Dubbed China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen is home to the headquarters of some of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese brands, such as Huawei, DJI and Tencent.
Yet despite rapid growth in the technology sector, the city’s dining scene has lagged behind. In the early days, Shenzhen was all about shanzhai – slang for cheap but unreliable bootleg technology – and the food offerings aped that: global fast food chains next to local equivalents, serving everything from burgers to spicy duck necks.
Thankfully, change is afoot. Shenzhen residents like John Zhuang and Rosetta Lin began to forge their own fine-dining pockets as early as 2017, when Zhuang opened Yue Hai Club, serving a style of refined modern Chaoshan cuisine, and Lin started Voisin Organique, which takes a hyper-local farm-to-table approach. A more recent addition to this high-end lineup is Seiku, which opened in December 2018, with chefs hailing from Kanda, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo.
However, if there is one restaurant putting Shenzhen on the map for international diners, it’s probably Ensue, which opened in August 2019 and is the first overseas outpost of Christopher Kostow, executive chef of three-Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, California.
Kostow’s philosophy of local sourcing is working surprisingly well – Southern China’s coasts and rivers provide an abundance of seafood, and while soil quality is poor, there is a rising interest in small-scale organic farming in China. In October 2019, the government also released new regulations on food safety, helping shine more light on the often dark and convoluted roads towards quality produce.
With this burgeoning interest in quality produce and a rise in top restaurants setting up shop, the future of food is bright for Shenzhen.
Miles Pundsack-Poe, head chef at Ensue
In January 2019, 31-year-old Canadian chef Miles Pundsack-Poe had barely heard of Shenzhen, but when he was asked by Christopher Kostow to move there full-time and lead the kitchen at Ensue, he rose to the challenge.
Since arriving, Pundsack-Poe has quickly immersed himself in local life, finding good market vendors and visiting farms in order to bring the Napa Valley farm-to-table philosophy to Shenzhen. “Here, the market is open every day, which is already better than in America, where it’s once a week,” he shares. “It’s a lively place where you can buy fresh produce and fish daily.” Ensue has a dedicated market purchaser on its team who visits and liaises with vendors to find the ingredients Pundsack-Poe needs.
Buying from markets was Pundsack-Poe’s first-year plan, and around 40% of the produce Ensue uses is now sourced from Shenzhen’s home province of Guangdong. Throughout the seasonally changing menu, you might find ingredients from neighbouring cities such as Shunde and Shantou. Apart from a few select ingredients such as beef and abalone, everything the restaurant needs can be found in China.
Although the year isn’t quite up yet, Pundsack-Poe is already ramping up to the second phase and has lined up a local farm to grow produce exclusively for the restaurant. “Most people here don’t care about organic like they do in the West, but that’s not stopping farmers from trying it here,” he says.
So far, he’s found an astounding assortment of quality produce, and is even using traditional ingredients that local gourmands would know from fine Chinese cuisine but likely have never eaten in contemporary Western dishes.
Take, for instance, river eel, which is smoked and deep-fried in bite-sized parcels while the lap cheong (dried Chinese sausage) is baked en croute and served with a velouté of pork, fish maw, sea coconut and ginseng.
Sitting on the top floor of the Futian Shangri-La hotel, Ensue’s main dining room is sleek and moody, with dark walls and double-height windows offering panoramic views of all the lights, glass and steel that make up this young city.
Ever since its opening, the restaurant has been attracting the attention of more than just Shenzhen’s gourmands – it has proved enough of a pull for curious eaters from neighbouring Hong Kong and other Chinese cities like Shanghai. Clearly, with their inventive menu, Pundsack-Poe and his team are putting Shenzhen on the globe-trotting food lover’s map.
The local advocate
Rosetta Lin, executive chef of Voisin Organique
Rosetta Lin was studying to become a jazz vocalist in London when she learned about the world of organic produce, thanks to the city’s abundant farmers’ markets. Her interests soon shifted from music to cooking. Upon moving back to China, Lin couldn’t find any organic produce until she visited a farm run by Shenzhen native Tina Chen.
“When I visited Tina’s organic farm, tomatoes were in season and I tasted one – it was so good that I decided to dedicate myself to a restaurant in Shenzhen and promote organic and sustainable farming,” 31-year-old Lin shares. She and Chen ended up opening Voisin Organique together in 2017.
In November 2019, Voisin Organique moved into Upperhills, an upmarket new mall, with a more contemporary design approach, but in the first two years, the restaurant had operated in a rustic, farmhouse-like warehouse, where it gained a loyal following among diners who appreciated organic produce.
However, the work wasn’t without its challenges – many customers insisted Western fine dining should always include luxury ingredients such as caviar, foie gras and wagyu beef. They felt these ingredients justified the typically high costs of Western tasting menus.
Lin has honoured these demands but put her own twist on them, such as serving foie gras in the form of an ice-cream wafer sandwich. A self-taught chef, Lin has also created her own versions of dishes such as crab congee and sea cucumber. Her congee is a thin, smooth, milky rice broth with flower crab, while her sea cucumber is served with Shaoxing wine misted tableside from an elegant bottle.
“The Chinese often say there are four human needs that are universal – yi (clothing), shi (food), zhu (shelter) and xing (transport),” says Lin, adding that she has committed herself to the universal need for food. “At the core of my cooking is the hope that I can contribute to society and sustainability through organic food.”
The champion of Japanese cuisine
Anthony Ng, co-owner of Seiku
One could say Anthony Ng’s path to becoming a restaurateur started with his Weibo account. As a food lover travelling between Hong Kong and mainland China for his job in digital marketing, he started micro-blogging about his meals around 2010 and began to connect with other food lovers online.
Some of them became his business partners in Nikushou, a restaurant in Hong Kong specialising in exclusively sourced Japanese beef for yakiniku (barbecue), and Seiku, a kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dining) and sushi restaurant in Shenzhen.
Located in a high-end shopping mall in Nanshan, the restaurant features two main dining areas, both with classic hinoki (Japanese cypress) counters seating eight each, as well as several petite private rooms.
Supervised by Kotaro Nakashima, who was sous-chef at three-star Kanda in Tokyo, Seiku varies its menu monthly in order to reflect seasonal changes, an essential tenet of kaiseki. Day to day, 24-year-old Shogo Kaneshima, also a Kanda alumnus, is at the helm, working closely with Ng to create unique Japanese-Chinese dishes such as kamameshi (rice cooked in an iron pot with various toppings) with Shanghai hairy crab.
Finding the right partners to bring fresh ingredients into the country was an initial hurdle, but Ng has now set his sights on using more Chinese produce. “Just like in any country, there are people in China willing to pay for good ingredients, and better still if they’re found on their doorstep,” he says. “You can order live crab from Japan, but it sits in transit for at least two days. So why not buy local?”
Within a year of Seiku’s opening, Ng has found a number of farmers growing and rearing high-quality produce, meat and seafood around the country, with approximately 20% of his ingredients sourced within China. Already, he has discovered prawns from Fuzhou, caviar from Zhejiang and crabs from Dalian, and he’s sure he’ll uncover more.
In that sense, Seiku isn’t just exciting for diners looking for a faithful representation of Japanese dining; it may in fact be forging an expanded lexicon for kaiseki itself.
The Chinese gourmand
John Zhuang, owner of Yue Hai Club
Yue Hai Club started out as a passion project for Zhuang, an entrepreneur who is originally from Zhejiang but moved to Shantou, a coastal city to the east of Shenzhen, in his twenties in search of business opportunities. Shantou and its neighbour Chaozhou have a rich food culture that is considered part of Cantonese cuisine but also stands apart with its own distinctive identity.
Classic Chaoshan (a portmanteau of Chaozhou and Shantou) dishes include goose poached in spiced soy sauce, an array of poached seafood from the region’s famously fertile brackish waters and desserts such as taro purée.
At Yue Hai Club, 33-year-old Zhuang’s elegant interpretations are the polar opposite of the rustic, street-food style of Chaoshan cooking that is most prevalent these days. “We plan the set menu for each party using whatever is the freshest and best from the fishermen in Shantou,” he shares.
In Zhuang’s hands, sea cucumber is braised to a sticky, soft, tendon-like consistency and finished on the grill, resulting in an intoxicating umami and incredible crunch.
Zhuang learned this particularly refined school of Chaoshan cooking from master chef Lin Ziran, a legendary figure in the Chinese food scene. Lin, who passed away in 2017, had a couple of restaurants in Shantou and Shenzhen, but it was the banquets he put on in his own home, where he was able to experiment with smaller portions of meticulous, laborious dishes, that were most enticing to foodies like Zhuang.
Zhuang brought these recipes – as well as chefs who had worked for Lin – to Shenzhen and opened Yue Hai Club originally as a private members’ club, with just three dining rooms. But in the two years since it opened, it’s become known as one of the best Chaoshan restaurants in town, and since July 2019, has been open to all.
Check in to these luxe properties in Shenzhen
Located in the CBD, this well-appointed hotel houses myriad dining options. The rooms are decorated with modern Asian motifs, and Chinese wellness techniques abound at the hotel spa.
With consistent service, plush décor, a variety of restaurants and a deluxe spa, it’s little wonder that this five-star hotel continues to be a top choice for well-heeled visitors to the city.
SilkAir flies daily between Singapore and Shenzhen. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the January 2020 issue of Silkwinds magazine