If you want to know about food in Beijing, Huo Ye is your man. When we meet, he takes me to a private club hidden in a nondescript office building and offers me a glass of his own branded cognac. He sits directly in front of me in a leather seat, perfectly positioned so that the light from an overhead bulb casts long shadows across his face.
"When we are finished here," he tells me, in a strong Beijing accent, "you are going to be the foreigner with the greatest understanding of Beijing Duck, ever."
More than being a mere food blogger (though he is also this), Huo is the most highly regarded eater in Beijing. Every head chef knows him, restaurant managers bow to him when he enters their establishments, and magazine editors faun. He looks like an incarnation of the Buddha: almost entirely bald with a spherical face that seems to be connected directly to his curved shoulders. His ample belly belies a man who has spent his life eating, prestigiously, at the highest level.
I agree to meet Huo a few days later in the car park of the Workers' Stadium in Beijing. He has arranged for us to visit three restaurants that claim to serve the city's best Beijing Duck, the classic pancake dish featuring slithers of perfectly crisp roast duck.
The restaurants Huo has chosen are Quan Ju De, which invented Beijing Duck as we know it today, Da Dong, the place that turned it into a fine dining delicacy, and Si Ji Min Fu, a new contender in the Beijing Duck game.
We head to Da Dong first. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Dong Zhenxiang, who stands 193 centimetres tall and is an international culinary sensation ("Da Dong" in Chinese literally means "big dong.") His two restaurants in Shanghai were both awarded Michelin stars, and he is preparing to open in New York and London. When Israel's president Benjamin Netanyahu was in Beijing recently, he ate at Da Dong.
The restaurant is located inside the stadium. You turn a corner past a giant sign that reads "Da Dong Super Neat Roast Duck & Chef Dong's Braised Sea Cucumber" and enter an enormous garden with life-sized plastic horses and a blue LED-lined walkway. As Huo and I make our way down the path towards the restaurant, the garden fills with the sound of chintzy Chinese elevator music.
At the entrance, we are met by Han Dong (no relation to Dong Zhenxiang). Han is Da Dong's duckologist and oversees every aspect of the ducks, from farming, slaughtering, plucking, drying, and freezing to cooking and delicately slicing the meat at guests' tables. He started working at Da Dong in 1985, when the restaurant went by the more humble name of Tuanjiehu Beijing Duck Restaurant. Since then, he has meticulously studied every single facet of the duck. Han is to ducks what a Japanese sushi master is to tuna.
We are immediately taken downstairs into Da Dong's labyrinthine of kitchens. Han opens one door to reveal around 500 ducks being air-dried by giant fans. He then directs us to the freezer, a 20-metre-square room filled with literally thousands of ducks hanging from hooks. This is done for at least a week to ensure that the birds' skins thicken and achieve a crunchy texture when cooked.
At Da Dong, the ducks are cooked in the fire for 80 minutes and as such, much of the fat is burned off. This makes the meat healthier and less oily than other versions of the dish, without sacrificing crispiness.
Han takes us back into Da Dong's cavernous dining room and gets us a table. It's a Tuesday lunchtime but the place is at least a third full, with many diners gazing at the giant cinema-sized screen that shows Dong chopping ingredients and talking through his signature dishes.
The duck comes in various stages. First we get a plate of duck feet with a wasabi mustard dressing, then a plate of duck hearts and another of ya gar—a Chinese version of duck liver pâté. Finally, a small table is pulled up next to our own and the roast duck is brought over, along with a chef who delicately slices it into small slivers.
Han hands me a piece of duck skin the colour of light caramel. He makes me dip it in sugar. When it hits my tongue, the whole thing seems to dissolve and my mouth swims. It's exceptional. As is the meat, which a waitress delicately manages to wrap into a pancake using chopsticks.
Da Dong might have elevated Beijing Duck into a fine dining experience but without Quan Ju De, there would be no duck to elevate. That evening, Huo and I walk through Beijing's Wangfujing neighbourhood and turn down a small side street. There, behind an ornate frontage that looks like an old temple gate, is Beijing's largest Quan Ju De, the Chinese chain restaurant that first served what we know today as Beijing Duck.
Roast duck has long been popular across China but it was in Nanjing, the former Imperial capital, that the dish was considered a true delicacy. Some 400 years ago, the capital moved to Beijing and the emperor Yong Le brought Nanjing's duck chefs with him to serve his court. Back then, ducks were cooked in closed ovens called men lu, steaming in their own juices and creating incredibly tender meat.
In the 1860s, a guy called Yuan Quan Ren was selling ducks on a street stand outside a Beijing fruit and vegetable shop called De Ju Quan. When the shop went bankrupt, Yuan bought it and decided to open a restaurant there. He called in a Feng Shui master to check the space, and was advised to turn the name around, symbolically reversing the fate of what had been a failing business (hence "De Ju Quan" became "Quan Ju De.")
Yuan also found a chef from Nanjing who was pioneering a new way to prepare duck. Instead of keeping the oven enclosed, this chef removed the door altogether and hung the ducks from a railing. Using a long wooden stick, he'd reach in periodically and lift the ducks directly into the flames, thus crisping the skin and rendering the fat.
The majority of Beijing Duck restaurants now use this technique. They all unabashedly acknowledge Quan Ju De's innovation.
"We are all Quan Ju De's pupils," Han had said when Huo and I told him where we were eating tonight.
Huo and I are met at the entrance to the Wangfujing branch of Quan Ju De by the restaurant's duckologist Wu Yubo, whose business card proudly announces in Chinese that he is "the person who specially supervises roast duck."
As jobs go, his is particularly fraught. Quan Ju De altogether has over 90 locations. Fifteen are it's own and managed internally, while the rest are franchise operations. Overall the entire restaurant group sells between 10,000 and 20,000 ducks a day. To serve this demand, Quan Ju De has its own duck farming operation and Wu is also in charge of that. Despite the pressure, he is trim and has a youthful smile.
Wu takes us into the kitchen, where we meet head chef, Deng Xi'an. He shows us to the duck ovens and explains that Quan Ju De is one of the only restaurants still to pour water through the duck before roasting it. This means that the meat steams from the inside while roasting, which prevents the fat from being burned away.
From the kitchen, we are taken into Quan Ju De's private room. It is decked out in purple and silver and a giant circular table fit for about 20 has been laid for the four of us. We sit at the compass points, Huo to my right, Wu to my left, and directly opposite me, Deng. He doesn't take his hat off for the entire meal.
As we talk, it becomes clear that Quan Ju De is extremely proud of—but also prisoner—to its history. Both Wu and Deng bring up the fact that Quan Ju De would cease to be Quan Ju De were the duck to be less fatty. But at the same time, this is exactly the reason why so many health-conscious Beijing diners now go elsewhere for their duck fix. Then there's the plating, which is another issue.
"In a kitchen cooking 3,000 ducks a day," admits Deng, "I simply don't have time for people throwing flowers and squirting stuff all over the food."
Still, what Quan Ju De lacks in health benefits and high-end presentation, it easily makes up for in historic value. Aside from being the originator of Beijing Duck, most of the head chefs of the thousands of Beijing Duck restaurants around China trained at Quan Ju De. Even Da Dong himself.
The final spot on our Beijing Duck odyssey is Si Ji Min Fu, which has a sign above its door bearing the English name "Mass Foodies Roast Duck." Like Da Dong, the duck here isn't fatty and it is plated with careful consideration. Li Zhiwei is Si Ji Min Fu's duckologist, a Henanese farmer who has been in the duck business for 18 years.
"Our ducks are 40-day ducks," he says. "We don't let them grow as long as the other chains, so that we can spend more time on other aspects of the process. We also made sure that our processing plant was built right next to the farm to minimise the time between them being slaughtered and the first stages of their preparation."
What follows is a long description of body temperatures and the importance of various drying techniques that I will spare you. Suffice it to say that Zhiwei knows his ducks.
Si Ji Min Fu could be accused of copying Da Dong—indeed Han himself used the word "imitator" when I mentioned the restaurant to him. But its head chef Cui Baohua is happy to acknowledge the similarities between his Beijing Duck and that served at Da Dong.
"We have learnt from Quan Ju De and we have also stepped in the same footsteps as Da Dong," Baohua explains. "But Da Dong learned directly from Quan Ju De, so we don't see it as a problem. We are all students, and we are all learning how to make the best duck."
When the duck arrives at our table at Si Ji Min Fu, we are also treated to duck feet, duck hearts, and duck liver—as we were at Da Dong and Quan Ju De earlier today. In all, over the course of three meals, I end up eating around 15 duck feet, 25 duck hearts, a duck brain (it mercifully had very little flavour), countless duck livers, and three entire ducks.
Combine this with having faced down three duckologists, two head chefs, and Beijing's top eater, I can probably say with some certainty that I am the foreigner with the greatest understanding of Beijing Duck, ever. I think back to something Huo told me in Si Ji Min Fu, a duck pancake clutched between his chopsticks.
"For hundreds of years, people have been studying this one thing, just to make it perfect."
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.