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Wisdom from kitchen god guru

WILD fish tastes best because it has to struggle (farm-raised fish is flaccid) and you can tell the freshest asparagus by squeezing water from its stem. Aubrey Buckingham shares more from his shopping trip with the kitchen god.

As most traveling gourmands would attest, one of the best insights to a city's food culture is gained by visiting the local markets.

From the famed Rungis (world's biggest wholesale food market) in Paris, to its fish and seafood counterpart Tsukiji in Tokyo, food markets present a vivid picture of the way a nation eats, and thus, how it essentially lives.

Chef-turned-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten certainly knows a thing or two about marketing.

The famed chef is one of the most highly regarded (if not the most) in the world and a pioneer in combining Eastern herbs and spices with Western cooking techniques.

He has established a restaurant empire across the United States as well as outposts in, among others, Hong Kong (which has since closed), Istanbul, Turkey (with Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide), Vancouver, Canada (with Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts), not to mention a flagship Jean Georges at Three on the Bund in Shanghai.

His menus are inspired by his travels, and, as he said two years ago, he takes new recipes from every stop along the way.

During his latest visit in the city two weeks ago, the Alsace native took Shanghai Daily on a tour of the Tongchuan Fish Market and the Cao'an Wholesale Market, both in Putuo District.

Together with his right-hand man Gregory Brainin and newly appointed Shanghai executive chef Lam Ming Kim, as well as a ragtag French documentary crew that was chronicling the escapades of one of New York's best known chefs, we set out on a food odyssey to take lessons from the master.

Fish tales

The Tongchuan Fish Market is a sprawling 13,000-square-meter must-visit foodie playground that has been operating for more than a decade.

Rumors have long been swirling that the wholesale operations are to be moved to more modern premises in Yangpu District, but as of yet no formal announcement has been made by operating company Shanghai Fisheries General Corp.

Despite the myriad seafood on offer, both live and on ice, JG, as those around call him, was far from impressed during the afternoon visit.

Just as he does in New York, the 53-year-old forgoes more convenient purchasing from middlemen and meets his seafood needs direct from the source. He typically forms partnerships with individual boats to ensure his restaurants serve the freshest catches of the day.

Here, it is local lass Minona Sun who navigates the veteran chef through these choppy waters, avoiding the touts in the process. While the tanks are filled with all manner of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, JG is specific in what he wants. He is delighted with the seven-star sea bass she has for him, caught in the East Sea (between South Korea and Japan).

"As far as possible I'm going for wild fish," he explains in that rat-a-tat-tat manner he has come to be known for. "It's sad because we probably cannot enjoy it for much longer."

The debate of wild versus farmed has raged on for years. Wild fish generally tastes better than farmed as an animal in captivity is more docile and less aggressive; hence the meat is slacker and the texture less consistent.

At a stall choc-full of tanks brimming with marine life, JG gives a quick guide on identification. "You can see the fins on the fish are not sharp. This fish never had to fight for food in his life."

Going green

A short ride later, we arrive at the Cao'an Wholesale Market, a sprawling vegetable and meat center awash with green to celebrate the arrival of spring.

JG was more in his element here, delighted at the various produce that is much scarcer on the other side of the world. Spying a barrel of peeled water chestnuts, he laughed as he reminisced about the days he and Brainin (and various kitchen hands) would have to painstakingly peel them at Vong; the docu-makers, too, were having a field day, buying bunches of asparagus (at a fraction of Paris prices) for their long journey back to France.

When asked what was the best indicator (besides visually) that vegetables were fresh, JG slyly broke the bottom off a sprig of asparagus (away from the eyes of the vendor) and squeezed water from the stem. No droplets, he says, means the vegetable is dry and has been on display for too long.

The culinary genius was inspired by the produce of Asia since he arrived in Bangkok 20 years ago, and his enthusiasm for local ingredients was evident, buying anything from spring bamboo shoots to leafy green vegetables to the sweet potato-like tianshan xuelian guo.

There was even a moment of mirth when the team of chefs stumbled upon the luohanguo, a fruit native to southern China and used primarily for medicinal purposes. "It smells just like Maggie," Brainin exclaims, referring to the popular instant noodle brand.

By now, a crowd had formed around the superstar chef, no one recognizing him but understanding him to be a VIP. Was this the case around the world, we asked.

Sometimes in Europe, he replies, but especially in New York, where the foodies visit the same markets and are eager to talk shop with the guru many consider to be a kitchen god.

While the Shanghai Daily is under no illusions that big-name chefs actually have time to visit markets on a regular basis, a trip like this is still more than just a PR exercise.

While JG holds the press captive and has reporters hanging on his every word, the twinkle in his eye as he explores new ingredients is something that cannot be simulated.

Three hours and 160 yuan (US$23.40) later, JG is ready to don his whites again and whip up something with his new purchases. Who knows just what he might take back with him to New York this time.


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