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March 15, 2012

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'Graceful lady chef' dislikes frilly label

ACCLAIMED Taiwan chef Lanshu Chen doesn't care for the label meinu zhuchu - graceful lady chef - with which she has been tagged in both her native Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland.

"I appreciate people praising me as good looking. However, the title distracts media and public attention from my hard work in the kitchen," said the chef, speaking at a gala charity dinner last week in Shanghai.

There's no difference in creativity or management skills between male and female chefs, she tells Shanghai Daily. "For me, the only difference is that a female may have a more subtle and refined sensibility and pay more attention to detail."

She does say that it can be difficult at first for a female chef, especially one who is slender like her, to handle heavy pots and pans. "But now, for me, it's not a challenge," she says.

Chen is the executive chef of Le Mout in Taichung (central Taiwan), considered perhaps the island's best restaurant serving modern French cuisine. She is also the first Asian woman to join Relais & Chateaux Grand Chefs, a prestigious association of independent restaurants and hotel restaurants, with around 500 members worldwide.

She was crowned "graceful lady chef" by popular talk show host Dee Hsu, who presides over "Kangxi Lai Le" (literally "Here Comes Kangxi"), one of the most popular talk shows in China.

Chen starts learning French cooking from scratch in Paris when she was already 22 - at least eight years later than many cooks. But she graduated at the top of her class in ESCF-Ferrandi, one of the world's best culinary schools.

"Lanshu Chen is the pride of Taiwan not just because of her culinary achievement but also because of her setting a good example for all young Taiwanese, showing that it's never too late to pursuit one's dream," said a report on ETTV News, a mainstream network in Taiwan.

Chen was in Shanghai last week with seven other celebrity chefs to prepare a gala charity dinner. They were invited by both Le Sun Chine, the city's only hotel member of Relais & Chateaux, and the Shanghai Youth Federation.

"If I were not a chef, I would have been a literature scholar," says Chen.

She majored in English and minored in French at university. As an undergraduate she was interested in baking and her cakes were especially popular with her classmates.

"When I was 22, the year of undergraduate graduation, I reconsider my life and found that I had always been a guai guai nu (a term meaning an obedient daughter)," Chen says.

She realized that over 22 years she had been passively living the life that had already been set out for her by others and that her aim was to fulfill others' expectations.

She decided on a new, spontaneous life that fulfilled her own desires.

Off she went to Paris to study cooking, though she had no kitchen experience. But her fluency in English and French helped her succeed. She could read the culinary magazines and journals that are written in English and converse with great French chefs.

"Most importantly, I integrate literary aesthetics into my food," Chen says.

She explained that she read a great deal of fiction, nonfiction and poetry and used to visualize the words and create pictures in her mind - some abstract, some concrete. This ability to visualize inspired her cooking style and presentation, which some Taiwan gourmets and food critics describe as "poetic."

Food philosophy

"Although words and food can both express my feelings, words are sometimes too abstract and implicit. I enjoy the feeling of making food with my hands, which simply and directly shows my interpretation of beauty," Chen says.

Her reading tastes are unchanged. Her favorite book is "Immortality" (1988), a psychological novel by Milan Kundera and the third in a trilogy that includes "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

"I've read the book more than 12 times. It helps me temporarily escape the hectic kitchen and achieve inner piece," she says.

Chen was offered a highly paid position in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France, but instead decided to return to Taiwan to her hometown in Taichung and open her own restaurant. In December 2008 she opened Le Mout, meaning "unfermented grape juice."

She based her choice on her firm belief in terroir, the French wine-making term that describes a certain place with a special climate and geography producing wine with unique characteristics.

"In France, I am a foreigner with limited understanding of 'their' terroir while in Taiwan I know how to interpret 'my' terroir in French way," she says.

Chen uses a lot of seafood and makes frequent use of edible organic flowers, such as heart's ease, nasturtium and star flower.

"In terms of presentation, the colorful petals make the dish visually balanced. In terms of taste, petals, either spicy or sweet, give a light salad more layers of flavor," she says.

She knows that Nantou in central Taiwan produces radishes with a crisp and refreshing taste. She chooses bai ma tou yu (literally "white horse head fish"), a fish from the northeast coast that has a fine, silky texture.

"I'm excited when local produce meets classical French ingredients such as truffles and caviar in my kitchen," she says. "Nice sparks are generated."

Her slogan is "Respect for food, for customers, for yourself" - it's on the wall of her kitchen. And that applies to her team.

"Respect for food" means using the best ingredients. It's inspired by her early days working in Les Ambassdeurs in Hotel du Crillon, a Michelin 2-star restaurant known for its elaborate haute cuisine. The executive chef at the time pursued perfect taste, whatever the cost in time, effort and money.

"Respecting oneself" means respecting one's identity as a chef and allowing space for creativity.

Working with Michelin 3-star celebrity chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley "completely changed my original definition of chef from one who cooks to an artist with great creativity and an efficient manager," she says. The restaurant changes its menu daily and offers a 22-course menu for VIP customers.

Chen may look like the graceful lady chef, but she's also strong and determined, working more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She has a hard time coming up with any problems or difficulties.

"I consider every so-called 'difficulty' part of my life experience, bringing a sense of achievement, then pleasure," the chef says.


Onion (finely chopped) 50g; garlic (lightly crushed) 15g; carrot (finely diced) 50g; celery (finely diced) 25g; mushroom (slices) 60g; cabbage (finely diced) 140g; cooked coco blanc bean 80g; tomato (chopped) 300g; canned chopped tomato 120g; water 1.5l; salt/pepper some; bacon 40g; pork cartilage 120g; thyme 0.5g; parsley stem 3g; bay leaf 1/4 pc; leek 5g; chopped parsley leaves (for garnish) 2g

For meatballs:

Pork shoulder 85g; chorizo (skin removed) 15g; dry sherry 5g; garlic (finely chopped) 1g; salt 1.5g; white pepper some; parsley (chopped) 1g; egg 25g


1. In a saucepan, caramelize bacon chunks with some oil. Add the onion and garlic and sweat for a couple of minutes.

2. Add carrots, celery and cabbage. Sprinkle some salt on top and cook for another five minutes. Moisten with water. Add cartilage. Bring to boil and skim.

3. Add thyme, parsley, bay leaf, leeks, tomato chunks, cooked coco blanc bean and mushroom quarters. Cover with foil and simmer 1 hour. Season to taste.

4. Add deep-fried meatballs inside and cook without cover for another 30 minutes.

5. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

For cooking meatball:

1. Grind pork shoulder with chorizo. Add sherry, garlic, chopped parsley and egg. Season well and mix by hand to give texture.

2. Shape into small balls by 15g each.

3. Quickly deep-fry meatballs until they are light-colored.

Lanshu Chen

Executive chef of Le Mout, from Taiwan

Q: As a Taiwanese chef, what's your impression of Shanghai food?

A: I am fascinated with the starters, especially steamed lotus root with glutinous rice seasoned with osmanthus flower. No matter its texture or flavor, it's filled with layers and has a balanced taste.

Q: What are some of your favorite ingredients?

A: Seafood and vegetable. They are both very light, which gives the chef more creative space in developing their flavors.

Q: What do you usually cook for yourself at home?

A: Instant noodles. Every day I finished work after 11:30pm. Hence, I don't have time and energy to cook.

Q: Do you have hobbies?

A: I like reading and singing. I was once the soprano of National Taiwan University Chorus.


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