By Angela Ye
Chef Austin Hu of Madison sat down with us during the busy Restaurant Week to give us the lowdown on the ups and downs of being a restaurateur in Shanghai. Being one of the few restaurants in Shanghai to go almost completely local, Hu embodies the essence of eating clean and healthy sustainable foods, and seeks to provide the same for his customers.
You spent some time in Shanghai in your youth, but also quite a few other places. What influenced you to open your restaurant in Shanghai?
Well, I was in Shanghai for four years when I was younger, but my parents have been here ever since. So it was always kind of home base, I always come back and visit my parents, so my affinity for Shanghai is pretty strong. I was here from 3rd grade to 7th grade, so it really leaves an impression on you.
Shanghai’s a great place to grow up, you lead a sheltered life, it’s kind of like a utopian childhood, so I always have a certain image of Shanghai that’s hard to shake. As a Chinese American, coming back to the motherland and doing what I love best, I would like to think that I can bring a sort of social awareness, you know, cooking locally, by cooking from scratch, show that it’s possible.
It used to frustrate me when chefs would say “oh there’s no good product in China, no loyalty” and it really bothered me. China has 1.2 billion people and there’s nobody with a good skill set? I wanted to come back and experience it and try to make it work.
Why the name Madison?
A couple reasons. I was born in Wisconsin, so it’s a sort of homage to my roots. But there is definitely an element of New York, Madison Square Garden, Madison Ave…Madison is multisyllable, a bit more feminine, and more welcoming, fits in with the vibe of the restaurant more.
You opened your restaurant here after years spent in some great kitchens across New York City. Starting out as a line chef there must have been tough. Was there ever a moment when you wanted to quit?
Actually I was fairly lucky. I mean, I graduated college, tried the corporate thing, hated it, so I left and spent a month reflecting on what I wanted to do. My happiest memories are eating with friends and cooking for them so I decided to go to culinary school. I started work two months into school, and literally have not looked back!
I mean, don’t get me wrong, it gets tough. But every day is a new day, every day is a challenge, a chance to prove yourself and there aren’t that many jobs left that combine intelligence, working with your hands, pressure, success, and a sense of accomplishment that nothing can compare to.
China just might be one of the most complicated places to spearhead a locally-sourced foods initiative. How do you deal with food safety?
Of course food safety is a concern, it’s always a concern, but it’s also important to note that the media hype about food safety here is a lot higher than in the States. Food safety is an issue everywhere around the world! If you’re going to buy, it’s best to buy from the farm directly, because you get to build relationships with the local farms, because you’re talking to the guy who’s responsible for the food directly.
I like to work with people who are passionate about what they do, people that talk about this really great carrot they’re growing or mishaps that happen on the farm.
I’ve visited the farms personally as well. You’ve got to give them encouragement too. If I like a product, I’ll tell them it’s great, and I’ll recommend it to other people as well and it goes both ways.
If the product tastes chemically engineered, I’ll let them know, I’ll tell them. It’s my responsibility to my customers to serve them good clean food.
What is this partnership with Metro Foods all about?
It’s this idea (Star Farms) to buy safe and traceable food. All their product comes with a bar code (you can download the app on your smart phone to scan the bar code with) and it comes up with the history of the product, where it was harvested, when it was shipped, all the information of where the product came from. If, heaven forbid, something bad happens, you’ll be able to track exactly when and where this happened.
So we’re the pilot program, and we’re buying some of our produce from them (along with a couple restaurants and hotels), and I’ve been talking to local farmers about the program to see if they’re interested.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring restaurateurs in Shanghai
The food and beverage market is a lot of fun, but also really tough. I’ve basically been working for two years straight…my new year’s resolution was to take two days off work a month! I’ve also been blessed with a great team, which makes everything a lot easier, but it’s a really tough business, be prepared.
You have to be ready for the nitty gritty. It’s hard to hold a relationship, start a family, they’d have to be very understanding.
There’s a lot more than just cooking…running a restaurant is about checking the quality of your food, training staff, making sure your customers are pleased. You can’t be going into the business for the glory, your job is behind the scenes.
Okay, here’s the lightning round. What is one ingredient you love to use?
What is one ingredient you never use?
Fill in the blanks:
The person I’d most like to have eat in my restaurant is_____ James beard.
Watching cooking shows makes me feel______ Painful! But I know I’m not the target audience. This is cooking at home, so for them it’s great, but for a chef it is a bit painful to watch. I do love all the other cooking shows though…Iron Chef, Top Chef.
True or False: I would kick ass on Iron Chef.. False. Not ready yet! Don’t get me wrong, if someone gave me a chance, I’ll go. I’ll give it everything I have, and hope that I do an okay showing.