He is critically acclaimed as one of the world’s best Chinese chefs, and helms nine successful restaurant concepts across Asia, including Puben by Jereme Leung in Shanghai, Ufaa by Jereme Leung in the Maldives, and Jia Yao on board cruise liner MSC Lirica.
Still, for a celebrity masterchef of his repute, Jereme Leung comes across as refreshingly affable and approachable.
Despite his jam-packed schedule, he gamely met us for a 45-minute interview one day before the official opening of 藝 yì by Jereme Leung at Raffles Singapore. During the interview, he excused himself briefly only once to draw the private room partition, to avoid “getting distracted” by the friendly faces passing by. That same evening, he followed up with an email warmly inviting us to visit anytime we were in Shanghai.
To say we were impressed by his attention to detail is putting it mildly. That’s before we take a closer look around 藝 yì, with its ethereal entryway of 1,000 handcrafted floral strands and the elegant dining hall decked out in cream and earthy tones inspired by Chinese creation mythology. The food too, as we find out later, is equally showstopping – tasteful, refined and intricately plated on fine bone china.
Clearly, this is a chef who embraces artistry in his craft. No wonder his restaurant is named, quite aptly, after the Chinese character for ‘art’.
What does 藝 yì mean to you?
藝 yì is a summary of my 30-plus years of experiences with Chinese cuisine. It’s a space for me to express my culinary art and what I envision Chinese food to be in the next 20 years. I hope to use it as a cultural platform to showcase artful adaptations of provincial ethnic cuisine – the heritage masterpieces and the ancient delicacies that come from various regions and provinces across China.
How is the menu at 藝 yì different from other local Chinese restaurants?
Due to our ancestry, many Chinese dishes that Singaporeans are familiar with tend to come from only one region in China: the south. There are some eateries serving regional specialties, but these are usually hot pot places, not fine dining. At 藝 yì we serve authentic provincial Chinese cuisine elevated through service, presentation, recipe enhancements and healthy seasonal ingredients.
While keeping taste profiles authentic, we’re also aware of local context. Take mapo tofu for instance. Mapo tofu is braised in a pot of hot oil for 45 minutes, after which it is dusted with Sichuan peppers and drenched in no less than three inches of chilli oil. That’s authentic. But put that in Singapore, nobody could eat it. This is where we tap on our in-depth understanding of the Singapore market to adapt the dishes suitably.
Share with us some examples of dishes you’ve elevated using a modern approach.
We have an appetiser called 蓑衣黄瓜, which is a cucumber salad from the northern part of China, commonly eaten during summer. It’s special in that the cucumber has to be hand-cut manually more than a hundred times. Not only is it technically challenging to prepare, it’s difficult to manoeuvre once you add in vinegar and salt, which causes water to be expelled. The only way to eat this dish at its best is when it’s freshly prepared. What we do here is to bring the salad to your table, use a pair of tongs to lift and display the knife work, then add on the dressing while explaining the dish so that you can enjoy it immediately.
I’m also proud to say that we’re able to serve you the best steamed rice here. In many high-end Chinese restaurants, the rice tends to come out lukewarm, because procedure dictates that it gets passed from the kitchen to the pantry to the side station before it is served at your table. In our restaurant, we have 12 rice cookers on rotation, just so we can serve you steaming hot rice in a warm bowl, the same way you’d enjoy at home. It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference in how your food tastes.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in setting up the restaurant?
Ingredients. When we first planned the menu, I attempted to bring in many unique single-sourced ingredients that are rarely seen outside China, such as 單莢皂角米 (honey locust) and 雞樅菌 (an edible wild fungus that grows on termite nests). It was a nightmare trying to import these ingredients, and suppliers weren’t keen either because no other restaurant would use them. In the end we had to narrow down the menu to what you see now. Our menu is a work in progress; we’re constantly attempting to push the envelope.
How do you define modern Chinese cuisine?
That’s an interesting question. The way I define it is very simple: we cannot do fusion. I do not blend different cultures in my cuisine. With all due respect, I think all the major cuisines of the world are unique on their own. Neither one is better than another. But I don’t believe in adding, say, a French element into my cooking. Using foie gras is no problem. But I refuse to do a foie gras terrine and try to pass it off as Chinese food just by adding some blueberry sauce on top. To me, that’s not Chinese food. I want to keep Chinese cuisine authentic, elevating it with better ingredients or perhaps a different style of service.
At this stage in your career, what keeps you inspired?
I like reading. To me, it’s the best way to improve. I started collecting cookbooks when I was 13, and now I have more than 12,000 cookbooks.