into your fridge and won't get eaten."

For now though, Willis is right where he wants to be. He can go down to the wet market to pick up fresh strawberries to use in his own restaurant in a city that is in his blood.

"When we put the lights on at night, the tables are spot lit and people start to pour in and they are laughing and making noise," he reminisces. "Every now and then I look and think 'Wow, this works. This really works'."

Editor's Note:

This series focuses on individuals who have lived in China for a while and have a tale that's worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount. Get in touch with a tip about a China story that deserves to be told. (

Craig Willis

Nationality: Australian

Age: 43

Profession: Cook


Self-description: Fortunate, generous, passionate

Favorite place: Walking backwards in Fuxing Park

Strangest sight: "Spies" measuring floor boards (our secret is hard work – not the size of the floor boards!)

Worst experience: Leaving Shanghai – I came back.

Motto for life: No time for sleeping

How to improve Shanghai: Keep the bicycles, wet markets and street food!

Advice to newcomers: Explore the lanes, walk through gates, get on a bicycle.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend