Meet the Shanghai Chef Building a Different Kind of Restaurant Empire
In the age of the celebrity chef, Tony Lu stands alone.
"Not yet," he says, and he's not being coy. Why would he be? Lu oversees a thriving restaurant empire in Shanghai, where he can serve food he doesn't need to translate for American audiences. At his one-Michelin-starred Yong Yi Ting, located inside the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Lu prepares authentic and refined Jiang Nan cuisine, drawing from the the culinary traditions of Shanghai and its neighboring provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. For lunch, we enjoy an elegant sequence of small plates: his signature soup of crystal-clear broth, matsutake mushroom, and chrysanthemum; a single king prawn atop sea urchin sauce; a "lion’s head" pork meatball filled with sweet crab meat; a perfect steamed vegetable dumpling, the edges of which blossom upwards like a flower. Dessert arrives like a revalation: A chilled Longjing green tea crème brulée is plated alongside a crispy sesame dumpling that yields sweetened egg yolk when you pierce it.
Lu's food makes you pause—both to appreciate it and intellectually untangle it. The clearest broth you've ever seen is somehow the most complex, as it offers intense flavors without any trace of how. That's what post-lunch tea is for, pausing, and Yong Yi Ting's lush, glistening decor compels you to stay awhile, pausing some more.
Lu is the sort of celebrity chef—and, yes, he's achieved nothing short of celebrity in Shanghai—who has managed to preserve the quiet power of his food, even as he stretches his energy across seven critically acclaimed restaurants, five of which are located in his city. His elevated Chinese restaurants Fu1039, Fu1088, and Fu1015 dominate a single stretch in the Changning district of Shanghai, luring tourists and locals alike, and Fu He Hui, a temple to haute vegetarian cuisine from Lu and Buddhist restaurateur Yuan Fang, has maintained its one Michelin star since the Shanghai guide launched three years ago. The mostly-vegan fine-dining restaurant is a regular fixture on Asia's 50 Best List, wading in and out of the top 20, impressing the likes of Ferran Adrià on a recent passage through Shanghai.
Yong Yi Ting has one Michelin star as well, but you don't get the sense Lu is concerned with rankings; he rarely shows up to the big, glitzy events where his restaurants are routinely recognized. As a human, he is quiet. He would make a very boring television star, which is just as well for him; Lu prefers to stay out of the spotlight, sending staff in his place to accept awards at Asia's 50 Best and rarely offering media interviews.
He is serious, too. Serious about plating, serious about ingredients, serious about business, and serious about the dumplings for which Shanghai is famous. When I ask him his favorite spot to get xiao long bao (Shanghai "soup dumplings") in the city, he considers xiao long bao with the seriousness they deserve, and then he offers an answer I couldn't have predicted. Rather than naming a hidden stall tucked in an alley, which is cool to do, or a cafeteria atop an obscure shopping mall, Lu names the one-Michelin-star international chain Din Tai Fung, which has become known for popularizing the item globally (and for its mastery of paper-thin dough and juicy pork insides.)
"I understand that many articles try to recommend a hidden place, but in my opinion, I think Din Tai Fung is a very special restaurant that makes xiao long bao in a very scientific way," says Lu, through a translator. "They’ve reached a quality level and consistency because of thousands of different experiments, so every single restaurant delivers the exact same quality. That’s a huge achievement. There are many local, small places that were never able to do so."
He continues, "It's very scientific; the soup dumpling represents Shanghai culture to the whole world. It's a big success for this industry that one company can elevate this concept to an international level. Otherwise, you will always be a small restaurant in a small alleyway."
Born and raised in Shanghai, Fu never attended culinary school, but he cut his teeth in several high-end Cantonese restaurants before opening his Fu1039, Fu1088, and Fu1015—all on the same street. He has two restaurants elsewhere in China, and he has no rush to expand in the way people keep asking him to, including a restaurateur in New York whose name he can't recall.
"The risk is very high from a business perspective," says Lu. "Many Chinese chefs already tried. They tried to be successful and unique, serving upscale Chinese food, but somehow it's rare that any of them really make a name as big as what you can achieve here."
Lu's vegetarian marvel, Fu He Hui, is perhaps the sharpest expression of his singular vision. The food is inventive and surprising, at once stunningly complex and deeply simple. A plain hot clay pot of rice with just a shaving of truffle and soy sauce is one of the most magical things I eat at dinner, as is the minimalist soup of white gourd, sword flower, and another crystal-clear broth that packs tongue-tingling spice. After finishing a gorgeous but plain bowl of bouncy spring peas, star jelly, and lotus seed, I pause, again, and wonder. The tea keeps coming.
While Lu is not a vegetarian, he wanted to open a concept that fit the zen design of the space, where each dining table sits inside a serene, sparsely decorated private room. It's very quiet.
"So many restaurants are designed as clubs; there's a nightlife style," he says. "At Fu He Hui, as soon as you step in, you feel very peaceful. The space tells you that you need to slow down. By the time they slow down and start eating the food, you want to concentrate, then you have less body language. You become conscious of your every movement. Maybe you don’t move; maybe you start to talk more calmly."
Lu instructs the servers to limit the amount of talking they do with guests, to help center the food and preserve the peaceful energy of the space. He thinks there's too much talking at most restaurants, and he's right; the waiter, chef, manager, and more staff may try to sell you on the experience at several points throughout the meal. At Fu He Hui, diners often sit over three hours without even realizing it. In fact, people linger the longest here than at any of his other restaurants, and he thinks he knows why.
"When you go back to the dining experience, and why you love the food, it's not because the chef taught you to like it," he says. "It’s the appropriate ambiance, the appropriate everything. The food becomes very powerful, and you’ll remember the dishes vividly, because you were not forced or told. The information comes from your inner world—you feel the space, you feel zen. You feel that you’re eating the right food tonight."