f America has David Chang, Asia has his peer in Jowett Yu. The Taiwan-born chef is responsible for some of the most hyped-about contemporary Asian restaurants in the region, from the playful Ms.G’s in Sydney to the perennially-crowded Ho Lee Fook in Hong Kong. At his latest venue Canton Disco in Shanghai, also his first in mainland China, Yu is refining his take on quintessential Asian dishes with a dose of classical French cooking and a dollop of funk. We talk to him to find out what it takes to recreate Ho Lee Fook’s success at Canton Disco, what restaurant guides mean to him, and why Cantonese barbecue is perfect.
You’ve opened modern Asian restaurants from Ms.G’s in Sydney to Ho Lee Fook in Hong Kong. How does Canton Disco represent the evolution of your cooking?
JY: When we started Ms.G’s, we were 20-something-year-old punks who just wanted to do something crazy and ridiculous. It was a mis-mash of different Asian cuisines and there were no boundaries. And now onto Canton Disco, it’s probably a little more sophisticated, more refined, and more Chinese.
What does it mean to be a modern Asian restaurant today?
In order to be a modern Asian restaurant now, I always look backwards to see what has been done before, what are people doing now, and try to create a vision for the future of this restaurant. You have to understand where you come from, where you are, to know where you want to go. I think that’s really important.
Are some things untouchable when you look back at what’s been done before?
Cantonese barbecue. It’s perfect. I think right now is the best barbecue in the history of Cantonese barbecue. In the 1980s you see more food coloring and also meat tenderizers to make char siu, but now a lot of restaurants, even the run of the mill street barbecue shops, are going away from that. It’s something really great. To present a more natural product.
How then would you improve on something like this?
I think the consistency of the product. What pork do you use to make the char siu. What is the pig feeding on. How does it make a difference in the final, overall product. Right now we’re using Spanish Iberico pork, that’s a really nice pig with an even fat to meat ratio and a very soft flesh. That being said, this came about only because of the international, cosmopolitan world in which you can get anything from anywhere. But you know, maybe in the 1980s you could only get frozen Brazilian pork to make char siu. The product is improving, so that’s great. That means we can do less, we can adulterate less, to present a more natural product.
What dishes have proven popular at Canton Disco?
The beef carpaccio is really popular, also the short rib here is really popular. The wontons, the dumplings, and also live seafood dishes as well.
What did you have to adjust since opening the restaurant?
What we had to adjust was the product we were getting in China is not the same [as what we were getting for Ho Lee Fook]. Just even soy sauce, for example, in Shanghai the common soy sauce in the kitchen is Haitian (海天), but I actually prefer to use soy sauce from Guangdong province, so we’re buying Lee Kum Lee (李锦记) from Hong Kong. That’s more suitable to the cuisine. And some things we can’t even find in China we just have to use local produce. I can’t find jalapeno here, so I have to use Hunan green chilis, just things like that.
Ho Lee Fook has been a success since it opened, with long lines constantly outside the restaurant. How do you recreate that at Canton Disco?
Look, it wasn’t a great success when it opened. For the first year we were struggling to get people into the restaurant. I remember the first nine months we had nobody. But that being said, no restaurant is perfect when it opens. So you have to strike the perfect balance of making adjustments and cooking for the market. At the same time satisfy your personal vision and sticking to your guns and cook for yourself. That’s a big challenge.
One thing with restaurant guides like Michelin, for example, tend to have a lot of reverence for classic Cantonese cuisine, while the only modern Cantonese eatery on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list is The Chairman in Hong Kong. Do you feel these guides are overlooking contemporary forms of Chinese cooking?
You know what, I have never cared about the guides. For me, cooking for the critics is not a priority. Cooking for the people, that’s what I came into this profession for. Yeah, they’re great for some ego or something, but that goes away when the award goes away. What is enduring are the customers that come to the restaurant. That’s what’s really going to drive the restaurant. I don’t know what the guides do for me!
Monday to Sunday, 5:30pm to 10:30pm
2/F, The Shanghai EDITION, 199 Nanjing Dong Road
Nearest metro station: East Nanjing Road
[Photos via Canton Disco]