French cuisine capturing the imagination of Shanghai diners
The French have developed a culture of eating and drinking well, an art de vivre that has existed for centuries. Its cuisine and lifestyle are a matter of the greatest national pride.
For over a century, the French way of living has worked its magic and left an indelible mark in Shanghai. From the 1920s onward, French restaurants and cafes have opened their doors in the "Paris of the Orient" introducing new techniques and methods.
Chez Louis on Huaihai Road M. was one of the earliest French style restaurants and still exists today under the name Red House.
Shanghai residents have long been fascinated with French cuisine which has evolved with a distinctive style thanks to the local cultural influences and a growing Chinese clientele.
Fast forward to the new century, hotels were the entry point to Shanghai for many chefs such as French native Paul Pairet, who arrived in 2005 to open Jade on 36 at the Shangri-La Pudong before going on to open his own restaurant.
"Back then there was no so called French dining scene – only a handful of small places," Pairet said. "Most of the western restaurants at the time were international, mostly in five-star hotels. Jean-Georges Vongerichten had just set up his first output in Shanghai."
Celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was one of the first superstar restaurateurs to see the potential of Shanghai as a dining destination. In 2004, he opened the second Jean Georges at Three on the Bund, his first signature restaurant outside New York.
Vongerichten was one of the front-runners of the fusion movement, introducing Asian flavors to traditional French cuisine and adding a Chinese twist in his recipes. He has since balanced the local identity with the essence of what they do.
And for Pairet, after turning the hotel outfit into the city's first cutting-edge restaurant with his avant-garde haute cuisine, he went on to open Mr&Mrs Bund in 2009, a Neo-classic French eatery perched on the historic Bund. At Mr&Mrs Bundthe chef has tailored a populist concept of sharing simple and well-executed dishes in a large space accommodating 160 diners.
"I served what I like as a daily meal, focusing on popular and classic French dishes through my interpretation, with a lower, more approachable average check. Back then, it was probably one of the first in a global scale that serves French 'high-end brasserie' food in such a style, with such a capacity," he said.
"French cuisine, for me, means home. My principle is to use the best quality ingredients at the most reasonable prices that fit what I need in my recipes," Pairet said.
Mr&Mrs Bund has collected a slew of awards and accolades including coming 43rd in The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2013. Afterwards, Pairet launched Ultraviolet in 2012, a single table of 10, 1 20-course avant-garde set menu enhanced by the multi-sensory technologies. It has had three Michelin stars since 2017.
Shanghai's vibrant dining scene has attracted more Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Maison Lameloise and Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire.
Yann Klein, executive chef of one-Michelin-star Maison Lameloise Shanghai, came to China in 2018 without knowing the local culture or the food. Before relocating to Shanghai, he cooked alongside three-Michelin-star chef Eric Pras at Maison Lameloise Burgundy.
Shanghai was the perfect place for Pras to develop and open Maison Lameloise's first restaurant outside Burgundy.
"The goal of Eric Pras was to give the same experience as the three-starred mother house in France: an authentic French-Burgundy fine dining experience, with the art de la table, standards of service, and way of cooking," Klein said.
They took the recipes that worked best in France but localization was a step-by-step strategy for the restaurant. "It was back in the pandemic period when we realized there were no more sense to work in the old way as for the financial side but mostly for the sustainable side. As being in China where we are surrounded by so many resources that in fact we could even be more creative. It took us six months to be able to launch our first menu with 50 percent of local ingredients and today we are proud to be up to 70 percent," he said.
He now uses 70 percent local ingredients, including yellow croaker, sunflower chicken, Yunnan ham, and even sea cucumber.
"Having lived here for a while, I have always been amazed to discover new ingredients and new techniques. Fujian cuisine has been a real inspiration for me as there is so much variety in seafood cooking techniques and ingredients, as well as Sichuan cuisine with mapo tofu my favorite local dish," Klein said.
As Michelin chefs show their highly personal styles of cooking, more French bistros, cafes and bakeries have been opened to offer a true French lifestyle.
"Nowadays, the French influence is obvious in the popular format from the increasing small bistros and wine bars," Pairet said.
Back in 2017, Simon Briens brought French-style savory galettes and sweet crepes at RAC, which has grown to four venues. "At that time, the corner of Anfu and Wukang roads did not look like nowadays and I felt the area was missing a neighborhood joint," Briens said.
The classic no-frills menu offers authentic French tastes and the space is a true French cafe where people come to meet, converse, share ideas and enjoy coffee, crepe and natural wines.
Briens tasted success with RAC and later opened another French canteen concept Blaz where good produce is effortlessly prepared and good wine served without formality.
Blaz does not stick to an exclusively French menu but a more playful menu centered on quality ingredients. "Both French and Chinese have very strong food cultures: We put more effort into cooking delicious food and we are open to try everything. At Blaz, we use yellow chicken from Chongming Island for a roasted chicken dish and for the sauce we use Chinese yellow wine instead of the French version. Octopus used to be served cooked in char siu sauce and deep fried frog legs found their match with local mustard greens," he said.
Breads and pastries
An important part of French cuisine, breads and pastries are often enjoyed together with a cup of coffee these days. The city is brimming with the kinds of treats in the rapidly increasing number of French bakeries and cafes.
Son Quach said: "When I first arrived back in 2012, the dominance was mostly Asian chain bakeries. So after gaining experience over 20 years in the food and beverage industry, I took the plunge to open a French bakery."
Luneurs opened its first outlet in 2018 with its own identity by breaking the code. "Our value is to offer authentic French bread and pastries and pick the right products to cater to local tastes. We wanted to bring something new-yet-traditional, a space where we could convey a positive and joyful feeling to the people in the neighborhood."
Quach said it is crucial to utilize more local ingredients for their customers and provide local flavors and aroma that they are familiar with, by surprising them with a twist.
"We would like to be part of people's daily life," he said.
"In France, bakeries are present at every corner and today it's happening here as well. French-style bakeries are blossoming not only in Shanghai but throughout China, even in the second and third tier cities. And it is with great satisfaction and pride to see the industry developing fiercely."
Luneurs' popularity has attracted not only locals but customers from outside Shanghai. The brand has now grown to 15 venues in the city and four outside Shanghai.
Chinese food scene in France
While French cuisine and lifestyle is gaining in popularity in Shanghai and beyond, in France, a new wave of Chinese restaurateurs and creative minds is creating a cultural shift as well. The French capital has a buzzing Chinese food scene.
"Both French and Chinese cuisines are powerful in different ways; high in seasoning and intensity of flavors," Pairet said. "In France, for a long time, Chinese food has been presented in a more pan-Asian style. I started to experience real Chinese food when visiting Hong Kong back in early 1990s and it opened my eyes."
Pairet has fond memories of the first Chinese restaurant in France that received a Michelin star, Restaurant Chen Soleil d'Est. "Now, in Paris, I noticed this eatery brand Mao with multiple places, Each place specializes one single type of food and one of the places is called the Mao Dumpling Bar."
Mao's Dumpling Bar in France
Paris is home to some great Chinese food from fine cuisine to street food. Shang Palace opened in 2011 in the luxurious Shangri-La Paris and was awarded a Michelin star the very next year. Cantonese cuisine plays the leading role in an opulent ambiance.
Another fine Chinese gourmet experience can be found at Lili at one of the most spectacular addresses – The Peninsula Paris. The menu unveils a wide range of China's specialities.
"You can find many great Chinese restaurants in Paris, but I think it's the Chinese noodles that are maybe the most popular with local Parisian crowds. I personally had very good malatang last summer and was so surprised to find that famous street delicacy from Sichuan in the French capital. Locals were queuing for it." Briens said.
Enchanting Chinese-inspired table setting at Shang Palace.
Lo Hei Sashimi from Shang Palace of Shangri-la Paris
Quach also observes in Paris that the Chinese street food scene is new and developed by a young generation who have an ambition to bring something fresh and different to the market. "Items such as dumplings, noodles, mantou, the hotpot concept, are growing, especially the use of Sichuan spices. The young generation have creative ideas and are pushing the boundaries. I'm thrilled to see the new Chinese concept appearing in France. In Paris there are brands such as Bao that are doing well and also Atelier Mala that promotes specialties from Sichuan," Quach said.
Klein discovered in modern Chinese cuisine that there's a trend to integrate French elements or Western culinary approach as well. "Young Chinese chefs are incorporating foie gras, truffles, caviar and cheese to elevate modern Chinese to the next level."