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May 27, 2016

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A walking restaurant encyclopedia

RAISE the subject of food to Fred Lin and his eyes light up in excitement as he morphs into a walking encyclopedia who can rattle off a list of restaurants to visit in Shanghai.

Quite literally, his life revolves around the topic. The 34-year-old Singaporean is not only a food blogger based in Shanghai, but has also taken the extra step to become the proud owner of a restaurant promoting his native country’s cuisine here.

Lin’s blog — The Shanghai Kid — is one of the leading food blogs in the city that foreigners turn to in search for a restaurant recommendation.

Lin’s candid and frank style of writing reviews has become a defining aspect of his blog.

“I’m very honest,” Lin says. “Most bloggers only write good reviews and they don’t write about the bad experiences they have. I prefer to do both good and bad.

“If the food is really bad, I’ll just say it’s really bad,” he adds.

For instance, he visited a substandard steakhouse two years ago and did not pull any punches with his review, calling the dish “an ugly mess of two thin pieces of steak, doused with black pepper sauce.”

The founder of a digital media agency moved to Shanghai in 2007, and first started blogging in 2013 because he was unable to find credible recommendations for places to eat. He decided to record his own restaurant experiences as a service for people in Shanghai seeking culinary delights.

He writes a new post about once a week, and finds out about new restaurants by keeping tabs on dining applications like Dianping and DiningCity, reading about the reviews that other people post, or simply by walking into an eatery he passes on the street.

Based on his observations, Chinese people like to gauge the authenticity of foreign cuisines more than expats do, who are just content as long as the food tastes good. “And the younger generation in China sometimes pays more attention to other details such as the ambience of a restaurant,” he says.

Italian food is one of the most popular types of foreign cuisine among Chinese. “See how many Italian restaurants have opened here,” he says, estimating the number to be more than 100.

Lin has high standards and believes that there is always room for improvement, even for the city’s best restaurants.

For instance, he wrote about the best steak he had in Shanghai at Capo, a fine-dining Italian restaurant, but also commented that the knives were too blunt, making it tricky to cut through the steak.

Such attention to details has also seen him win fans in the restaurant scene — the owner of Capo, for example, invited him for a food review to learn from his honest comments.

“They even enjoyed my negative feedback which they took into account and improved upon,” he says.

While most people think that his work is just a way to enjoy free food, Lin says that there’s more to the job.

“Some people think it’s just writing. But I have to take the photos as well, process them and do research as well to make sure what I say is factually correct,” he says, adding that completing a post takes two to three hours.

To him, one of the hardest aspects of blogging is having an intimate knowledge and understanding of the authenticity of various cuisines.

“The authenticity of a certain region’s cuisine is always hot on debate. I try not to generalize too much because what is authentic to someone may not be authentic to another.”

Lin has also received flak for his reviews, being on the receiving end of name-calling and insults from readers who take offense at his reviews.

“A lot of people think I don’t know what I’m writing about. I’ve received feedback that I’m not qualified to write about Italian restaurants simply because I’m not Italian.”

Lin shrugs these comments off. “I don’t take it personally because people will always have their own opinions. Food is a subjective topic. My blog is my own opinion as well.

“I do have readers who thank me for doing this — now they have a place to read about from a personal point of view.”

After nurturing his knowledge of the restaurant business and growing his contacts in the restaurant scene, Lin’s unyielding passion for food led him to take a leap of faith. He sunk his life savings to open his very own restaurant, Hello Miss Dong, in 2014.

“The reason for setting up a restaurant is actually a very selfish one,” the avid home cook says. “I just wanted to eat my own food anytime I want without having to cook it myself.”

Run by a staff of five, with Lin’s wife, Lisa Dong, at the helm, Hello Miss Dong serves up modern interpretations of Singaporean food, inspired by recipes from Lin’s mother, alongside dishes from Dong’s hometown of Hubei Province. Signature dishes include curry chicken, minced pork noodle and chicken rice.

“I felt that Singaporean food could be better highlighted in Shanghai and I want to share my food with other people.”

For Lin, running a restaurant is no walk in the park.

“It was very difficult initially and still is now. There are a lot of things that you don’t know about until you have actually done them — not just on the food, but also meeting the customers’ expectations and growing the customer base.”

Lin is his own biggest critic. “I eat here almost every other day and do quality control, making sure the food is prepared correctly and trying new ways to improve the restaurant in all aspects,” he says.

The majority of his customers are foreigners who, according to Lin, are more receptive to Singaporean food.

“Locals are more of a mixed bag, some of them feel the food is not authentic. But for me, I just want to stay true to my roots and not change the recipe too much.”

For Lin, who has made gastronomic pursuits a revolving theme around his life, there is no finishing line in sight.

When asked if he will ever stop blogging, Lin responds with a wry smile. “I plan to blog for the rest of my life.”


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