For every negative aspect of living in China (lack of British real ale, defecating children on subway trains and planes, and lung-busting air pollution, for example), there is a positive. And most of these positives are food-related.
In Beijing, a city so stuffed with affordable eateries that there's little point in having more than a few Tsingtao beer bottles in your fridge there, another life upgrade has arrived. Hao Chushi, which translates as 'good cook', is an app that lets you summon a professional chef to your home where they will cook for you and also clean up after themselves.
Home catering may not be a revolutionary concept, but with prices starting at 79 Yuan ($13/£8.50) plus ingredient costs for four massive dishes, Hao Chushi is targeting restaurant diners rather than rich dinner party show-offs. Xu Yan, director of operations at the company, told me that having launched last October, the app—which operates in Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing—has 20,000-30,000 users and will be rolled out in other Chinese cities soon.
President Xi Jinping's recent crackdown on officials' dining on the public purse and years of China food scandals have led to a downturn in restaurant attendance, benefitting Hao Chuchi. Equally keen to observe this new trend for the home alternative and to spend a day gorging myself without lifting a finger, I logged on.
After browsing reviews of chefs working in my area, I booked Wang Yijun, a Sichuan cuisine specialist, for lunch the next day. For dinner, I signed up Wang Yijun, a Cantonese cuisine chef. Each listed chef has 11 signature dishes to choose from and around 200 dishes each in total. And on top of ingredients charges, you pay 79 Yuan or 99 Yuan ($16/£11) for four or six dishes respectively, plus a soup.
At 11 AM the following day, Wang arrived at my apartment, put on a white chef jacket with a QR code on the back, and unloaded what looked like enough food to feed the People's Liberation Army onto my kitchen table. Live shrimp flicked around as he chopped up a whole bighead carp in my two-hob, no-oven kitchen, a space that hadn't previously hosted any food prep more sophisticated than reheating of a slice of pizza.
"Many of our chefs were not valued enough in the kitchens they worked in," operations manager Xu had told me. "With us, they get to hear compliments directly and get personal credit. Standards-wise, they are required to knock on doors gently, ask where the kitchen is politely, not make too much noise chopping, and have a good personal appearance with no body odour."
Luckily, Wang had no detectable body odour and his dishes smelled even more appealing, which included a spicy shrimp and vegetable plate, steamed carp from Beijing's Miyun river paired with red pepper sauce, seasoned shrimp with asparagus, and spicy chicken with peppers. The chef grew up in Shaanxi province but said he concentrated on spicy Sichuan and Hunan province dishes due to their massive popularity.
He added that having worked in the kitchen of an upmarket Beijing hotel, he'd made the leap to Hao Cushi partly due to the negative effect of the government's anti-indulgence policy for officials on the restaurant industry. With news reports about, say, diseased pig meat being sold for food or rat meat being passed off as lamb in the headlines, he said that the ability for customers to see the ingredients up close was a factor in the rise of the home chef.
It tasted like a good move. His dishes were a huge success, perhaps unambitious by Sichuan cuisine standards, but solidly spicy. The perfectly steamed fish proved a highlight. The only downer was the suspicion from my elderly local neighbours who couldn't work out why a lanky foreigner was knocking on their doors inviting them round for free food on a Tuesday during lunchtime because his home chef had cooked so much.
Dinner, though, was the winner. After my feasting friend and I relocated to a mate's larger kitchen nearby, Guo turned up on his bicycle, his logo-adorned backpack bulging with scallops, a weaver fish, clams, shrimp, and beef. His style is loosely Cantonese—another hugely popular cuisine in China—and as such is less of a spice blast than Wang's.
Lightly-battered shrimp balls in Japanese mustard mixed with salad dressing (the name for the mix translates as 'soft breeze') arrived first and remained top of the leaderboard, the mustard giving a nose-hosing kick that didn't overpower the seafood.
The typically Cantonese scallops were doused in garlic and paired with small servings of noodles to absorb their sauce, and the bass was a minimally-seasoned delight. The black pepper beef with onion and peppers, although heralded by a faintly vomit-esque whiff, provided a subtle palate-cleanser among the tongue-grabbers elsewhere on the table.
Guo said he had similar reasons for working for the app company as Wang, and that with reviews being such an important part of the process, standards were kept high. He explained that after May, chefs are set to get a basic monthly salary of 5,000 Yuan ($810/£540) plus bonus money, which may be awarded for high review scores.
Hao Chushi seems to have arrived in China at exactly the right time, and is set to strengthen with every report of a dead mouse being found in a soup bowl. For me, it'll probably be a one-off service. Despite the convenience and skill of these home chefs, I remain a fan of Beijing's restaurant scene. Unless what I consume leaves me spewing blood the day after I eat it, or comes with a hairy pink tail instead of a straw, I don't really care if the ingredients are a bit dodgy.
It's a city that teems, and to truly enjoy it, you have to accept that it teems in all meanings of the word.
Additional reporting: Jiehao Chen