Yu Bo’s Family Kitchen: Inside one of China’s greatest restaurants
I walked down Kuanzhai Lane in Chengdu, looking for number 43. The area is highly stylized, as China’s “heritage sites” tend to be, but somehow devoid of any trace of soul. Wading one’s way through German breweries, Starbucks, and new age tea houses, its hard not to get distracted by the gimmicks along the way or the attractive hostesses at the doorways. But I was on a quest. The most holiest of culinary grails awaited me, and it had been a long journey. I approached two large wooden doors, calligraphy flanking each side, informing visitors they have arrived at Yu’s Family Kitchen. Understated and humble from the facade, it was a good indication of what was inside. Only six tables are available for just one seating per night, and despite tremendous success over the years, the restaurant has never expanded.
I was met by Chef Yu Bo and his wife. The duo have operated Yu’s Family Kitchen since 2006, back when they were the first restaurant on the Kuanzhai block. Its a labour of love, from the plants in the courtyard to the plates on the table, everything is hand picked and designed. The pride and integrity they take in their creation is undeniable. Yu Bo is quiet and introspective, but get him on the topic of food, and the passion rolls off his tongue in almost lyrical Sichuan dialect. It was especially endearing to me, to hear this exaltation of Sichuan cuisine in my own mother tongue. The moment I introduced myself in their language, it was as if we already shared an understanding.
Despite the fame Yu Bo has achieved internationally through the patronage of food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, he tells me that they do not receive PR coverage within China. Those publications tend to prefer overhyped glitzy establishments with a knack for scale. Yu however, focuses on detail and does it exceptionally well. Few can fathom the lengths he goes to source the perfect and rare ingredient essential to a dish, or the cost of these at the expense of profitability. Why does he do it? Out of doing what he feels is the right thing, and the joy of serving a great dish to someone who might appreciate the integrity behind it.
Yu Bo is classically trained in Sichuan cooking, and has travelled the world picking up influences from Catalonia and the Culinary Institute of America to name a few. He celebrates the foundations of Sichuan cuisine in his cooking, depth and balance of flavour, colour, but what makes him truly unique is the ingredients he sources. Once a month he and his wife will personally drive miles out of Chengdu to hand pick huajiao- Sichuan peppercorn, mushrooms, organic pork, bamboo, and artisanal condiments like soy sauce and vinegar. Because he buys in small batches, prices are astronomically high, and suppliers shake their heads in disbelief when he tells them he serves it at a restaurant.
Yu Bo keeps his perspective fresh by frequently gathering inspiration from abroad. He is well-versed in the topic of molecular cuisine, and has dined at El Bulli with his wife. He says of Ferran Adria’s 40+ course feast, “The flavours were a bit singular. In Spain, everything is just salty, or just sweet. There is no balance, no complexity. That is where Sichuan cooking shines.” But he keeps an eye on the trends and techniques of modernist cooking, experimenting sometimes in his own kitchen. One of our 30 courses that night included a deceptive white gelee made solely of tomato juice. In his view, the humble Chinese tofu is just as much a feat of molecular gastronomy as anything in El Bulli’s kitchen. With all the versatility of tofu’s form, I tend to agree.
Sichuan’s rich culinary traditions may be alive and well in Yu Bo's Family Kitchen, but not all is rosy and bright. Yu Bo laments that food culture is on a rapid decline in China. See my thoughts on this topic here. Chefs don’t have the status they used to hold in China, when recipes and techniques were passed down carefully from generation to generation. Culinary artistry died alongside the cultural revolution, and the only remnants of it today is a system of vocational schools that churn out graduates to large hotel and restaurant chains across the nation. Even his own cooks, Yu Bo has trouble motivating. Questions like “But are you PASSIONATE about cooking Sichuan food?” are met with blank stares.
It may just be that appreciation for Sichuan cuisine will be carried forward by exposure outside of China. Already, the media attention Yu Bo has garnered has attracted many international Michelin starred chefs and culinary cultural exchanges happen frequently in his kitchen and abroad. Fuchsia Dunlop and more and more Chinese food writers are shining a light on the virtues of this glorious cuisine, dispelling the misunderstanding that Sichuan food is only spicy, oily, and rich. Showing that like music, Sichuan cuisine is harmonious, never flat, with lots of notes. It is complex, sweet, spicy, sour, savoury, pungent, and when compounded, the same ingredients can create infinite other flavour profiles.
Yu Bo wants to take this concept further, and set up culinary exchange center in a house he has bought on the outskirts of Chengdu. He visualizes a world-class kitchen, a center of education and a dining room serving only local, organic vegetarian fare. Chefs from around the world will be invited to come and exchange ideas and techniques. This would be a first step on the long road to elevating Sichuan’s culinary heritage, and hopefully more and more home grown chef talent will come along for the ride.
Yu Bo tells me that his young daughter recently said she wants to learn how to cook. Beaming, he said “I couldn’t be happier.”
我走在成都的宽窄巷子里, 在这高度风格化的巷子里您能触摸到历史在这里留下的痕迹，也能体味到成都最原汁原味的休闲生活方式，在这里你能够感受到最不一样的文化元素, 最时尚和最古老在这里完美并存着, 德国的啤酒, 美国的星巴客, 盖碗茶，还有笑靥如花的芙蓉女子…
但我今天到访的目的是来采访我心目中最好的烹饪大师和品尝他亲手烹制的美食, 这是我期盼已久的旅行. 当我来到窄巷子43号,两扇刻着书法的木们跃入眼前,告知客人你已经来到了喻家小厨,从门面来看,它非常低调而谦逊, 厅内只有6张桌子, 此餐厅最大特色之一是每晚只提供6张桌子的客人用餐, 尽管多年来取得了巨大成功，但餐厅从来没有扩大。
我会见了喻师傅和他的妻子, 回忆他们从2006年开始在宽窄巷子经营起这家餐厅至今已经5年了,从庭院里的植物，到桌子上的盘子一切都是手工采摘和设计, 他们的构思和创造力是值得骄傲和不可否认的, 喻师傅很内向且不善言谈, 但当我们将话题转到食物时, 喻师傅立即侃侃而来, 话语里透出对自己的事业的热爱, 尤其是用四川方言道来,让我倍感亲切, 随即我也开始用四川话跟他们交谈,这更加深了我们之间的理解和交流.
著名的美食作家Fuchsia Dunlop 早在几年前就在国际上发表了有关喻师傅技艺和传记的专著,但喻师傅告诉我,他们很遗憾至今没有看到中文媒体的报道.如果你了解国内媒体注重华而不实之外表包装的现状,也就不难理解这点.但是,于师傅更注重细节,这也是他的拿手之处.很少有人象他那样,为了一份菜肴的特色配料而亲自跋涉长途去采摘选购,甚至不惜工本. 他为什么要这样做？除了做他认为是正确的，为懂得欣赏这份菜的人效力而带来的喜悦是另一重要原因.
喻师傅毕业于传统的川菜烹饪学校，多年来他利用假日周游世界各地并从中汲取养分, 其中受加泰罗尼亚和美国烹饪学院的影响最深。喻师傅凭着对烹饪技术孜孜不倦的执著、唯美追求, 把琳琅满目、品种多样的食物原料、调料完美地融合,尤其是对食物原材料的选购付出了大量的精力和财力.每月一次，他和他的妻子将亲自到成都郊外去亲手挑选花椒，蘑菇，有机猪肉，竹笋，以及酱油，醋等手工做成的调味品. 因为他不是批发, 所以价格昂贵,当经销商得知他是为一家餐馆来选购,都诧异的摇头,难以置信.
值得欣慰的是川菜已被更多的外国人关注和喜爱, 国外媒体对喻师傅的技艺和传记报道吸引了许多国际米其林星级厨师和烹饪专家来川相互学习交流. 越来越多的极具权威和文化内涵的美食作家如Fuchsia Dunlop的专著, 让更多的人扭转了对川菜的误解,认为川菜只是辛辣，油腻. 川菜的魅力就象音乐, 它是和谐, 并非平板的, 他是琳琅满目、品种多样的食物原料、调料通过不同的刀工、火候、技法相互结合、渗透，巧妙地利用而练就的烹饪技艺.
喻师傅希望把他这一理念继续坚持并推广下去，他已买了在成都郊区的别墅作为基地, 成立了烹饪交流中心, 旨在建立一间世界水平的集餐饮与教育一体的, 供应本地出产的有机蔬菜的特色餐厅. 届时将邀请世界各地的厨师来共同切磋厨艺, 这将大大提升发扬和传承四川烹饪技艺, 唤起更多人对烹饪事业的热爱.
最后喻师傅告诉我，他的小女儿最近对他说，她想学习如何烹饪, 他抑制不住内心的激动 “没有比听到这话更让我高兴的了。”