Sichuan Legend Yu Bo Moves to L.A. and Plans a New Restaurant
The avant-garde chef, who’s been called "the Ferran Adrià of Chengdu," is doing R&D and looking at real estate for an intimate tasting-menu destination.
There’s avocado in the mapo tofu. That mapo tofu is topped with raw and cooked abalone. Yes, that’s skin-on sablefish in the fish soup with preserved vegetables. Yes, that tray of what looks like calligraphy brushes is one of tonight’s dishes. The bristles are pastry, filled with meat floss. The “ink” you dip each “brush” into is ketchup.
No matter how much Sichuan food you’ve consumed or how many tasting-menu restaurants you’ve visited, you haven’t eaten like this unless chef Yu Bo has cooked for you.
These are just a few of the things Yu Bo, the Sichuan legend who’s been called the Ferran Adrià of Chengdu, is thinking about serving at a tasting-menu restaurant he’s planning to open in Los Angeles. Yu Bo, known for Yu’s Family Kitchen in Chengdu, is in the process of looking for an intimate L.A. space where he’d like to do one seating a night and serve 15 to 20 guests. In the beginning, Yu Bo and his wife, Dai Shuang, will be the only people working in the restaurant. Eventually, Yu Bo would love to find an apprentice who wants to influence the future of Sichuan food. He’s eager to pass all his knowledge onto the right person.
Given who Yu Bo is and the next level-food he creates, given the attention he’s gotten from Chinese-food expert Fuchsia Dunlop and Danny Bowien (who filmed in Chengdu for The Mind of a Chef), given the respect he garners in the food world from luminaries like Andrew Zimmern and David Chang, given his reputation as China’s most creative chef, this L.A. restaurant should generate worldwide attention. Don’t be surprised if people describe it as the Chinese Noma or the Chinese Vespertine.
But also know this about Yu Bo: He uses an old cleaver that he sharpens regularly but hasn’t replaced in nearly two decades. All the stunning knife work used to create a series of vegetables that might include budding chives cut to resemble jade hair pins, or celery that looks like dragon tails, or little carrot bits that are wrapped in daikon to evoke “snow-wrapped coral,” or mountain yam that is carved into something that might make you think of throwing stars but is actually an ornate Chinese pattern, is done with the same kind of cleaver that chefs use to hack through tough pieces of meat and bones. Yu Bo only has one cleaver, and he cuts everything with it. There might be no other chef in the world as skilled as he is at using the old ways of doing things to create food that feels brand-new.
When I visit Yu Bo at his San Gabriel Valley house, which he moved into about six months ago, Dai Shuang answers the door. Yu Bo has his back toward me and doesn’t turn around. The jovial chef isn’t being rude. He’s carefully spooning caviar over white custard and doesn’t want to break his concentration. That custard turns out to be one of Yu Bo’s many magic tricks. There’s sweetness and tartness from tomatoes, but there’s no redness because he’s made tomato water, combined it with emulsified olive oil, and set everything in gelatin.
Shirley Chung, the Top Chef star who recently opened Ms. Chi at The Fields L.A., is one of the dinner guests at Yu Bo’s table. She’s gobsmacked by this dish and so many others. Chung’s worked for José Andrés, Thomas Keller, and Guy Savoy, and she says that Yu Bo’s cooking inspires her like nothing else she’s ever encountered. For one thing, instead of the typical progression of European-style tasting menus that relentlessly raise the stakes with premium ingredient after premium ingredient, Yu Bo thinks of his meals as a “symphony.” He wants to take guests up, up, up—and then bring them back down. He wants to change speeds mid-performance.
So there’s a dish of winter melon and oyster to relax your palate after the mapo tofu. Intensely spicy duck tongue is followed by a mellowing dish of crab-filled custard. Yu Bo’s fragrant fish soup, which we’re advised to eat without talking because there are seriously spicy and acidic elements, gets richness and depth from the skin-on sablefish. It’s followed by a calming dish of matsutakes and mustard-green hearts. This is a roller-coaster of a tasting menu, and it’s spectacular.
Yu Bo deftly handles the richness and delicateness of Kobe beef by freezing it and then frying it like Sichuan popcorn chicken. Freezing the cubes of beef prevents the meat from being overcooked. It’s a technique that has Chung’s jaw on the floor.
After dinner, I ask Yu Bo why he moved to L.A.
“L.A. is a very global and inclusive city,” he says.
He likes how the city celebrates art, culture, and diversity. He enjoys being in a place where people are so open-minded. Compared to New York and San Francisco, the real estate is more affordable, and Yu Bo appreciates how there’s less pressure for chefs to focus on traditional fine dining. The fact that the Michelin Guide hasn’t been in L.A. for years means that chefs can try different things and apply their own standards of success, allowing them to be less competitive with other restaurants. But at the same time, Yu Bo adds, all the attention L.A. food has been getting means that Michelin will likely return here in the future.
“I’d love to be reviewed by Michelin,” he says.
He knows that many people primarily think of Sichuan food as aggressively spicy or numbing (mala), so he wants to show people all the nuance and grace of what he calls “the most inclusive cuisine of Chinese cuisine.”
Sichuan food, he says, is about 100 dishes that have 100 flavors, everything from a fish-fragrant flavor to different forms of sweetness and umami.
“Each flavor in Sichuan food is distinct,” he says. “There’s 24 different types of spicy.”
There’s, to name just a handful, chili spicy and ginger spicy and garlic spicy and high-acidity spicy and sweetness that leads into spicy. Yu Bo, who’s been making about a dozen courses at R&D meals in L.A. (we’re counting all the cleaver-cut vegetables that start the meal as one course) but has served many more dishes at previous dinners, wants to take guests through a cavalcade of flavors while illustrating how imperial-style banquets are different than the family-style feasts that people expect at Chinese restaurants. Think of it as a banquet in tasting-menu form, served on elegant plates from China and eaten with fancy chopsticks that have disposable tips.
Yu Bo and Dai Shuang have been eager for feedback at their R&D dinners because they want to make sure they tweak their formula correctly for L.A. One thing they’ve been discussing a lot is whether everything is presented like a fine-dining tasting menu or whether some dishes should be shared. They’ll have some time to figure this out while they consider L.A. real estate far beyond the San Gabriel Valley. A Yu Bo tasting-menu restaurant might be best suited for the Westside, where there’s a lot of curiosity about avant-garde food and a lot of deep pockets that can pay for that food.
Whatever Yu Bo opens, it will be a taste of Chengdu unlike anything else in the world. But he’s more than willing to teach somebody else how he does it.
He’s looking forward to selecting an apprentice in L.A., where he admires the spirit of young cooks. In L.A., he says, it’s easier than it is in China to find people who will work for passion, who will chase a goal that isn’t based around a monetary reward. He wants to pass on his techniques and skills. He doesn’t want to keep any secrets or protect any intellectual property. Chung’s asked him for permission to jack his idea and put avocado into her vegan mapo tofu at Ms. Chi, and Yu Bo’s fine with it.
He’s not worried about hewing to any idea of authenticity. Danny Bowien, for example, didn’t have any formal training in Chinese food, but Yu Bo believes Bowien’s cooking captures the spirit of Sichuan cuisine. Yu Bo, perhaps more than anything else, wants Sichuan food to become more modern so that it can continue to thrive.
“This is not changing Chinese cuisine,” he says. “This is actually spreading the Chinese cuisine. This is what true Chinese cuisine should be or will become.”
And why shouldn’t Chinese food taste like L.A. in 2018? Yu Bo’s been sun-drying cabbage in his San Gabriel Valley yard. He says he really loves the flavor of the California sun.