From being smuggled from the Forbidden City kitchen during the Qing Dynasty to surviving the Cultural Revolution, Ivan Li’s namesake Imperial cuisine boasts an epic backstory. It was only fitting that Li won “The Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award” at the “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants” awards last week. We caught up to Ivan Li to ask for his thoughts on winning, and the challenges of keeping his brand of Imperial Cuisine alive in 21st Century Shanghai.
Congratulations on winning the 2014 Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award! How does it feel to be recognized for your work? What does this mean for your brand of Imperial cuisine?
I am very honoured and feel very grateful to the Diner’s Club, and the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Voting Academy. It is a great encouragement, great honour and recognition for our long time effort. And I think it is also a milestone for us and for other traditional Chinese restaurants, giving us hope that we are very welcome in today’s international dining scene.
Let’s wind the clocks back. Tell us a little bit about the origin of Family Li Imperial cuisine. How did it come to be? How did your family manage to keep the cuisine alive through the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Cultural Revolution?
My great grandfather worked as a high ranking official in the Imperial Court during the ruling period of Empress Cixi in the Qing Dynasty. He was a loyal and favoured official of the Empress. His primary duties included monitoring the Imperial court kitchen. Every meal of the Empress Cixi or the young Emperor Guangxu included over a hundred dishes. The recipes were written by the chefs and then handed into the Office of the Household Affairs where my great grand father approved them. Besides considering whether the dishes were suitable to be served for the good tastes, my great grandfather had to make sure that they were also safe. In order to perform his daily tasks well, he had to familiarize himself with all the ingredients and understand the recipes, even though he was not a chef. After he retired, he wrote down all the recipes that he could recall by memory. And his own chefs would also cook the dishes according to his recipes. The legacy was passed down to the generations. My father lived with my great grand father until he was a teenager, and he also inherited the passion for good food. Even during the cultural revolution when the economy went bad, and good food was in short supply, my father’s picky habit for good foods didn’t change at all, even when he became very poor. During the cultural revolution, because he was an intellectual, he was jobless and stayed at home for 7 years, taking care of us while my mother worked as a pediatrician to support the family. Even during the hardest times, he would think of ways to satisfy his appetite. He would fish at the lake for fresh shrimps and fishes. When pork was in limited access, he would raise his own pigs. In order to eat roast duck, he would feed and raise his own ducklings. It was lucky that there was no H7N9 virus at that time! So our family is lucky, because my father has passed on his passion for good foods to us.
How would you characterize your brand of Imperial cuisine? What are some of the signature dishes?
Traditional, unique Chinese fining dining. Braised abalone, braised deer tail, braised fish maw with steamed roast pork, deep-fried camel hump.
Describe opening the first Family Li Imperial Cuisine restaurant in Beijing in 1985. What inspired you to do so? What were the challenges realizing your vision?
It was all an accident! Or you may say that it was fate because it was not at all planned. It was 1985, China was opening up. To celebrate the 35th National Day, the government held a cooking competition for amateurs, among many other celebrations in that year. Our family participated and won the first prize. A lot of our family friends, who knew that my parents and the whole family loved cooking and eating, persuaded us to open a restaurant, so that other people could also sample our delicious family dishes. So my parents decided to make use of one of our family rooms (we only had 3 rooms in our home at that time), which only occupied 11 square meters, to start a one-table restaurant. I think that was the smallest restaurant ever. When Mr. Winston (Owner of Harry Winston diamonds) finished his meal, he had to go into my parents’ bedroom to pay for his bill!
I think now the biggest challenge for me is training our chefs. From 1985 to 1999, the whole family had been cooking. We only had one sous chef and a few helpers. But since 1999, we started to employ new chefs and train them because we had expanded. So we had to pass on our skills to outsiders of the family. It is a real challenge but we are very lucky. We have some really loyal chefs who have been with us since then. But as more branches are established, it will be a real challenge to keep on finding and training good chefs.
How has Shanghai’s food scene changed from when you started at Family Li Imperial Cuisine until now? Do you feel like traditional recipes are dying out as more multinational fast food brands flood in.
I think the Shanghai dining scene is getting more and more internationalised. And it is very competitive too. New and different restaurants keep opening and closing down. There are fast food shops and also fine dining restaurants with Michelin stars. Our restaurant has been there since 2006, and the business has been very steady. We had to close down for one year when the government moved the bridge but we re-opened and business was as usual. I think it is the hard work that we put into the restuarant that makes it stay.
What are some of the obstacles you face running an Imperial Cuisine restaurant in the 21st century?
A lot of the ingredients in the Imperial Court cuisine are not available any more. This situation will only gets worse in the 21st century.
How have you adapted to these changes without compromising on quality?
Traditional ingredients are getting scarce, but compared to 20 years ago, we can get access to a lot more ingredients that were not available then. For example, deer tails and deer tongues, being very traditional and favourite Imperial court dishes, were not available in China in the past few decades, but now you can get them seasonally. Besides, because of the development and import and export trades, we can get more and more different ingredients from different countries. For example, the very precious fish maws are not found in China any more, but we can get them from India, Pakistan, etc. The fish maws from Brazil are of very good quality. In the past, we had very good prawns from the China sea, but now they’ve become very scarce. But now we have languostines of very high quality from France and New Zealand. Besides the importance of ingredients, the Imperial court cuisine also focuses on the matching and balancing of different dishes, the unique cooking methods and principles. So even though the ingredients change, the essence and beauty of the cuisine can still be maintained. So I am still very optimistic that I can adapt to the changes without compromising on quality.
Who comprises most of your clientele? What do younger Chinese think of the recipes?
Most of them are between 40-50 years of age, of various nationalities. But I do see more and more younger Chinese guests. I think most of them are very impressed by our cuisine and they feel surprised to know that people in the Qing Dynasty more than 100 years ago were such sophisticated dinners.
Describe your time studying interior design in Australia. While you obviously didn’t end up becoming an interior decorator, what lessons did you take from the experience that you apply to your current occupation?
My studies in Australia is very important to me. Not only did I learn about the Western philosophies and aesthetics theories, I also learnt that what matter most are your attitude and method. No matter what you do, you have to be honest, open-minded and be original and creative. Cooking is the only one thing that I have been doing continuously without stop since I was a child. It is just a very natural thing for me. Interior design is one of my interests. Although I am no longer in that industry, I am still interested in recent developments of the interior design scene. I am still reading books on interior design which I didn’t finish reading or didn’t really understand fully at college. I still ponder about designs. I can say that my studies has always had impact on all my works. As to why I gave up on taking interior design as my profession, I think the most important reason is that I felt that my imagination could not be fully realized. My values, my attitude and my aesthetics opinions could not be realized either because of the many restrictions when facing clients, and I sometimes felt betrayed and lost. As I did not need the interior design profession to earn my living, I preferred to cook. In my cooking profession, I feel completely free. I am my own boss and I can be my own self. And my childhood memories always come back to me when I am cooking. It seems that those old stories told to me by my parents become so vivid and real and concrete.
What are the most elaborate dishes you’ve either tasted or prepared or both?
The braised fish maw with steamed roast pork, I think.
Same as above.
What does the future hold for Family Li Imperial Cuisine?
Keep training more chefs, to prepare for opening up a few more branches. But not too many, just a few branches in selected metropolitan cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris etc. I would also like to write a book on our Imperial Cuisine, which is a goal that my parents had not realized.
Family Li Imperial Cuisine – Inside Huangpu Park 500 Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu,
near Beijing Dong Lu (中山东一路500号, 黄浦公园 近北京东路). Tel: (0)21-5308-8071. Hours: 11am-2pm lunch, 5pm-8:30pm dinner.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].