Yu Bo is Chengdu’s most famous chef lauded as Sichuan Legend.
Yu Bo was born in Chengdu during the Maoist years. Recruited for a job by his cooking teacher, who worked in a local government office in Chengdu, he understanding of basic cooking skills and began to see his future as a chef. During his work experience, he practiced his knife skills in his own time. Yu dedicated years of meticulous study to the art of cooking spicy and classic Sichuan cuisine under traditional chefs. Since he ventured off on his own his restaurant has won praise for culinary dexterity and exceptional creativity. He acquired a loyal following among an elite of artists, intellectuals, and other gourmets. Yu refines Chengdu’s culinary traditions creation with his personal stamp. His food evolves, with new ingredients from other parts of China, and old Sichuan recipes rediscovered.
China-underground: How and when did you start to get interested in food? Have you always wanted to be a chef?
Chef Yu Bo: I was born in the 60s, growing up, the food was always extremely scary, so I was interested in pretty much all kinds of food I can get my hands on. During the time I was receiving my culinary training, the notion of a Chef did not exist. I merely followed a Chinese saying: Bad weather cannot starve artisans, to work hard and study diligently to become a very skilled artisans.
“It’s necessary to become a good person if you want to be a good cook.” “I’m a chef. And cooking, it’s a happy thing.” – Chef Yu Bo
Besides passion, meticulous studying the art of cooking and concentration, what are the main and most important qualities for a chef?
In my opinion, the most important qualities for a chef include love, conscience, respect – for the environment, for fellow humans, the ingredients, for the skills, and the tradition.
What are the biggest challenges of your work? What are the greatest rewards?
I have always had trouble finding the best ingredients and like-minded folks. I longed to collaborate with young chefs who are independent thinkers and have basic fluency in Sichuan cuisine.
Chengdu’s most creative chef, generating worldwide attention through luminaries in the food world that describe him with respect. Chef Yu Bo has been featured on NPR, the BBC, in the Financial Times, VIC,E and many others, etc … He’s garnered accolades from food experts and chefs such as Fuchsia Dunlop, Thomas Keller, Andrew Zimmern, David Chang, Cecilia Chiang, Shirley Chung and he’s hosted U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, as well as visit from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Sichuanese food had gained global exposure. Chengdu is Asia’s first UNESCO-listed City of Gastronomy. What would you like people to appreciate about Sichuan cuisines?
I would like people to appreciate the rich and dynamic flavor of Sichuanese cuisine. Particularly the traditional 24 complex flavors. My dear friend writer Fuchsia Dunlop wrote about these flavors in an article for the magazine Lucky Peach.
Yu Jia Chu Fang – Yu’s Family Kitchen
Sichuanese food has gained global exposure and in his Chengdu mansion, Chef Yu Bo runs an Avant-Garde Restaurant. Chef Yu Bo creates the next level-foods, that attracted the attention of his spectacular and tasting menu. Yu is skilled at using the old ways of doing things to create food that feels brand-new. Meals are served in the usual Chinese banquet style. Reservations are required. When diners decide how much they want to spend, discover what seasonal ingredients are available and inform the staff of dietary restrictions. At Yu’s Family Kitchen, you can eat classic local Sichuan flavors dishes, that displayed precise knife work, cooking skill and creativity. Chef Yu Bo shows local cooking methods, ingredients in original combinations, pushing the limits of Sichuanese cuisine, unlike anyone else in the world.
Address: Yu’s Family Kitchen, He Huan Shu Jie, Jinjiang, Chengdu, Sichuan
Cuisine as a cultural form is very alive and can be very dynamic. Each dish has its own style. What do you think about the line between tradition and innovation?
I believe that there is no defined line between tradition and innovation, at least in the case of Sichuan cuisine, all innovative Sichuan dishes are rooted in traditions. Speaking in terms of an analogy: Tradition is like the root of a tree and innovation is the newly grown leaves from the tree.
Can you share with us any meaningful story about your work experience or food philosophy?
I did not receive higher education, I ended my academic career after middle school, thus I don’t have thought much about “food philosophy”. However, according to my own experience, I know that basic skills in cooking go a long way. Basic skills in Sichuan cuisine realize in three aspects: knife skills, control over temperature and timing, and a solid understanding of various flavor profiles. One could only acquire these skills through endless practice and reflection. I believe that these skills, though seemingly unique to Sichuan/Chinese cuisine, are the keys to developing one’s style of cooking. Mastering these skills is my understanding of “practice makes perfect”.
You are a chef working between China and the United States of America: what differences and what opportunities?
I have traveled back and forth between China and the U.S. a lot, I have only been living in California for the last two years so I can’t claim that I know much about America. I have come to understand the business model of fast food and how that impacted Chinese food in America. There are two reasons behind the adaptation of this fast-food model for most Chinese-American restaurants: Firstly, the cultural difference, due to the various ethnic groups in America, the cultural difference not only exist between the mainstream American culture and Chinese culture but also within the subculture of Chinese(-Americans), for example, Taiwanese, a mainlander, and Hong Kongers all have vastly different traditions and cultural understandings of each other. Lifestyles and consumption patterns are byproducts of these cultural differences.
Secondly, the language barrier. Most people in the culinary and restaurant industry in China are not well-educated (middle-school-graduates are the most common). The lack of education directly limited Chinese culinary development abroad. Most Chinese chefs, as well as restaurant owners, cannot articulate their concepts and ideas behind dishes that are familiar to the American audience, let alone converse in English! Without proper marketing and management, it is difficult to charge a reasonable price that matches the craft. To make matters more difficult, it is difficult to find the most suitable ingredients for Sichuan food in the United States or alternative ingredients (this is very important) while keeping the cost low.
The limitation of language keeps all the Chinese chefs and restaurant owners in a small bubble, they couldn’t communicate and cooperate with American chefs and operators. All these components resulted in this under-appreciated reality of Chinese food in America. Chefs and restaurant owners are left without a choice but to adapt to fast-moving, low-cost model of fast food which suits the on-the-road, not-time-to-eat American lifestyle. As for opportunities, I believe they exist alongside with challenges. Frankly, I feel stuck with the difficulties (stated above) my predecessors have combated. I could only learn and grow slowly and find the opportunities that suit me.
In most traditional Chinese dining in China, dishes are shared communally. Does this cause difficulties for the realization of some dishes in the West? Is this an opportunity to show people a different side of Chinese cuisine?
In ancient China, dishes were individually portioned. (as shown in the image above, from the Song dynasty 960-1279 AD) As the need for socializing at the dining table grew, the style became shared. Nevertheless, for more upscale occasions, the dishes are presented as large communal meals, and servers would usually portion the dishes out for each guest. Over a quarter of restaurants in China now enjoys this style of serving. The popularity of such a style grows exponentially. Therefore, I don’t think this style of presentation has caused many difficulties in the realization of some dishes in the West. In my experience of cooking and serving, I prefer using this individual portioning style to showcase my style of Sichuan cuisine. I believe that these small-sized dishes allow my western guests to appreciate the complex and dynamic flavors in Sichuan cuisine.
Yu Bo admits, the whole Yu Bo phenomenon is and always has been the Yu and Dai Shuang. “I would never have succeeded without her.” Yu Bo and Dai Shuang do everything together, they are a team in every sense. Yu Bo and Dai Shuang were eloquent on the subtle modulations of a good Sichuanes banquet, with its peaks and troughs, its carefully considered balance between salty and sweet, dry and wet, spicy and mild, hard and soft. His wife has a rich knowledge of traditional Sichuanese foodways, flavoring techniques, ingredients, and gastronomy. Many of the sublime old-fashioned dishes served in the restaurant come from her parents’ and grandparents’ repertoire. Chengdu is notoriously a very relaxed place, very independent thinking. Chengdu has historically been known as the land of plenty, due to its wonderful climate, soil and produce. That’s why people have pleasure-loving eating delicious food. “A Chinese banquet should leave you feeling very “shu fu” relaxed”- Dai Shuang said. – Fuchsia Dunlop
Ironically when Chengdu became UNESCO City of Gastronomy the traditional flavors started slipping away. Yu Bo and Dai Shuang are both intent to research and preserve Sichuan’s distinctive food culture. Promoting the daintiest Sichuanese cuisine has become part of the finest of their work.
Chinese food in the West was adapted to the environment, culture, etc … How was your culinary experience as a food taster?
My first trip to America was in 2004, I visited more than 40 different Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and New York (and the east coast). Most of these restaurants have some Sichuan cuisine elements on their menu. I was rather upset by the artificial and repetitive nature of the sweet-sour-spicy flavor prevalent in most Chinese-American-styled Sichuan dishes such as sesame chicken, broccoli beef, and orange chicken. I knew for a fact that the chefs that worked in these restaurants were some of the top-notch chefs in Chengdu. I was deeply frustrated: they were fluent in cooking skills, what happened to those skills? Why did they throw those skills away and resorted to these dishes? After moving to America recently and encountering similar problems, I started to understand where they came from. Thanks to the influx of more authentic Chinese food in the American food market in the last decade, this situation has improved to some degree. Though the cultural difference and language barrier are still keeping most chefs away from achieving the level of craft and success they deserve. As a part of the newer generation of Chinese chefs in America, I am lucky, but I also feel the responsibility to showcase the high level of Sichuan cuisine on the international stage.
Photo courtesy of Yu Family Kitchen, Special thanks to Yan