I met Chairman Wang in September 2010, while travelling in China. I attended one of Black Sesame Kitchen Cooking Classes, and I didn’t know at that time, it would give me a story to tell…
Black Sesame KitchenBlack Sesame Kitchen developed out of founder Jen Lin-Liu’s passion for Chinese food. A Chinese-American writer, Jen is the author of two memoirs, Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China, and On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta. After working as a foreign journalist in China for several years, Jen enrolled in a cooking school in Beijing, became a nationally certified Chinese chef, and interned in several Chinese restaurants. Her cooking experiences are told in lively, narrative fashion in her first book, Serve the People. After the book was published, she found a space in a courtyard residence on Black Sesame Hutong in central Beijing in 2008 and renovated it into an open kitchen and dining room where she invited friends to cook, wine, dine, and socialize. Since then, Black Sesame Kitchen has received numerous awards and honors, including being mentioned in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and being named one of Asia’s Top Restaurants by the Miele Guide. In June 2015 Black Sesame Kitchen moved to an elegant courtyard tucked away on Zhonglao Hutong, a short walk from the Forbidden City. One of Jen’s original cooking masters and a character in both of her books, Zhang Aifeng, continues to lead the team as Black Sesame Kitchen’s executive chef, along with dining manager Coco Yue.
Beijing, September 2010Chairman Wang is a woman and a fascinating character (as the name suggests) and a bit of a force to be reckoned with. Employed by Black Sesame Cooking School in Beijing, Chairman Wang’s specialties are handmade noodles and dumplings – and I owe her some wonderful tricks ! – so what to expect? A Sarong meets Beijing experience of course!
Sarong Meets Beijing
The following article was previously published in Hello Bali in July 2011.
With Sarong’s cuisine culture campaign taking full flight, chef Will Meyrick brings in culinary mavens from around the world to share their expertise and entice our taste buds.
The star of the night, Chairman Wang, is a Beijing native, and has been a cooking teacher for 12 years, previously of the famous Hualian Cooking School. The ever-smiling and stoic 60-year-old woman does not speak a word of English and her young translator from New York, Candice Lee – also a chef at the Black Sesame Kitchen – is always by her side to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.
“Chairman Wang has never left Beijing, let alone the country, in her whole life, this is her first time abroad,” Candice explains, after which Chairman Wang adds a short remark, said in a soft and unfaltering tone. “She says she is very nervous to be here,” Candice translates, although I could not sense even an iota of nervousness coming from the Mandarin-speaking chef – she is the proverbial master I used to watch in old kung fu films, the one that harbours the secrets of life but chooses to divulge them slowly over time to the worthy few.
There is a sly glint in Chairman Wang’s eyes that is both humble and wise at the same time; through Candice, Chairman Wang says, “I have been cooking since I was six years old, first because of necessity – in traditional China, it is essential to be able to cook – and before China opened up to the outside world, we had to make do with limited ingredients, mostly flour and cabbage, so cooking became a form of discipline and creativity.”
While we are on the topic, I can’t help but ask about the communist regime and the affect it had on her cooking techniques and style. “Nothing has changed except for access to ingredients; nowadays, it is easier to obtain certain ingredients, whereas before, everything was rationed and controlled. But as for my cooking, nothing has changed.”
Chairman Wang is an embodiment of placidity – I do not spot one fidget throughout our whole conversation – a polar opposite to Will Meyrick, who is sitting at the table with us. Will is fiery and dynamic, passionate and restless, excitable and full of life and things to say.
“I was very impressed with Will when he spent time to study under us. He is not Chinese but he is so eager to learn the cuisine; such a good student, so open-minded, so detailed, so enthusiastic. I am very happy to share a kitchen with him,” Chairman Wang speaks in Mandarin, pointing to the grinning chef of Sarong, to which he adds, “You know, it’s amazing how the small differences in cooking technique can completely change the flavours of a dish. I know how to cook Chinese food, mostly from the southern regions [Chairman Wang specialises in north Chinese cooking], but to observe the cooking technique of someone who has been doing it her whole life, so much so that it has become a natural part of her person, you absorb random tidbits of information that…like I said, it can change a dish completely!”
I am lucky to have Chairman Wang and Will Meyrick prepare a collaborative masterpiece of a meal for me that night, in which the menu consists mainly of dumplings and noodles – both are Wang’s specialties – but I could taste Will Meyrick in each dish as well; innovation coupled with tradition; this is not mere fusion, this is a diffusion of culinary revolution. Poetic, no?
It seems this ‘Cuisine Culture’ thing is working out tremendously, having recently hosted a guest chef from Cambodia for Sarong’s last event. I am curious of who else I will be expecting in Sarong’s kitchen in the future.
“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Will enthuses. “Get ready for guest chefs from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and of course, all over Indonesia. Watch this space.” •