Xu Jing only does one thing: make crab soup noodles. He does it very well, arguably, better than anyone else. But for Xu Jing, these are more than noodles—these are his way of teaching the world the joys of simplicity. A lesson he learned over years spent travelling around China and meditating in the mountains.
When I arrive at Cederjary, the sparse, temple-like restaurant that Xu Jing operates a short distance from the French Concession in Shanghai, I'm early. We'd scheduled to meet at three, and the last of the lunch crowd are slurping the dregs of their noodles. The staff gather around the front desk, where an illuminated sign shows the only items on Cederjary's menu: crab noodles, and an option for a side order of a whole crab. The waitress leads me to the table, her robes flowing behind her, and tells me in hushed tones that Xu Jing is en-route, as if announcing the coming of a high priest.
When Xu Jing walks into the restaurant, the already quiet space seems to dim an octave. I have my back to the door, so I hear him—or to be more precise, I hear the dip in ambient noise, the patter of his delicate footsteps, and the swishing of his robes—before I see him.
Xu Jing is a religious aesthete. He hasn't cut his hair in years, and his beard curls under his chin in wispy strands like a question mark. He wears a single set of robes (he gave all his clothes, including an impressive collection of expensive watches, away.) The kind of intense meditative travels he spends half his year pursuing, 云游, can be translated as "roving with the clouds." The inherent message, one assumes, is to be light enough to be blown by the winds of chance.
"I see a Buddhist master in Tibet," he tells me, "and a Taoist teacher in Sichuan."
But, if you were to ask Xu Jing whether he follows any particular tradition, he would say no, answering with a clever joke that is completely untranslatable into English, but makes you feel pretty stupid for asking the question at all.
For Xu Jing, his noodles are a medium. They're Xu Jing's way of telling you everything that he learned on those mountains.
"What I'm pursuing isn't a business, it's an idea," he says.
As Xu Jing sees it, we are burdened by choice. There is simply too much of everything and we are miserable because of it. And so, his response to this kind of world is to reject choice. He prefers to do one thing, and to do that one thing perfectly.
"Only if you do things purely can you do them well, and only if you start doing them well can you do them perfectly, and only if you do them perfectly can you blow past any limitations," he explains.
And that is why his noodles are so special. There is nothing to them. They are as pure a culinary experience as you are likely to find. Xu Jing tells me that when he first began testing recipes, he invited a Michelin three-star chef to come and prepare a bowl. He used Sichuan peppercorns, crab bisque, and a bunch of other flowery techniques. But that was the antithesis of what Xu was looking for. He sent the chef away. The chef's parting words were: "There's no way to do them without adding stuff, or people are going to find them boring."
But for Xu Jing, that represented a lack of confidence on the chef's part. He was convinced that if he just stuck to having the best ingredients and doing everything extremely simply, that it would work. So he grows the crabs himself. They listen to traditional Chinese music, played on a Gu Zheng, and Mozart (it stops them fighting). They are shipped to the restaurant on the morning that they are served. They are picked clean by specially trained women who know exactly how to remove the meat without taking any of the shell, a delicate process that takes months to learn.
Each bowl contains the meat of 12 crabs. Other than that, the noodles, and a sprinkling of 24 carat gold flakes (they're good for you, apparently), there are only two ingredients: salt and vinegar.
"I think that when people come to eat these noodles, they aren't just eating a bowl of crab noodles," Xu Jing says. "Really they're eating my mind, my thoughts, my creativity … my essence."
But they aren't cheap. Each bowl costs 360 Yen, which is well over an average salary for someone in Shanghai, China's most affluent city. It might seem a grand contradiction—a religious aesthete selling what one writer referred to as "the Birkin bag of noodles."
I ask Xu Jing if he didn't feel like it was somewhat at odds with his message for the noodles to be so expensive.
He shakes his head. It isn't about the money. When it comes to his customers, while he says that no one is excluded, "I obviously prefer people who are also seeking, like me—people who really understand how to enjoy these noodles, rather than those who want to show off that they can pay 360 Yen for a bowl of noodles."
And so, there you have it. Xu Jing, the noodle king, using his single menu item to spread the joy of simplicity to world.
"Changing other people is hard, but changing yourself is easy," he says. The point therefore is to hold himself, and his noodles, up as the example.
Whether that succeeds or not, these are the most thought-provoking noodles you will ever eat. And soon there will be more opportunities to do so. Xu Jing is expanding, with plans to open a new, and much larger restaurant on the waterfront in central Shanghai.
But to be fair, all this would be for naught if the noodles themselves don't live up to the hype. So, do they?
Xu Jing couldn't tell you. He's a vegetarian.