Shanghai's Foodie Heaven: The Kitchen at Huaihailu

Travel | by Fred Shasta
Posted: November 17th, 2008 | Updated: July 13th, 2012 | Comments
Foodie heaven china The Kitchen at Huaihailu takes hands-on foodies around the culinary world as easily as it puts them in home-style Shanghainese heaven. Let's eat! The massive cleavers are a blur in Chef Zhou's hands as he transforms a pile of dark-leafed Chinese cabbage (qing cai) into filling for our boiled dumplings (shui jiao) with the ease and precision of a world-class jazz drummer working the cymbals. Zhou keeps up a steady stream of chatter while he works, which Chef Norris Chen translates from Mandarin for the benefit of me and my fellow novices. "He says you must chop by hand—no machines! Not the same taste! Very important!" "Guess it's one of those things that's all in the wrists. Too bad I'm all thumbs," I comment to my mother, who is visiting Shanghai after a ten-day group tour of China. We're taking a cooking class at the Kitchen at Huaihailu, joined by our old family friend Andrea, and though we all like to think we know our way around a kitchen, Chef Zhou's human Cuisinart act is more than a little intimidating. cooking class shanghai My attention drifts for a moment as I survey the scene. We're standing in a restaurant-grade kitchen around a huge custom-built island. The door is open for air, revealing a sun-dappled glimpse of a charming French Concession lane. There's a large and comfortable dining area behind us, overlooked by an expressionist mural depicting two epicurean ladies lingering over wine and a cigar. The feel is distinctly Shanghai: Chinese, yes, but unpretentiously cosmopolitan and quirky at the same time.... Zhou stops abruptly, interrupting my reverie by thrusting one of his cleavers in my direction: "xianzai ni shi shi!" "Now you try!" Norris translates. Self-conscious as I am in front of two accomplished Chinese chefs and a pair of American gourmand moms, I step up and take the knives. They're heavy…. I start chopping in a slow, yet somehow spastic, fashion, sending bits of qing cai flying and quickly destroying the neat heap Zhou sculpted. Zhou quickly steps in and takes them back. Thank you, I think, a bit embarrassed but grateful that it's over. Zhou resumes chopping, slower this time: "Ni kan! Kan!" "Okay, watch! Now you do the same," Norris says. "Oh, no, really… I'm cool… maybe someone else wants to try?" I sheepishly reply, but it's not to be: Zhou hands me the blades and steps aside. This time, however, he carefully guides my hands with his own, showing me where the knives' balance points are, loosening and redirecting my grip and… suddenly, gravity's doing most of the work and I'm doing a pretty good imitation of a Chinese chef! By the time the qing cai has been mixed with chopped shitake mushrooms (xiang gu) and doufu to create the filling for our shui jiao, my confidence level has grown nearly as much as my appetite, and between turns working with Chef Zhou to roll out dough, cut it, fill it and pinch carefully it into shape (a few of mine admittedly veering from the traditional ideal of "shape" into the "freestyle" category), we chat with our hosts. Norris explains that he and his wife and business partner, Miranda Yao, wanted to create a unique space where they could share their passion for cooking with other food lovers in a more intimate and direct way than a restaurant can deliver. And as we move through the remaining dishes on our menu—kung pao chicken (gong bao ji ding), dry braised Mandarin fish (gan shao gui yu) and sweet-and-sour spareribs (tang cu pai gu)—that's exactly what happens. cooking lessons fish shanghai The pleasure Zhou and Norris take in their work is contagious, the ingredients are as fresh as they can be, and the scents of our dinner-in-the-making are intoxicating (well, in the case of the smoke thrown off by searing Sichuan pepper for the gong bao chicken, they're rather painful, but having your food make you cry is part of the passion, I figure). In the course of our lively kitchen-island conversation, we learn that Chef Zhou speaks Spanish, thanks to his years cooking for Chinese embassy staff in Mexico City. "¿Te gusta la comida Mexicana?" I ask, happy to be able to converse directly with Zhou above a rudimentary level. "¡Si, mucho!" he responds, going on to tell me about his love of Mexican food and culture. Norris loves it, too, having cooked in Shanghai's first authentic Mexican restaurant, Al Popo. And in the course of talking guacamole, chilies and snapper Veracruz, I learn to my delighted surprise that the Kitchen's team of experienced chefs offers classes not only in Chinese cooking, but also in a range of international styles. You could, for example, learn to prepare sushi one week, French pastries the next, and fresh tortilla dishes the week following, with dim sum and xiaolongbao workshops thrown in for good measure, making the Kitchen as well suited for short-term visitors looking for an authentic Chinese cooking experience as it is for Shanghai expats after a bit of variety. The ingredients for a great Chinese cooking class But we're not here for Mexican, not today. Today it's all about the delicious numbing Sichuan pepper bite of the gong bao chicken, the tang of the spareribs and the complex delicacy of a perfectly prepared Mandarin fish. Learning to cook from the best is an amazing experience—in my case, humbling at first, then enormously confidence-building. The friendly and casual conversation with seasoned pros is lively and enlightening. The tour of a local produce market where many of our ingredients come from is fun and informative. But nothing compares to the moment when you sit down and dig in. And when we finally do, all talk ceases. We devour several plates worth of our handiwork, leaving plenty to bring home, thank Zhou and Norris, and leave feeling the one-of-a-kind glow that a phenomenal meal gives you, with the added high of knowing we made it ourselves. For more on the Kitchen at Huaihailu, including a current schedule of Discovery Workshops and cooking classes, visit their website or email Miranda Yao at
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