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September 15, 2011

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Shanghai chef heads 5-star team

IN Shanghai, the position of an executive chef, one of the most powerful positions in a five-star hotel, is still dominated by Westerners. However, Chen Daxing, a 43-year-old Shanghainese, is an exception.

He is executive chef of Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, managing four restaurants, including a steak house and one specializing in Shanghai cuisine.

His resume is similar to that of many foreign chefs - trained in a professional cooking school, overseas working experience, fluent in English.

In person, some of his Chinese characteristics, especially modesty and reserve, are evident. When asked whom he reveres in the kitchen, he says, "Every chef can be my idol, since they have unique characteristics and cooking philosophies that are well worth exploring."

"I was born to be a chef," says Chen.

Culinary roots

When he was 12, the age in which other children focus on cartoons and youth dramas, Chen was watching TV cooking shows.

"For me, how the chef on TV cuts the meat, pairs the ingredients and adds the seasonings are interesting. I memorized recipes and successfully copied them in front of my parents. Since then, becoming a chef was my dream," he says.

He appreciates that his parents were open-minded and respected his career choice.

"In China, being a chef is always seen as a service job with comparatively lower social status, not as respectable as being teacher, doctor or lawyer. Many people working in kitchens only do it to earn a living. Luckily, my parents didn't feel they would lose face when their son became a chef," he says.

Chen received a certificate in Chinese cuisine, but by chance entered the world of the Western banquet kitchen, where he learned to keep the kitchen very clean, focus on presentation and be creative - things often ignored by Chinese chefs.

"I was always asked to copy and follow the recipes in Chinese culinary school," says the chef. "When I worked with executive chef Achim Lender at one of Shanghai's five-star hotels, he told me that as a chef, I should have my own recipe."

From then on, creating his own dishes became an important part of his life and he used to travel for inspiration.

Food tripper

Just as a painter needs the inspiration of color from nature, it's necessary for a chef to go outside to experience the diversity of food culture.

"When visiting a new country, I do two things - sample local food and visit local markets," he says.

He usually chooses traditional dishes that are more than 100 years old and tries to answer the question why their flavor can be inherited through generations.

What's the answer?

"Sometimes, it's high-quality local ingredients, such as grilled pig's knuckle I tasted in Germany. Preserving traditional handcraft plans a role," he says, citing Japanese insisting on the old ways of hand-rolling sushi.

Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and Nanmen market in Taipei are Chen's favorites. Visiting them is not only a good way to see how people with different culinary traditions choose ingredients, but also a simple way to understand local history and culture.


He was impressed by a Nanmen market vendor selling mullet roe. The dried roe and other dried seafood were displayed in traditional Chinese style, hung from hooks with wooden signs bearing a hand-written description of the food, origin and price.

"It inspires me in displaying ingredients in front of my diners," he says.

He often talks about the sea. His favorite ingredient is seafood since he believes the original flavor is rich enough so that added seasoning isn't needed in cooking. This reflects his philosophy that food should retain its natural taste.

Chen has worked in Tokyo, Macau, Dalian in Liaoning Province and now Shanghai - all coastal cities.

While in Tokyo, Japanese chefs taught him to be rigorous, including cutting, presentation and fire control.

In Macau, he tasted a dish he will remember forever - a creation by three-star Michelin chef Alain Passard. Beetroot is wrapped in sea salt and topped with a sauce combining black vinegar and chocolate. "It had perfect texture, balanced taste with a sweet finish," he recalls.

In Shanghai, he helped design the menu for the 2001 APEC dinner with 300 guests at a host hotel - one of his most exciting experiences.

Chen is quite unpretentious. "I hope diners give feedback, since their comments are a driving force. that keeps me going."

Chen Daxing

Executive chef of Jumeirah Himalayas Hotel Shanghai, from Shanghai

Q: Your signature dish.

A: Lettuce soup with shrimp noodles. Very simple, highlighting the original flavor of the seafood. I received a lot of good feedback.

Q: Suggest a restaurant you love in Shanghai.

A: Lu Jia Zhuang on Yanggao Road, featuring authentic Pudong cuisine. I recommend their bai zhan ji (boiled chicken) and roupi tang (pork skin soup).

Q: Is there kitchen politics?

A: Usually there is. But in my kitchen, politics is banned - otherwise, how can staff dedicate themselves to food?

Q: Do you dream of becoming a Michelin chef?

A: The hotel's Shanghainese restaurant has potential.

Q: Tell us an embarrassing kitchen moment.

A: As a responsible and experienced chef, you should predict the embarrassing moment and prevent it from happening.


Black cod fillet (without skin, 200g); olive oil (150ml); fresh sage (15g); dried bay leaf (1 piece); garlic clove (15g); polenta (30g); butter (15g); Parmesan cheese (10g); asparagus (70g); red cherry tomato (25g); celery (20g); black olive (5g); balsamic vinegar (15ml); extra virgin olive oil (20ml); fresh basil (3g)


1. Cook polenta in boiling water for 40 min, stirring with whisk until very soft. Add butter and Parmesan cheese.

2. Put fresh sage, garlic clove and bay leaf in olive oil and heat to 65 degrees; put cod fillet in oil, cooking for 10 min.

3. Mix cherry tomatoes, celery and black olives with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar; season with salt and pepper.

PresentationCod fish, polenta, asparagus and salsa on a white plate.


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