To get to Yu's Family Kitchen, you need a password, which changes daily. You also need to drive for 30 minutes directly south from the city centre of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, into the Tianfu New Area, a staggering aggregation of seemingly endless skyscrapers. There, you will find La Cedíare, a Beverly Hills-style development of mansions. You give your password to the guards at the gate, drive the winding and verdant paths to their end, and then take a nondescript elevator up into the Yu family home.
Yu Bo, the man behind Yu's Family Kitchen and one of Chengdu's most famous and avant-garde chefs, is a chef wrestling with tradition. He has pioneered a form of Sichuanese fine dining that evokes the banquets of the Republican era.
At Yu's Family Kitchen, you eat one dish at a time, at a carefully measured pace. A meal takes a few hours. The food is prepared by a team of six, including Yu's wife and sister. You eat on white clothed tables set up in his immaculate living room, his possessions neatly arrayed on elegant shelves against the wall.
Yu used to cook out of a restaurant in the hip Kuanzhai Xiang area of Chengdu, but in 2015 he moved his operation out to his home. "It gave me more flexibility," he says, sitting deep in his armchair after topping up my tea, "and it is near an excellent vegetable market."
This flexibility was crucial for Yu as he set his sights on a new target—America. For the past few years, he has been living between LA and Chengdu, though more recently, he has spent the majority of his time stateside, temporarily closing his restaurant in Chengdu. These trips have allowed him to visit some of America's finest restaurants.
"I've eaten in a lot of the Michelin three-star restaurants in America," he says. "There's a lot we can learn from them here in China."
The level of service, the exacting standards, and the preciseness of the cuisine are the things Yu has been looking at most carefully.
"I'm also interested in the fact that at the highest levels, people are less beholden to the traditions of a single cuisine. In a top French restaurant, you will see influences from Italian cooking, from Spanish cooking, from Japanese cooking. They're happy to stray further and test the limits more," he says.
Chinese food is divided into regional cuisines, and of the "four greats," Sichuanese is, as Yu sees it, the most open to experimentation.
"We've had huge waves of internal immigration into Sichuan, starting from the Ming Dynasty, and this has made our cuisine much more flexible than others."
This is why, when I ask Yu to show me a dish he feels most represents his cooking, he prepares chicken douhua. Traditionally, he tells me, chefs would take chicken and mash it with cleavers in a process that would take hours. He uses a blender.
"This kind of thing, a lot of people criticise me for. But China has developed so quickly. Why if there's a perfectly good way of preparing the food in a fraction of the time would I slavishly stick to the old ways?" he says, tipping two chicken breasts into the blender, along with salt, sugar, and cornstarch. He whips it up, adding a light chicken stock gradually.
Yu brings more stock to the boil, then pours the mixture from the blender into the pot. He chops some danggui and huangqi, roots used in Chinese traditional medicine, and throws them into to the rolling broth. This is another non-traditional twist on the recipe. Because it is hard to get high quality farm-raised chicken in China, Yu finds that the meat can have a lingering aftertaste. These roots balance out any odours and add another subtle layer to the broth. He puts a lid on and leaves it for 30 minutes.
When the chicken douhua is ready, it is placed in a ceramic pot of the lightest turquoise. Contrasted against the porcelain, the douhua looks like a cloud, and my spoon glides through it like air. It is one of those uniquely Chinese dishes eaten primarily for the texture, though the taste of the chicken is multi-layered and complex.
That chicken douhua is the dish that Yu feels best represents his cooking is telling. It has no chili, no numbing spice, and no oil, yet is a dish that could only have come from a Sichuanese chef with the deepest understanding of the cuisine. It at harks back a time long before Sichuanese food had gained global exposure, but thanks to its plating, method, and ingredients, is also completely new.
"The taste of chicken without seeing chicken," says Yu with a smile, quoting a popular aphorism.
There is an idiom in Chinese known as "high mountain flowing river." Like one of Yu's dishes, it is the boiled down essence of a much longer story. It says that there was a lute player called Bo Ya, who played a music so refined that no one could understand it. One day, Zhong Ziqi was walking past and heard it, and told Bo Ya that it reminded him of the sound of mountains and rivers. The two remained close friends until Zhong Ziqi died. With no one left to understand his music, Bo Ya smashed his lute and never played again.
For chef Yu, whose food dances the delicate line between tradition and innovation, finding an audience capable of understanding the multi-layered messages his dishes convey will always be the greatest challenge. Those who get it will come as pilgrims. Either way, he is unfazed.
"I'm not an artist," he says, "I'm a chef. And cooking, it's a happy thing."
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.