In a leafy backstreet in the Sichuanese capital Chengdu, where retired people sit around drinking tea on warm afternoons, there is a heavy, unmarked wooden door. Behind it, chef Lan Guijun is making noodles for the evening’s dinner. He stands at a long wooden bench, slicing sheets of yellow dough into hair-like strands with a knife the size of a woodsaw; his movements have the graceful control of a t'ai chi master. "There is no water in this dough," he says. "Only the yolks of free-range duck eggs." To prove it, he holds up a bunch of the noodly strands and ignites them with a cigarette lighter: they burn up immediately in a frizz of oily richness.
Lan Guijun is the latest Chengdu chef to throw down the gauntlet before the international arbiters of gastronomy. His tiny restaurant, Yu Zhi Lan, seeks to offer the culinary perfection of an establishment like the French Laundry in Yountville, California, but in terms of classic Chinese cuisine. Yu Zhi Lan is named after a rare Chinese orchid that was once a favourite of the Empress Dowager Cixi. It consists of a central hall, a kitchen and just three private rooms seating a maximum of 18 guests: dining is by appointment only. Lan runs the place with Lü Zhongyu, his wife and sous-chef, and six employees. The restaurant opened quietly in August 2011 and its fame has spread among food-lovers in China, China's Hong Kong SAR and Japan.
The noodle demonstration is just the prelude to a spectacular banquet. Before long we are ushered to our places at a long, rectangular table set with a ravishing tableau of 10 cold appetisers. There are hand-torn rabbit slivers spiced with chilli; slices of beef shin with fresh green Sichuan pepper, and a salad of ze'er gen, a local vegetable with a peculiar, sour, herby taste. A black, moon-like plate holds a delicate tangle of orange, white, yellow, green and pink noodles, served cold with a scattering of sesame seeds and an exquisite "strange-flavour" sauce that is spicy, tingly, sweet, sour and nutty. It’s a virtuoso display of Sichuanese cooking skills with echoes of Japanese aesthetics, and we haven’t even started on the main courses. By the end of the evening, we'll have sampled a further eight hot dishes and two "small eats".
The impossibly fine, yolk-yellow noodles appear in the first hot dish, Lan's version of a grand old Sichuan delicacy, the so-called "cabbage in boiling water" (kai shui bai cai) – actually a luxurious soup containing the tenderest hearts of Chinese cabbage. Here, each guest is given a single, tiny cabbage heart on a snaky bed of noodles in a limpid broth, with a single Tibetan caterpillar fungus. Spiced loach fish in rice meal are served on roasted sweet potato as a riff on two Chengdu street snacks: the steamed beef served in tiny steamers, and sweet potatoes roasted in their skins. The sea cucumber, one of the highlights of the feast, is an edible oxymoron of softness and crispness, bite and slither, and bathed in one of the most gorgeous renditions of a Sichuanese sour-hot broth I have ever tasted.
Lan Guijun has a rosy, benevolent face framed by grey hair and is softly spoken. He was born in Chengdu in 1965. After graduating from a local cooking school, he worked with Yu Bo at the Shufeng Garden restaurant in Chengdu, which then was a hothouse of Sichuan culinary talent. Later, he spent two years in Japan, where he was deeply impressed by the understated beauty of Japanese dishes and by the small, family-run restaurants. Back in Chengdu, in 2002, Lan and his wife opened the Village Cook (Xiang Chuzi), an unpretentious family business serving hearty folk dishes such as sour-and-hot buckwheat noodles and spicy tofu. It became a roaring success and a favourite with local chefs and restaurateurs.
Even then, Lan was itching to do something more ambitious. Occasionally he would cook up fugues on the dumpling arts in one of his private rooms, to the delight of the local fooderati. In 2004, along with Yu Bo and another Chengdu chef, Xiao Jianming, he joined me in California for a conference at the Culinary Institute of America, where he astounded students, tutors and delegates with a display of Sichuanese noodle-making. After the conference, the three chefs and I dined at the French Laundry, an experience that was to have a lasting impact on Lan. Writing for a Chinese food magazine some years later, he said he had decided that a revival of Chinese cuisine would require that kind of small-scale culinary perfection, along with a renewed concern for fine ingredients and unfussy, naturalistic presentation.
In 2007, to the consternation of friends and colleagues, Lan shut down the Village Cook at the height of its popularity and vanished from the Chengdu culinary scene. The few friends who knew of his whereabouts were sworn to secrecy. He spent much of the following four years researching dishes at home and learning the traditional arts of pottery in the workshops of China's porcelain capital, Jingdezhen. His confidants thought it crazy that a chef would go to the extreme of learning to design and make his own serving dishes – but Lan believed that serving vessels should be part of the whole culinary experience. After his long, mysterious sabbatical, he re-emerged with a plan: to open a small restaurant that would help change the world’s attitudes towards Chinese haute cuisine.
The kitchen at Yu Zhi Lan is an immaculate, galley-like space, sleek with stainless steel. Lan and his wife mostly cook in the raised area near the entrance, while their team work quietly on the lower level amid shelves stacked with unusual crockery. Lan's freezer is laden with packages of his various stocks and sauces (in China, they say a chef's stocks are like the voice of an opera singer: the means by which he expresses his art). Taking his place at the gas stove, Lan shows me how to make one of his signature dishes, a rich, luxurious soup of crucian carp.
He anoints a hot wok with a mixture of camellia and olive oils, then fries three small fish until they are deeply gold. ("I leave the scales on because they are rich in calcium and phosphorus," he says.) Then he places them in a pan with water, adds ginger, spring onion, rice wine and pepper, and simmers the fish for four hours until their proteins have been sublimated into the soup. "Chefs these days use too many flavour-enhancing additives like monosodium glutamate," he says. "But I don't like to amplify umami tastes like that, so my flavours are as quiet as a rose garden."
When talking about food, Lan becomes serious, intense and voluble. He can speak for hours on the intricacies of mixing flavours, and is obsessed with ingredients. Most days, he cycles to local markets himself to pick out the freshest seasonal produce. More exotic ingredients come from further afield: wild sea cucumbers from the sea off Liaoning province, morels from northern Sichuan. "You have to be like an antique collector who can sniff out genuine articles among all the fakes," he says. Mistrustful of the middlemen, he makes his own winter wind-dried sausages and pickles, and even grinds his own sesame seeds for sesame paste.
One of the things that struck Lan most about the French Laundry was the way each guest was served with a succession of individual, beautifully plated dishes. Like chefs in some other high-end Chinese restaurants, he has thrown out Chinese convention in favour of individual plating. This is not simply a kowtow to foreign customs: in the distant past, all Chinese formal dinners were served this way. But it's part of a conscious effort to raise the status of Chinese cuisine: "It's much better to heat the plates in the kitchen, arrange the food and then hand them out to each diner,” he says. "Otherwise, you end up with shared plates of food getting colder and messier as they are passed around." With rising living standards, he adds, some Chinese people are becoming more fastidious about hygiene, and prefer to eat this way.
Lan also made a deliberate choice to have square or rectangular dining tables rather than the round ones that are normal for a Chinese dinner party. "Chinese banquets are often noisy affairs," he says. "Round tables encourage the kind of informal atmosphere where you can grapple with bones and shells. I wanted to create a quieter, more peaceful ambience." Most of Lan’s tablewares, some of which are startlingly original, are made in Jingdezhen, China's porcelain capital, to his own designs. Each lacy potsticker dumpling comes perched on a celadon barrel; a sumptuous wild mushroom dish is served in a stem cup crowned with a tall plume of porcelain as high as the vessel itself.
Lan freely incorporates foreign influences in his cooking. There’s the olive oil in his crucian carp soup and a Japanese marinade for steamed cod finished with Sichuanese seasonings. "I'm not fanatical about authenticity," he says. "I'm from Sichuan, so whatever I cook is Sichuanese. Today's invention is tomorrow's 'tradition' anyway. We Chinese should stop droning on about our 'four great inventions' and all that, and look to the outside world. We shouldn’t forget our roots, of course; we should preserve our traditions. But we shouldn’t be too conservative. I want to cook in a spirited way, not like a machine."
Local aficionados rate Lan as an exceptional talent, on a par with his only real rival in Chengdu, Yu Bo. "The striking thing about Yu Zhi Lan is that it’s so idiosyncratic," says Wang Xudong, editor of Sichuan Cuisine magazine. "Lan Guijun is an outstanding chef across the board of the culinary arts, from cold dishes to hot dishes and pastry-making. He takes rustic traditional cooking methods and refines them to a completely new level. He is serious in his study, very creative, and has a clear philosophy of food. Of course, he adores his work and sincerely wants to promote understanding of Chinese gastronomy."
Towards the end of the evening, a sweet course signals the approaching end of our banquet. It's a lyrical murmur of a dish: snow pear cooked with fritillary bulb, bird's nest, peach tree sap and silver ear fungus; a tiny jugful of warm, frothy pear juice is poured over it at the table. The last course of all is a cupful of boiling water containing a spear of asparagus and a single green bean. "Although I adore the blended, complex flavours of Sichuanese cookery," says Lan, "my favourite dishes are those that emphasise the ben wei – the essential tastes – of my ingredients. Of course, I cook according to my own age and experience. Now that I'm in my forties, I pay more attention to health and nutrition, to the balance between meat and vegetables. It's like a return to nature. Often the simplest things are the hardest to master."