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February 2, 2012

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Chinese master in Continental kitchen

SHANGHAINESE chef Steven Shi made culinary history last year when he scored higher than any Chinese chef ever in the Bocuse D'or in Lyon, known as the "Culinary Olympic Games."

He took second place for Asia and ranked 16th in the world in the prestigious 2011 competition in Western gourmet gastronomy, named after chef Paul Bocuse, who also called it the "Culinary Olympics" when it began in 1987. Those are weighty honors and an encouraging sign for food lovers seeking gourmet Western cuisine in China.

"I hope to improve the impression of European cooking in China," says Chef Steven, executive chef at Stiller's Restaurant in Shanghai.

This month, the 2012 Bocuse D'or China was held in Stiller's Restaurant. Chef Steven was transformed from contestant to coach, helping one Chinese candidate invent an exceptional Western recipe that conveyed his Chinese culture.

However, Chef Steven prefers the adrenalin rush of competition. "I enjoy the sense of achievement in meeting a strict time limit. If I have a chance, I will compete again," he says.

The global final in 2011 was grueling in its demands for creativity, excellence, flavor, presentation and speed.

Each candidate was required to prepare two main dishes, one fish and one meat, each with three side dishes - all in five and a half hours. Usually, a simple dish takes the chef 40 minutes on averages.

To rehearse with the required ingredients, Chef Steven and his team led by Michelin-starred German chef Stefan Stiller spent three months in Switzerland, practicing constantly.

"I thought my preparation was adequate but I was wrong," Chef Steven says, adding that he later found many European chefs went to far greater lengths - they built exact replicas of the contest kitchens in Lyon, so they could rehearse under real conditions. They traveled several times to Lyon to ensure their methods worked in a French climate.

He chose angler fish and saddle of lamb. He chose scampi and crab meat for the fish side dishes; kidney and leg of lamb for his meat dish. The judge commented: "Great presentation with Chinese characteristics, there's room for improvement in flavor."

"Chinese characteristics" refers to specially designed plates. The competition requires silver plates made to measure and stamped to identify the exact place of garnishes.

His fish dish was presented on a silver plate shaped into Chinese taiji tu, a famous fish-like design symbolizing yin and yang. The meat dish was presented on a plate designed like a palace in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The chef's angler fish was marinated in a sauce made from pumpkin, Sichuan pepper and Chinese cinnamon bark; a separate fish mousse was wrapped in scampi. That's how he integrates Chinese elements into Western cuisine. He is known for his continental cuisine with Chinese culinary foundation.

"Although there's huge difference in ingredients, cooking methods and plating between the two cuisine cultures, more chefs - both Chinese and Western - tend to seek common ground," the chef says.

Inspired by one of his relatives who was a TCM doctor, Chef Steven studied Chinese food therapy when he was young. The theory holds that many foods have medicinal effects and qualities of yin and yang.

"With a chef's culinary technique, it's not necessary to sacrifice taste for health," he says. He recommends cooking congee with jujubes, longan and medlar fruit in this cold season - it's good for the heart and vascular system.

'Strict and precise'

After graduating in 1989, he wanted to work in a Chinese kitchen, but was assigned to the Western kitchen of the Jianguo Hotel by an executive chef who said the young man was too thin and weak to manage heavy Chinese pots.

But from then on he spent 10 years studying Western cuisine and its basic rule - "strict and precise."

Chef Steven says some Chinese chefs don't measure up on the international culinary stage because they lack precision. In a Chinese kitchen, flavor and texture depend on a chef's personal experience, especially use of heat and seasonings, which are relatively flexible. But in a Western kitchen, everything can be quantified to grams, milliliters, degrees Celsius, seconds and minutes.

"Once, to show my talent and cleverness, I increased the mixing time the head chef had specified for dough to make it look smooth, but this caused it to over-ferment. My chief threw my dough into the trash can and shouted at me, 'It's rubbish'!"

It was the first time he grasped the seriousness of breaking a rule.

When Chef Steven worked in Palladio at the Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, his chef de cuisine once threw the whole pot at him, nearly bruising his hand because of he had over-fried the foie gras.

"Gordon Ramsey's 'Hell's Kitchen' (an American reality TV cooking competition) really does exist," the chef jokes.

Also, language has been a big barrier, especially working in kitchens headed by Western chefs.

"My English is not fluent. Especially with impatient Western chefs, I repeat myself and get a mental block," he says. But the less he communicates, the less he learns, and that's a problem in many Western kitchens where Chinese work.

Communication got better in 2004 when he met Stiller, his culinary tutor and English teacher. Now he consults websites such as chef2chef about the latest trends and consults his dictionary or goes to Stiller.

Now Chef Steven is executive chef, managing a big team. His Chinese background and 13 years in Western kitchens help him develop his cooking strategy. "Compared with Western executive chefs who supervise and regulate all orders, I focus more on the final result and give staff more flexibility, which helps them innovate - within reason - and explore their talent," the chef says.

Nevertheless, the rules of precision must apply; flexibility is not limitless and the chef himself ensures that.

In addition to managing the kitchen, Chef Steven is also dedicating himself to rescuing old European recipes and making them fresher.

"I think that turning back to tradition, especially using old hand-crafted cooking, will achieve fine texture and flavor and may become the world's next dining trend," he says.

He's now searching for a French chicken recipe dating back more than 300 years - first all bones are removed without breaking the skin, then the bird is stuffed with various fillings.

Steven Shi

Executive chef at Stiller's Restaurant, from Shanghai

Q: What's your favorite ingredient.

A: I love fish since it's comparatively less polluted and with balanced nutrition. I also love fragrances such as basil, thyme and Sichuan pepper.

Q: What do you cook for yourself?

A: Traditional Chinese. For example, yu xiang rousi, fried shredded meat seasoned with five spices.

Q: Your worst kitchen moment.

A: My dish was send back by customers because of quality. Head chef asked me to get out of the kitchen.

Q: Most memorable dish.

A: My grandma's zou you rou - pork first fried, then braised in soy sauce, featuring fatty but not greasy flavor.

Q: What inspires you in the city?

A: Wet markets. I source seasonal ingredients there and sometimes find special local products.

Q: Recommend one eatery.

A: Lanzhou Noodle Shop on Maotai Road. I love tasting noodles wile watching the pastry chef stretching the noodle in front of diners.

Q: Your food philosophy.

A: Healthy and tasty can coexist.

Ingredients (4 people):

Cod 600g (sushi grade);

? For the marinade: ginger 100g (fine dice); garlic 100g (fine dice); dark soy sauce 100ml; sesame oil 100ml; hot chili 15g; coriander leaves 10g (fine chopped); black sesame seeds 15g

? For the chutney: mango 250g (fine dice); papaya 250g (fine dice); shallots 30g (fine dice); red chili 10g (fine dice); orange juice 50ml; lime juice 15ml; salt and black pepper (some)


1. Cut cod in uniform-size pieces.

2. Stir all marinade ingredients and add the cod. Marinate for 103 hours.

3. Mix chutney ingredients, season with black pepper and little salt. Chutney should be a bit spicy, not too hot.

4. Remove cod from marinade and using non-stick pan, carefully pan-sear on all sides using hot olive oil. Don't burn the fish since soy sauce will start to caramelize very fast.

5. Finish the fish for 2-3 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 160 degrees Celsius. Separate cod in two portions and assemble with chutney.


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