Paul Eschbach has been executive chef at Jean-Georges Shanghai since September 2013. After earning his diploma at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Eschbach started his career in 66 Restaurant NY in 2002, one of the Chinese restaurants in Jean-Georges’ culinary empire with an entry-level position and worked his way through various Jean-Georges’ restaurants in the years since then. He speaks to Shanghaiist about life in the city and what he’s doing with his latest vegetarian menu.
How did you get started in the restaurant trade?
I always loved cooking. I was always in the kitchen with my mom. Cooking was always a huge part of my childhood. Summer BBQs, fiestas, and holidays with 20- 50+ people were heavily influenced with pacific and Asian flavors because my family was from Guam and Hawaii, and my extended family married into Korean and Philippine cultures. I was exposed to Japan and its food at a young age as my father was a diplomat. We got to travel around Japan and experience everything from fresh dug bamboo shoots to sashimi from fish that was still trying to breath. Staying with families and having a breakfast that was fish, rice and pickled vegetables as opposed to Corn Flakes and Captain Crunch. Throughout my childhood food was always something that was done together. Every night was a sit down dinner with the whole family and no TV. My brother and I were either setting the table or helping mom finish up dinner. Later when mom was busy with her career it was my dad and I that had to put dinner on the table and after that just me because there is only so much tuna pot pie and sloppy joes that we could eat.
I originally went to school for computer science but couldn’t handle sitting in front of a computer for 12 hours debugging code. I expressed an interest in cooking and becoming a chef. My father had me get a job in a restaurant before I wasted any more money. I cooked for more than a year in an Italian restaurant and I fell in love with the kitchen. The fast pace, the camaraderie, the heat, everything. I pushed myself to see how much I could learn and do. Working for months with no day off, I distinctly remember my 65 year old Sicilian chef calling the house one morning on my first day off and my mom screaming at him because she thought I worked too much. I got my first raise that day. In the end I went to the CIA and then to NYC.
Jean Georges Shanghai at Three on the Bund
Vegetables, jade emulsion
You’ve worked your way around the Jean-Georges empire for more than a decade now. Tell us about that journey.
When I was in culinary school I never really followed the NYC scene. I had a job as a butcher and I catered on my weekends. At school I participated in extra clubs from foraging to ACF Master Chef Testing and adult education. When I got out, I was looking online and a found a few restaurants were hiring, I trailed at a bunch but was ultimately drawn to JG at 66 (his not yet opened Chinese restaurant). Quickly I learned who he was and that was it. I set goals from being a cook at Jean-Georges to becoming a sous chef for him. Thinking back now, I remember the intimidation awe of being in Jean- Georges’ kitchen for the first time. The attention to detail, the constant pressure, and strive to be better than the day before was everything I wanted and needed to grow. Challenges and goals were set and met and he and his chefs kept feeding me more. So from 66 to Jean-Georges to Perry Street and back to Jean-Georges I was constantly learning and I was exposed to so much. Two restaurant openings being reviewed by the New York Times on many different levels, Michelin first coming to NYC. I finally got to the point where I felt I had learnt what I could and wanted to try my own thing so I left for 4 years. Then one day I was offered the Executive Chef position at Jean-Georges Shanghai and with that a whole set of new challenges and learning experiences.
You’re now in your second year heading Jean-Georges in Shanghai. How does it feel?
It’s great. I’m looking forward to the new Jean-Georges and all the challenges that comes with it. But for now we are looking to keep creating and cooking with love and attention and keep teaching this to our young cooks.
How do taste buds compare between Shanghai and New York?
Use of products is something that is always challenging. Here in Shanghai I am learning that what excites me as an American may be considered pig food here in China and vice versa. I look to my staff to help me make correct decisions as to what I should use and not. I wanted to make sunchoke soup last winter and one of my cooks was giggling in the corner he said, “chef we don’t eat this here, it’s only for the pigs.” Salt sensitivity is also a big difference. Here in Shanghai, it’s definitely a half percent less than in NYC. Teaching the cooks to still season and to taste the difference between bland and salty was fun. The fear of the “salty” feedback was causing them to go too far in the wrong direction.
Warm pumpkin confit, brown butter – soy vinaigrette with herbs
We made this vegetarian menu to appeal to the growing requests for veggie options. It’s also more in tune with what’s going on in the world. More and more we are realizing that we don’t need meat to be “center of the plate”. Creating menus of value and interest is great and good exercise for us as well. It will be a continually changing menu like our other menu. Diners will with different dietary restriction are welcome to tell us as well for that added challenge.
Where else in Shanghai do you like to eat?
Everything here in Shanghai is still pretty new from me, so when I do get out of the kitchen I try to go places that I haven’t been. However I tend to go to Din Tai Fung a lot on an afternoon off and just thinking about the Coquillette at Mr & Mrs Bund makes me hungry. I’m lucky enough to be just upstairs from CHI-Q so I can get my Kimchi Garlic Scape fix super easy. The Rotisserie Chicken at Liquid is perfect. There is so much out there. When my staff and I go for dinner it’s fun seeing what new Chinese food they are going to expose me to. I always hope it’s something loaded with chili.
If you could choose someone to come and experience your food, who would it be and why?
My parents, they never got to go to Jean-Georges restaurant in NYC when I worked there because they were in Japan. Since I left home, we always seemed to live on opposite sides of the world. I would love to have them experience a meal in this setting. It’s a long way from Tuna Pot Pie. With the new vegetarian menu as well I can cook for my mother with ease.