Whether it’s passion or survival, the ingredient to becoming a successful chef is the same: effort

TRB Forbidden City
JFK Zhang

Back to Beijing, seeking China’s gastronomy in the changing Chinese society

How did you come to work at TRB?

Mr. Zhang :
After coming to Beijing, my child was still quite young. So in order to spend time with the baby, I took on more freelance work. Through a previous colleague, I got introduced to the opportunity at TRB – I’ve also heard of TRB and its good reputation. I’ve been here just shy of a year.

Having worked in fine dining both in the West and East, what are some key differences?

Mr. Zhang :
Fine dining is no longer a new concept in China. Generally, more and more patrons understand the concept. Whether it’s dining out, business dining, personal dining or dining because of a special occasion, people demand restaurants with a better ambiance – somewhere nice and quiet to celebrate. Like myself, I think this generation demands better ambiance when dining and is recognizing that fine dining is about more than just the consumption of food. It’s about the experience.

Another difference is with diet – Westerns typically have more dietary restraints, but this is less so in Beijing. For example, there will be more considerations made to any allergies or specific ingredient list, whereas in Asia, specific requests like this are less common.

There’s often comparison between Shanghai and Beijing. What do you think of this from a culinary perspective?

Mr. Zhang :
I’ve been following the fine dining trends in the industry especially in Shanghai and Beijing for some time. These cities have different culinary foundations  — historically, Shanghai has more of a long-standing demand for Western food. It has taken Beijing a while longer to get used to Western influences when it comes to dining.

Continue refining the technology with a view to the future of the Chinese restaurant industry

Would your parents’ generation understand what you’re doing now?

Mr. Zhang :
[Laughs] No! They see that the food is pretty and they understand that people are willing to pay for fine dining. But especially in China, the generation gap is real. My parent’s generation don’t see what we’re seeing. They’re more austere. At home, I cook in a simple way. My parents have yet to visit TRB.

Is this something you struggle with? The generational gap and different ways of looking at the career of a chef?

Mr. Zhang :
Not so much – the main struggle is less personal and more structural. In places like Japan, there’s a more established fine dining culture. Young chefs in China have to learn from more ore training and time and exchanges spent abroad. That’s the main challenge facing China in general – getting established on the global level. Chefs now have the ability to help broaden perspectives.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Mr. Zhang :
I like to experiment with ingredients, whether it’s local or foreign-grown. There are so many local-grown ingredients we still have yet to use. For example, in Guangdong, along the sea, I am inspired by dried mussels and oysters. In Beijing, I like going to and buying produce from Sanyuanli. [Sanyuanli is a market in Beijing’s Sanyuanqiao district, where many restaurants buy wholesale goods].

Whenever I travel, I go to the local markets and groceries for inspiration in my own cuisine. It’s the most direct way or experiencing the local life. If I want inspiration – there’s so many more places for me to still explore in Asia – I’ve been to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia.

A dream to “fusional” restaurant irrespective of the genre of the dish

Who are your role models?

Mr. Zhang :
I have different role models for different periods of my life. My mentor is probably my older brother, in life and professionally, he gave me a lot of advice. He’s currently working in IT in Shenzhen – a completely different industry! But he has a lot of life experience to share. We typically spend CNY together back home…if I’m home I cook, and they help.

Oh, so do you do all the cooking at home?

Mr. Zhang :
Yeah, breakfast before going to work, for my baby. I make very simple things, both Chinese and Western. I think my child already has culinary aspirations; he often salts things in the pan. He’s just 3!

Do you look up to other chefs for inspiration? Do you ever watch programs like “Chef’s Table!”

Mr. Zhang :
Yes! I really like this show!  Some moments are reminiscent of my life in the kitchen… and many times, these chefs profiled remind me to work harder, they give me inspiration. Of course, most chefs also have the dream of opening their own restaurant. If I did, it would be most likely a fusion restaurant – if it were Western, there would be too many limitations on ingredients. .

Can you tell us about your dream?

Mr. Zhang :
My dream would be to open up my own restaurant – but I can’t give you a timeline on that.

Keep learning until you can define your style

What is your advice for new chefs entering your industry?

Mr. Zhang :
Keep learning and learning. Younger Chinese chefs nowadays have the luxury to pursue the culinary arts out of passion and interest. But before, many more pursued it for survival. But whether it’s for passion, or for survival, one ingredient is the same: You have to put in the effort.

You must examine the details, and be passionate about learning – learning both familiar and unfamiliar cuisines, identifying the different regional cuisines of China and around the word. All this requires a lot of diligence. Go outside of your comfort zones and broaden perspective. See more.  There’s a lot more opportunities for young chefs in China today, for learning and employment.

Now there are many opportunities and it depends on how much effort someone puts in. You need to work hard to win other’s approval and affirmation. People can’t just give you opportunities, you have to work hard to prove yourself.

(Interviewer: Hannah Leung , Photographer: Don Chen & Restaurant)

TRB Forbidden City

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No.95 Donghuamen, Dongcheng District, Beijing China
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