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March 21, 2019

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Cookery keys: observing, learning, improvising

Editor’s note:
Foodprints is a series profiling the smaller restaurants and unsung chefs working every day to provide Shanghai with food that is tasty, imaginative, wholesome and memorable.

Simple and unadorned. That’s how chef Chen Na describes her cooking. She is perhaps too modest to add that the food is simply delicious.

Chen, 28, is a member of the small circle of women chefs in Shanghai. In a profession traditionally dominated by men, she is giving old concepts of “women in the kitchen” a modern makeover.

She heads the kitchen at Maison Papillon, a cozy French restaurant on Jiaozhou Road near the Jing’an Temple.

But cooking wasn’t her plan at the start. Chen, who hails from the city of Changchun in Jilin Province, originally planned to study photography in Beijing after graduation from high school. But at the last minute, she changed her mind and instead bought a ticket to Shanghai to study Italian cuisine.

A doer, not a thinker

“It was something destined to happen,” she said. “I was set to go to Beijing when I came across some information about this culinary program in Shanghai, so I just made a quick decision. Then I discovered that I’m actually very interested in the culinary arts.”

Her kitchen skills began as a young girl helping her mother cook family meals.

“I just helped make traditional, homestyle Chinese meals,” she said. “My mother used to say that I made better tomato and egg stir-fry than she did, but no one in my family is a professional cook.”

She enrolled in a culinary program jointly operated by the Shanghai Lingang Science and Technology School and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners.

“My family was a little reluctant about the idea of me going somewhere so far away for such a long time,” she said. “But I learned a lot about traditional Italian cooking and some Italian and English languages. I thought it was fun and maybe I should seek a career as a chef.”

After a year of study, Chen became an apprentice in a small Italian restaurant in Shanghai that specialized in handmade pasta. In some sense, it was a challenging yet motivating start.

The restaurant was small and short-staffed. The dishwasher took a day and a half off every week, and Chen had to do all the dishes and still help cook meals.

“As I was washing the dishes, I thought a lot,” she said. “I realized that I had to excel at everything I did, and if I could learn cooking skills more quickly, I might not be asked to do dishes anymore.”

She stuck to it with determination, and her family supported her.

“They knew it’s not easy to work in a kitchen,” she said. “My family thought I must really love cooking to find such hard work so much fun.”

She stayed at the Italian restaurant for over a year and then joined 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in 2012, where she started to learn about fine dining and was exposed to a broader range of ingredients and techniques. Although her salary wasn’t high, she spent a lot of money on cookbooks as an investment in her future.

“Working in that kitchen was very intense physically, but I was happy even when I was working 12 hours a day,” she said. “Everyone there was motivated to do better and learn more.”

Chen then moved on to sous-chef in a restaurant that specialized in slow-cooked food. That was where she picked up experience in kitchen management.

Every step up the ladder was filled with serendipity and adventure.

“I didn’t have rich experience,” she said. “I just wanted to learn and do things to get on a firm footing. I’m also the kind of person who acts on ideas without too much thinking or hesitation.”

When Chen came to Maison Papillon last year, she had to master the restaurant’s signature beef Wellington dish, which became very popular in China after the 2016 TV drama “To Be A Better Man.”

Chen went around Shanghai, dining at restaurants that served beef Wellington. She found that it is difficult to cook the beef evenly when it’s wrapped in pastry. The edges easily get overcooked.

She started to experiment with different methods to cook the beef evenly. Eventually, she devised a process that rested the beef Wellington outside the oven and then put the dish back in several times. It was more complicated, but the result was satisfying.

“I consider myself someone who’s willing to observe, learn and improvise,” said Chen.

Chen said she uses seasonal ingredients and loves to combine Chinese favorites like broad beans and bamboo shoots with classic Western dishes — such as cooking pigeon meat with yellow chives.

“When I have time in the afternoons, I like to walk to the nearby market and buy fresh ingredients for the dinner menu,” she said “There’s a lot to learn about ingredients. Spinach leaves, for example, can be thick or thin, and the flavor can be sweet or astringent. I often send pictures to my suppliers and ask them to provide me the ingredients I prefer.”

In the kitchen, Chen said she’s an easygoing chef who believes in listening and reason. No temper tantrums or yelling at staff. She leads a very young team of nine who were born after 1995.

“I try to fit in with the young staff,” she said. “Maybe as a woman, I’m more empathetic. I don’t jump to conclusions about their work. Rather, I spend time observing what they do. If they need correcting, I talk to them in reasonable terms. Sometimes I’m tough, but I never go too far.”

Communication breeds harmony in the kitchen.

“They don’t call me ‘chef’ in the kitchen, but ‘dear sister,’” she said. “Working with them keeps me abreast of all the new buzzwords. I find that fun, too.”


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