Eating local: Sown, grown and cooked right here
If you owned a Western restaurant in Shanghai five years ago, chances were you had to fly your menu in with you. We’re talking potatoes, chicken breast and baby spinach along with those specialty truffles, mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil. But then again, this was the era before reliable local suppliers, when wet markets were still a no man’s land and people queued for hours to eat at Pizza Hut.
While a few restaurants still boast, “we import everything,” thankfully for everyone (and our wallets), that is no longer de rigueur in Shanghai. In fact, although they might not have announced it in big, bold print, many chefs have been quietly trading in their imports for local.
China-sourced: good or bad?
David Laris was asked by URBN to develop a restaurant in line with the hotel’s core values of sustainability. The result? Downstairs -- a casual, subtle restaurant serving comfort food (they even have rhubarb pie) filled with a glut of lunching ladies, hipsters and power suits eager to try its 80 percent locally sourced menu.
“We use as much local produce as possible. Having that consciousness is the first step and it makes sense. We support the local economy and reduce emissions from not having to fly everything here,” says Laris, veteran restaurateur and chef. “We’ll use local foie gras in say, a soup or a dumpling, when the taste is equal to the imported stuff.”
"In general, chefs and diners alike are increasing concerned about eating well."— Steve Liang, co-founder, Fields China
China is no stranger to food scandals and Laris concedes that some diners get nervous about ordering from a menu filled with locally sourced foods.
“Often times its people who are new to China,” he says. “A lot of it is from fear-mongering and the media. For example, it can be good for the European market to push down China. Everyone does it, no one is innocent.” Laris adds, “You think China’s bad? My god, the United States is terrible in the way they treat food!”
Remixing the approach
Austin Hu is a new chef on the block who was raised in Shanghai but cut his teeth in New York's competitive dining scene. He just opened Madison and uses caviar from Chinese sturgeon, foie gras from a farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, Chinese frisee and mi xian for salads and san huang chicken for roasts as well as local ricotta, gouda and Alpi pancetta. “Except for cheeses, oils and chocolate, pretty much everything on the menu is from China,” Hu says.
The menu is obviously influenced by China: the food includes tilefish, dragon beans and rice balls re-imagined in an American style. Incidentally, they are the only upscale Western restaurant we’ve seen to put the Sinkiang (Xinjiang) black beer on its drinks list. Note: Madison’s entire selection of beer is domestic.
“At this point in Shanghai, I can get 90 percent of the ingredients I had in the United States and use them in the same ways. But where’s the challenge? Besides supporting local farmers, I want my diners to trust me enough to try ingredients that may seem out of place in Western food and enjoy it,” says Hu.
“From a practical standpoint, the more local your sourcing, the better chance you have of knowing exactly how your food is grown and where,” says Steve Liang, co-founder of Fields China, a supplier of gourmet foods, many of them organic as well as domestically grown.
“In general, chefs and diners alike are increasing concerned about eating well,” he continues. “And, as availability of quality locally sourced food has increased, consumers have begun to take more of an interest in the origin of their food and how it was grown, processed, and transported. Restaurants recognize this demand and have responded accordingly.”
Downstairs (in URBN)
1/F, 183 Jiaozhou Lu, near Beijing Xi Lu
+86 21 51721300
3/F, 18 Dongping Lu, near Wulumuqi Lu
+86 21 64370136