The idea of Chinese food doesn't often bring to mind an elaborate, 19-course meal of meticulously composed dishes served in custom-made vessels.
“Chinese food has thousands of years of history and culture. It should be expensive,” said chef Guo Wenjun, whose eponymous restaurant in New York, at $518 per person for the tasting menu, is the most expensive Chinese restaurant in America. The windowless, Midtown East location is meant to serve no more than 10 patrons a night.
Guo, who has served as executive chef at China’s Diaoyutai Garden Villa International Club, Imperial Kitchen of the Palace Museum, and others, oversaw the decor, from sourcing stately seats from Indonesia weighing some 160 pounds, to curating the playlist, to handcrafting the faux gingko tree whose branches sprawl across the ceiling. It's a deliberate affair, meant to mirror the tradition of imperial banquets.
"When I came to America, I saw the standing of Chinese cuisine. I wasn’t satisfied,” said Guo. The cuisine encompasses myriad complicated and versatile culinary techniques, reflecting China’s millennia-long history.
"I felt I needed to show the American people what Chinese cuisine is really about," he said.
Food With a PhilosophyGuo began his culinary training at age 14 under master chef Ding Guangzhou, a seventh-generation disciple in the line of royal chefs. In 1983, he furthered his training in the National Youth Chef program and then an international culinary training program in Hong Kong.
The strict training meant a high level mastery of the fundamentals; students weren’t allowed to touch certain ingredients or techniques until the master deemed them ready. But Guo was ambitious beyond his years and wanted to attempt everything he could.
“Because I dared to do the most, I also learned the most,” he said.
The menu is the culmination of 40 years of experience and study, the best of the Chinese culinary arts, and the best of today's international food scene, said Guo. As a result, one can find elements of nutritional science both modern and ancient, the art of culinary presentation from both the East and West.
Guo follows the traditional imperial cooking philosophy passed on to him by his master: “A good meal is beneficial, the arrangement is paramount, the flavor is foremost, nutrition is essential.”
The classic five elements of Chinese cooking are color, aroma, taste, presentation, and the vessel. To this, Guo adds style, temperature, sound, story, and nourishment.
The ingredients are “treasures” sourced from the world over: prized morels from China, Japanese A5 wagyu beef, wild black rice from Canada, wild-caught Australian lobster and sea bass. The menu, highlighted on the website, changes seasonally and without notice depending on the ingredients of the day.
The menu also includes three tea courses, meant to serve as palate cleansers: White Hair Silver Needle tea (Baihao Yinzhen), which is the most prized of white teas, picking only the top buds of the plant; Big Red Robe tea (Da Hong Pao), which originates from a scarce six mother trees on the cliff of Wuyi mountain and is prized for its health benefits; and a Pu-erh tea Guo sources from Yunnan, where six 300-year-old bushes are reserved for him.
“In retrospect, everything on the path I’ve walked had a purpose,” said Guo, who is determined to raise the profile of Chinese cuisine on the international stage. “I want to influence this direction ... I’ve always felt a responsibility. If I don’t do it, who will?”