Tasting Taiwan with Jereme Leung
In the run-up to the opening of Yen, the flagship restaurant of the new W Taipei, the Chinese master chef embarked on a journey to research Taiwan’s flavors and culinary traditions. Here, he talks to T+L about creating a menu from scratch. By Lara Day
Published on Jan 26, 2011
What was the concept behind Yen?
It was very simple. The F&B people at Starwood wanted W Hotels’ first Chinese restaurant to be modern and chic, with a strong Cantonese element. After that, the execution was up to me.
What was the next step?
I’d been to Taiwan a number of times as a tourist, but I can’t say I began with a lot of local knowledge. Research into produce, seasonality—you don’t learn that as a casual visitor. So I did four different research trips to four different parts of Taiwan: Taipei, Tainan, Yilan and Taichung. On this project alone I visited more than 120 restaurants, trying six to seven places a day. It was a long process, but this is the type of research I really enjoy; you learn so much about the local eating culture. I don’t create a restaurant in a city I don’t understand. If I did, it would become about buying a cookbook and trying to imitate something. There’s no soul in that.
How is the food Yen different from your other projects, such as the Whampoa Club in Shanghai and Beijing?
I want every single restaurant to have its own character. At Hangzhou’s Dragon Hotel, for instance, we drew from Hangzhou cuisine, and at the Whampoa Club restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing, we used Shanghai and Beijing flavors respectively. At Yen we took elements of Taiwanese Chinese cuisine, but also included classic Cantonese dishes, since Cantonese cuisine is important for business entertainment. We’re bringing back classic Cantonese dishes that went out of fashion because they were too time-consuming for most people to cook. Take de-boned clay-pot chicken stuffed with wontons. This used to be a very popular Cantonese offering but it takes quite a bit of time to choose the right poultry, to slow-cook it and to de-bone it without breaking the thing apart.
Of course it was important to give Yen a unique Taiwanese character. We wanted people visiting Taiwan to have that feeling of experiencing a cuisine that is very special. Not everyone who comes to Taiwan can do a food tour like I did, covering the whole country. So I hope people can experience a part of Taiwan’s food culture just by coming to the restaurant.
Tell us more about Taiwanese cuisine.
People know it in Mandarin as tai cai, or Taiwan food. If you do a lot of research, you’ll find that Taiwanese Chinese cuisine shares a lot in common with food from the southern provinces of China, thanks to Taiwan’s immigrants from Xiamen and Fujian. In fact, for me, Taiwan actually shares a lot of characteristics with Southeast Asia’s heritage cuisine. In Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, a lot of our early fathers used to live in southern China.
A very good example is wagui rice cakes. In Tainan, this is a very popular, simple street snack of rice cakes combined with braised pork inside. You can find the same thing in Singapore, done slightly differently, with a topping of topping of radish, and you find a different variation again in Xiamen. When I look at the recipes they’re the same recipes that have traveled out of China, all with slightly different twists.
At Yen, we’ve taken different tai cai dishes and made them more attractive and more flavorful. So there’s the Yen duo of wagui rice cakes, where we took the Tainan version and made another variation of Southeast Asian origin: a white rice cake and a dark rice cake, done in dim sum portion and served in a tea cup.
What’s it like stepping into Yen?
In most hotels, you’ll find the Chinese restaurant hidden away somewhere. At the W Taipei, Yen is the signature restaurant, and they’ve given the space priority on the 31st floor. There’s definitely a wow factor. Behind the bar you see an installation with different eyes: one eye is looking up, another eye is staring at you, another eye has lashes that are closed. There are also long glass windows so you get a fabulous view of Taiwan, including Taipei 101. It’s fun, funky and dramatic.
What’s on the bar menu?
Next to the bar space there’s a beautiful open kitchen serving classic Chinese dishes in finger-food format, like tapas. One of them is caramelized charsiu, or barbecued pork, with a caramelized crust, served on skewers with roasted pineapples. We wanted people to be able to sit at the bar and have snacks come in a glass, in a skewer, in a test tube, away from how traditional Chinese food is normally presented. But we still want to make the snacks to be tasty, to taste like Chinese food.
For Jereme Leung’s Taiwan food tips, see page 68 of the February 2011 edition of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia.