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November 17, 2011

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Equal parts cooking, business, craziness

MANY chefs downplay their hard work on the crucial business side of dining, preferring instead to project their creative, "professional" side. Michael Leibl, executive chef at the Hilton Shanghai Hongqiao, is an exception.

"I am 30 percent a chef, 30 percent a businessman and 30 percent a crazy guy," Leibl says candidly. Besides designing and refining recipes, he focuses on F&B budget control and marketing and dining promotion. Fifty percent of the hotel's revenue comes from food and beverage.

But when asked to present one of his dishes for a photograph, he's the meticulous chef, using a tissue to wipe the plate rim again and again until the presentation is perfect.

"This is his typical image that we are very familiar with," says Frances Cai, a colleague from the marketing department.

Pleasing diners

Leibl tells a story from his early days working in the Royal Garden Hotel in London. One night he was working in the kitchen, preparing dinner, when a guest sent back a steak, asking the chef to cut it for him.

"I was shocked. How could a diner be so lazy and ridiculous that he's not willing to use a knife and folk to carve the meat?" he recalls thinking at the time.

Later, the restaurant manager told him the guest was famed tenor Andrea Bocelli, who is blind.

"I felt so guilty. How could he cut the meat?" he says.

He had never thought that his food could embarrass the diner. From then on, creating flavors to please diners, even surprise them, become a powerful incentive.

Now he adds his take on classical European recipes, retaining the traditional flavor but surpassing diners' expectations and elevating the dining experience.

His Caesar Salad is representative.

The classic's ingredients typically include romaine lettuce, mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, black pepper and a raw egg. Leibl uses a poached egg and crumbles the cheese by hand.

"Diners felt happy because it's not the Caesar Salad they used to eat but tastes much better," Leibl says.

His creativity extends to baking and engineering wedding cakes, traditionally made with lots of cream and cut by the couple. He designed a cake made of "thousands" of mini cupcakes, all covered by lace and tied up with ribbon. When the couple pulled the ribbon, the lace came away and the cake was revealed, to the surprise and delight of the guests.

Tired of spinach

Leibl, who is German, says he was inspired to cook by his mother who was energetic and imaginative; she had to cook every day for the whole family, on a limited budget.

And therefore inexpensive dishes like spinach with boiled potatoes and fried egg were on the menu almost once every week. "She always insisted on fresh, seasonal and local ingredients and that impressed me."

Today, the spinach dish is his favorite.

In 1988, at the age of 19, Leibl became an apprentice in a Michelin star restaurant in his hometown. That helped him build a culinary foundation of classical European cuisine. He moved to London to expand his horizons and then to Singapore where he experienced the diverse cooking cultures combining Chinese, Malay and Indian ingredients, spices and techniques. He found it especially creative.

"Before I went to Singapore, I hadn't known that noodles could be braised," he says. "Now I sometimes use braising to make pasta and the flavor is unexpectedly good."

In 2011 he moved to Shanghai and became a devotee of local snacks, especially the shengjianbao (fried dumpling) and soup noodles.

Besides food, Leibl is fascinated by Chinese kitchen politics, which is very different from that in Western kitchens.

"In a western kitchen, each member of the team, although working together, maintains certain independence, while in a Chinese kitchen, the team relationship is incredibly close. If the Chinese head chef leaves, 80 percent of his group leaves with him together," he says.

Michael Leibl

German, 42, executive chef at Hilton Shanghai Hongqiao

Q: What are your favorite ingredients?

A: Sea salt and tomato. Sea salt is an important seasoning that's often underestimated. It's important in enriching flavor and balancing taste. In my hometown in Germany, we always planted tomatoes in the garden, not only as vegetables but also as fruit. Whether fresh salad or pasta, you need tomatoes.

Q: What's your signature dish?

A: Salmon with lemon zest, olive oil and watercress. I cook salmon at 48 degrees to give the fatty fish a "melt in the mouth" texture.

Q: Where do you like to hang out?

A: Cuivre, a French restaurant on Huaihai Road. The food is classical Western.

Q: What's the best advice you've ever received?

A: Be yourself, don't follow others. That's what my mother told me.

Q: What's your food philosophy?

A: Food is life. Life is evolution. Creating food is the process without an ending.

? Grilled chicken

Ingredients: 1 whole chicken, paste (recipe below), white onions (300g), ripe tomatoes (300g), garden greens, olive oil, sea salt


1. Marinate the whole chicken with the paste and be generous with it - it will later be part of your sauce.

2. Bake the chicken and sliced onions at 100 degrees for 2 hours in the oven.

3. Switch the oven to grill and brown the outside of the chicken.

4. Serve family style with green salad and ripe tomatoes with olive oil and sea salt.

? Dried apricot and curry paste

Dried apricots (200g), brandy (100ml), white onions (120g), garlic (50g), curry powder (15g), curry leaf (20g), white wine vinegar (50ml), sugar (100g), vegetable oil (100ml)


1. Soak apricots in brandy.

2. Cook with soaking liquid for 15 minutes; blend into puree.

3. Sauté chopped garlic and onion.

4. Add curry powder

5. Add apricots and the remaining ingredients and cook until thick.

6. Place in jars and store in a dark, cool place.


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