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'Stove poet' slaves away over hot eatery

IT is a common lament for new chefs coming to town that the supply situation here is not up to scratch, yet those who have been around for more than five minutes can see genuine improvement. While some products must still be sourced from overseas (as most cosmopolitan cities are wont to do anyway), a number of local suppliers are bringing their A-game to the table and giving Western restaurants just what they want.

"Nowadays, in this economic climate we live in, customer service is everything," says Sean Jorgensen, executive chef at Factory, the newly opened creative space-cum-restaurant annex to Hongkou District's 1933 Old Millfun.

"Price or no price, if you don't have good customer service, you won't have my business.

"Three years ago the local companies didn't give good customer service; now they've learned while (some) Western companies are resting on their laurels. I'm not saying every local company is good and all Western companies are bad, but there's definitely a change."

The San Diego-born chef highlights his butcher as an example - despite being three hours away, the company is still willing to send a single rack of lamb if needed. These are the differences that suppliers have figured out to go a long way with kitchen pros. "They realize Western chefs will kick you to the curb if you don't hook us up," he says with only a touch of jest.

For Jorgensen, the change is welcome after first setting foot in this city a decade ago. He left a year later before returning in 2006 to helm the kitchen at the ill-fated Attica's Finestre and then taking over at the Mansion Hotel.

The 35-year-old is especially proud of his current work at Factory, a hotspot for creative design encompassing an art and fashion gallery, a recording studio as well as an open kitchen where Jorgensen will regularly host various chefs from around town to work their own magic in his venue (see below).

"The concept is watching the creative process ? so you can see the actual process of what goes on to create something," says the American, who describes himself as a "stove poet."

"When I originally sat down with (co-creator) Daryl (Arnold) eight months ago, he just said to me, 'What I want you to do every day is to put on a show for your guests, which is what I do every night anyway.

"I designed the kitchen so you can see; you don't see the cooks' backs but you see them side by side, facing each other. You can see it all happening, which is a big part of what I do here." The set-up, including its intricate ventilation system and imported ovens and stoves, cost about 600,000 yuan (US$87,867).

With public scrutiny, however, Jorgensen's kitchen staff has to be in tip-top shape throughout service, and the subsequent pressure is immense. The Californian is unfazed, though, believing it to be excellent training for his charges.

"Everyone's hygiene has to be on top of it, everybody has to wash their hands all the time ? it's good, it's good practice for them. They have to work clean and be clean.

"It also makes them talk quieter, there's none of the language that sometimes goes on in the kitchen. It also keeps them moving ? it keeps everyone on their toes. When they work in this kitchen, they're on stage."

The new job is also an ideal progression for the jovial Jorgensen, who laments the potential of his previous locales going unexplored. He is no longer prone to fits of rage when things go awry.

"I had a long time off between my last job and this, and I thought a lot about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. As typical as a lot of chefs are, I'm very angry inside, I have a lot of fire and I feed off that. Anger is a good emotion to have for the work that I do."

Fans of the highly under-rated Finestre will recognize Jorgensen's touches in many of the dishes, such as the roasted duck spoons (35 yuan) and the smoke-roasted short rib over spicy shrimp mac (105 yuan). The fare is affordable and incorporates both Western and Asian elements seamlessly. Just don't call it comfort food, or, worse still, fusion.

"I prefer to call it eclectic," he adds with a jolly smile.


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