The story appears on

Page B2

September 29, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Keeping it simple and very fresh

FOR a long time, Chinese-American Austin Hu didn't know what he was going to do in life - he loved reading and writing and thought he might become an author, or maybe a lawyer. He majored in economics and East Asian studies. He lived in the East and the West.

But after doing some boring business and hating it, he realized that what really relaxed him and gave him pleasure was cooking for his friends. So off he went to the French Cooking Institute in New York City.

Today, he is the owner and chef of the Madison restaurant on Dongping Road in Shanghai. It's named Madison because he was born in Madison, capital of the Upper Midwestern US state of Wisconsin.

His mission is to deliver new American cuisine, which originated in the California cuisine revolution of the 1980s and has been infused with flavors of Asia, Latin American and the Mediterranean, a few of the cultures in America today.

And he delivers the best locally grown, seasonal produce and other ingredients.

From the menu, it's clear he interprets Chinese ingredients in a classical Western way. For example, his watermelon salad is made with frisee, Beijing blue cheese, blackberry vinaigrette and Jinhua prosciutto. Caotou, a green being popular in south China, is cooked with ravioli and mascarpone creamy cheese from Lombardy.

Hu, who is 31, grew up in Shanghai, Taipei and Sydney and he's steeped in different cultures. The interview begins with the Chinese greeting "nihao," and then he quickly shifts to English. When he describes some Chinese ingredients, he speaks with a Taiwan accent.

Once he felt confused about his complex identity and life of moving around because his father worked in international marketing.

"I don't really have a rooted culture and a real hometown," he says. "There's no one word to answer that question."

His international background has brought many benefits.

The Madison restaurant only opened this year, but already the chef's sourcing of the best domestic ingredients is the culinary talk of the city.

He sources his sparkling water with fine bubbles produced in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China; he found caviar in Qiandaohu (Thousand Island Lake) in Zhejiang Province that's said to taste as good as caviar from the Black Sea.

"Maybe it's because of my poor Chinese and an Asian face," he says jokingly of his successful sourcing that has taken him around China, exploring and chatting with farmers and fishermen, asking them to supply their products.

Simple dishes

Hu says he's a good chef, but admits he's not a good boss. "My staff complains that I never bargain over the price of ingredients, but it's difficult for me to pay less at the risk of being given a lower-quality product."

Respecting ingredients and making simple dishes is his philosophy.

"A good cook can make poor ingredients tasty through techniques and tricks learned over years," he says. "But great cuisine that may change the way you think about food starts with good ingredients."

The chef especially appreciates those ingredients with flavors that cannot be technologically reproduced, such as mushrooms.

More than 100 types of mushroom can be used in cooking and they run the whole spectrum of flavors, from light to aromatic, and they cross culinary boundaries, showing up around the world, he says.

When Hu was growing up, being a chef was the furthest thing from his mind.

"At first, I didn't know what I was going to do," he says.

He majored in economics and East Asian studies at Lafayette College in the state of Pennsylvania. Today he writes two columns for two Shanghai media outlets, one about his kitchen experiences, and the other discussing food trends.

After graduation, he worked for a B2B company.

"But I hated the work. Sitting in front of the computer all day and doing reports made me miserable. It was time to figure out what I actually enjoyed doing," he says.

He recalled that during college, he felt most relaxed when he was cooking for friends, following recipes in food magazines.

In 2001, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Soon he realized that getting cut, scratched, burned and sweating for 12 hours straight was exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

"Being a great chef needs a little natural inclination to cooking," Hu says, "but it doesn't mean a thing if you don't put in the hours."

He didn't come from a cooking family and he decided on his professional training relatively late. Hence, compared with other chefs he worked with, Hu spent more time in the kitchen and worked harder.

When he worked at the acclaimed Gramercy Tavern in New York, he arrived at work four hours earlier to learn how to butcher meat. On his day off, he worked unpaid in other restaurants to learn more and pursue his craft.

Today, as both chef and owner, Hu feels more pressure. Beside his work and art in the kitchen, there's budgeting and marketing. He's trying to find the right balance.

"For my culinary dream, I've sacrificed some friendships and family relations to some extent," says the unmarried chef. "When all my friends are free on weekends or holidays, I'm busy in the kitchen. When I end work around 2am and want to relax, the rest of the world is sleeping," he says.

Those who are his friends and relatives are fortunate since - when he isn't working - he enjoys cooking for pleasure.

"Cooking is not only reserved for chefs and restaurants, it's an everyday part of life, a simple way to show your appreciation to somebody you care about," says the chef. "Just like a bowl of hot chicken soup is the best way to relieve cold symptoms and warm a patient's heart."

Austin Hu

Owner and chef of Madison restaurant, from the US

Q: Describe an embarrassing moment.

A: I was been locked in a fridge for a long time. It was cold but fortunately I had my jacket and there was plenty of food.

Q: Who's your cooking idol?

A: Tom Colicchio, former executive chef of Gramercy Tavern. He opened my eyes in terms of running a restaurant that's still fine-dining, but doesn't take itself too seriously. He showed me that food can be delicious without truffles topped on each dish.

Q: Is there a dish you'll always remember?

A: It was my birthday in the year I started cooking. My old chef and the whole team cooked a dish for me. It was homemade garganelli (pasta) with egg, toasted bread crumbs and white truffle. The ingredients are simple but the whole flavor was perfectly balanced.

Q: Name a Shanghai restaurant you love.

A: Charmant (Xiao Cheng Gu Shi) and Jesse Restaurant.

Q: Do you have hobbies?

A: Writing, reading and singing jazz.


Bread (2 pieces), preferably country white or good sourdough; bacon (3 slices); 2 eggs; milk (1 tsp); cheese (2 slices); butter (1 tsp) at room temperature; salt and pepper (a little)


1. In a skillet, saute bacon until crisp, remove bacon, dry on paper towels, pour out oil, save bacon fat. Wipe clean.
2. In a cup, beat eggs and milk with a pinch of salt and pepper.

3. Using 1 tsp of reserved bacon fat, cook eggs in a single layer over medium heat, don't overcook. When eggs are still a little runny inside, place slices of cheese on top and bacon on top of that. Carefully fold edges of egg over the bacon and cheese, making an envelope of egg surrounding a filling of bacon and cheese. Remove from pan.

4. Carefully butter one side of a slice of bread. In a medium pan, place the bread buttered-side down into the pan. Place egg package on top. Put the other slice of bread on top, buttered-side up.

5. Press down with a spatula to flatten the sandwich. Cook sandwich until golden brown, then flip and cook again until both sides are perfectly crispy. Slice and enjoy!


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