When it comes to high-end dining in China, Shanghai makes a lot of lists. Five restaurants made Asia’s Best Restaurants 2015, including Paul Pairet’s Ultraviolet, whose multi-sensory 20-course meal earned it a number three ranking in Asia and number 24 in the world. Then there are hot spots like The Commune Social, which won Condé Nast Traveller’s Gold Standard award last year, and if one was to make a list of fashion houses adopting food trends, it would have to include the newly opened Gucci Cafe and Shanghai Tang’s dim sum brunch.
One Shanghai food writer, and co-founder of local street food tour outfit Untours, Jamie Barys, has taken on the unenviable task of distilling the city’s kaleidoscopic dining scene into one tastefully curated collection of culinary highlights. Barys’ Glutton Guide Shanghai is the first in a series of e-books that gives travelers 130 pages of recommendations that they are not likely to find all in one place anywhere else, including top hotels for foodies, regional cuisine, and even food retailers. While Barys and her partner Kyle Long plan to release guides for Beijing and cities in other parts of the world, the Shanghai edition has now hit the virtual shelves. We took the opportunity to ask Barys what affluent Chinese diners in the city are eating.
What are the latest dining trends for Chinese consumers?
One of the biggest trends I’ve noticed is how people are much more concerned about where their food comes from. Obviously, food safety scandals have spurred a lot of that on, but now that a lot of diners have more disposable income, they care more about what they’re eating and want to know more about it. Shanghai has a lot of organic farms that are out on Chongming Island, where people can do farm tours and there is a CSA farm that delivers organic vegetables to your house, but then you also have restaurants like Hunter Gatherer, a fast-service cafe and retail restaurant, that has two farms. Everyday their blackboard lists the percentage of the food on the menu that day that came from their farms.
Is locally made food becoming more important?
Definitely. You have chefs like Austin Hu, who owns Madison (which is reopening soon). He’s made a name for himself in Shanghai as our resident locavore because he is doing almost everything “made in China” on his menu, like caviar from Hangzhou and wagyu-style steak from Dalian—all these really amazing ingredients that you would never expect were grown or sourced in China.
How are Chinese diners catching on to health trends in the United States and Europe?
There is a big push for healthier food, so a lot of the restaurants that do really well here have lighter options on the menu. Goga and Hai by Goga are examples of restaurants that are really popular here by Chef Brad Turley, who does Cali-Asian food with a lot of salads, raw fish, and ceviche.
How is the rise of e-commerce affecting food trends?
There seems to be a new online grocery delivery shop opening every week in Shanghai right now. We just had a new one open called Table Life that’s a bit higher end, with a focus on imported products. They are trying to be more of a lifestyle brand, with a focus on imported products brought in on a cold chain logistics system. They’re enlisting local celebrity chefs to make menus for their grocery store products. It drives people’s lifestyles through their food consumption, which is interesting.
How are celebrity chefs coming to China catering to the Chinese consumer?
It depends on the chef. We just had Wolfgang Puck open his first restaurant here, and obviously Wolfgang Puck made himself more of a brand and less of a person, so he had, as far as I can tell, zero influence on the restaurant whatsoever. Then you have people like Jean Georges, who has three restaurants here, and he’s doing amazing things at all of them. All of his executive chefs at the restaurants have been trained in Jean Georges kitchens in New York, he comes out several times a year to be with his executive chefs when they change the menu for the season, and he does cooking classes usually when he comes.
So the chefs are coming in and realizing that the China market isn’t just a cash cow. There is a lot to be had from it, but you have to actually pay attention to what you’re doing. The Chinese audience is very discerning, so if you come in and just stamp your name on something, it’s not going to do well, but if you come in and think about it carefully and are conscientious about what you’re presenting to the diner, then you’ll probably have a good product.
Are Chinese diners with disposable incomes more interested in Chinese food or Western food?
A lot of the conspicuous consumption that’s being done here is being done in Western restaurants because you can get higher end wines there, but then you have places like the Fu family of Shanghainese restaurants—there’s Fu 1015, 1039 and 1088, and Fu He Hui, which is the newest one—owned by Chef Tony Lu. Fu He Hui is a vegetarian restaurant, and it was just named a couple months ago No. 19 in the top 50 restaurants in Asia list for 2015, so it did amazing. It’s all private dining and you get a set menu, but then the place where you’re really going to start spending your money is on the tea list.
How are Chinese food trends in the West affecting tastes in China?
You’re getting people paying attention to cuisines from other parts of China. The number of Yunnan restaurants that have opened in the past 18 months in Shanghai has probably tripled. The TV show A Bite of China helped a little bit because the first episode of season one, which was hugely popular, was about the mushroom foragers in Yunnan. That show caused people to look deeper into what they’re actually eating. The food becomes more than something to eat, it becomes something to talk about while you’re eating it because there are stories behind it.
This interview was edited and condensed.