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March 14, 2019

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Dim sum master will use eatery’s revamp to invent new treats

Wang Shijia, deputy general manager of the iconic Lu Bo Lang Restaurant in the Yuyuan Garden Malls, walks around tables, greeting people as if presiding over a goodbye party.

It is a farewell moment, of sorts, albeit temporary. The restaurant closes on Saturday for a major renovation set to last five months.

Large crowds have appeared to get a last taste of the classic menu of Shanghai specialties and dim sum.

Just 30 minutes after the restaurant opened on Tuesday, all seats were occupied and a queue of more than 10 people had formed waiting for a vacancy.

Wang, 43, smiles as she greets old customers. Gracing almost every table is the restaurant’s array of signature dim sum dishes, from sweet glutinous rice cakes to salty xiaolongbao, or thin-skinned buns filled with minced meat in broth.

“It really satisfies me when I see diners eating our dim sum,” says Wang. “They nearly always clean their plates.”

Located next to the iconic Zigzag Bridge, the restaurant is in a building constructed during the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1522-1566) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The restaurant, which was converted from a teahouse to an eatery in 1979, is famous for hosting dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II in 1986 and former US President Bill Clinton in 1998. It was awarded a “bib gourmand” rating by Michelin last year.

Wang says she won’t be taking a break during the renovation.

“I will work with other dim sum chefs to invent something new,” she confides.

Wang is a master of dim sum, the classic Chinese fare of a variety of bite-sized portions of food served in steamer baskets or on small plates.

Every morning before the restaurant opens, she is wearing her uniform and making dim sum with students in the cramped kitchen.

Wang says dim sum was her destiny.

She did well in middle school and was on course to enter high school, but failure in the high school entrance exam sent her to vocational school.

“At that time, very few girls were learning how to make dim sum,” she says. “But I told myself that I had to face the truth. I also was greatly impressed by my teacher’s personal charm and skills.”

Lu Yaming, a famous dim sum master at Lu Bo Lang, picked Wang as his apprentice in 1993, when she was a student.

“It was a great honor to be selected,” she says. “I was happy to have my skills recognized. However, back in the early 1990s, women were not welcome in the kitchen because we were deemed to be too weak to handle the work. When I graduated, restaurants fought to recruit male students, while girls were left begging.”

At that time, Lu Bo Lang was no different, so Lu finessed the situation by recruiting a male first, then Wang.

She now jokes that it was like “buy one, get one free.” But it didn’t take her long to prove her worth.

In 1996, she won a gold medal in the World Championship of Chinese Cuisine, dubbed “the Olympics for Chinese chefs.”

In 1998, she was selected as one of the dim sum chefs to serve Clinton and his family. It was her first time serving a foreign dignitary.

“Clinton said he had learned how to use chopsticks, but it proved a challenge for him,” she says. “He tried to help himself to one of our glutinous rice cakes with chopsticks, but he found it was too sticky to pluck. Finally, he gave up, and our waitress offered a hand.”

Wang recalls that the cake really surprised Clinton.

“He kept marveling that it didn’t stick to the teeth at all,” she says.

In 2014, Wang designed four kinds of dim sum for first ladies attending the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

They included a gourd-shaped pastry with a cashew filling, a leaf-shaped glutinous cake with a peanut filling, a peach-shaped steamed bun with salted egg yolk, and a mini rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with red bean paste.

“In China, shapes deliver good messages and wish the diners bon appetit,” says Wang. “They also represent Lu Bo Lang’s great skill in making dim sum.”

Chinese dim sum is not perhaps as well-known as Western desserts, she notes.

“We don’t treat it as a piece of art,” Wang says. “We have to keep coming up with something new, and we have to improve our level of aesthetics. I gain my inspiration from daily life, especially the Internet.”

For nearly 30 years, she has been working nearly 12 hours a day, starting at 7:30am.

“My family used to joke that I must lack vitamin D because I stay indoors all day,” she says.

But her family has always strongly supported her career.

“When my son was in kindergarten, he always told others that his mother was a dim sum chef,” she says.

“I was happy that he felt proud of my job. Now, he’s in middle school. When I’m at home, I make him his favorite xiaolongbao and I teach him how to wrap different dumplings.”

During the major renovation, the interior of the three-story building will be redecorated with classic Chinese designs. But the appearance of the building and the traditional menu will be preserved.


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