Few people know that the Chinese emperors had their very own kitchen style but Executive Chef Ivan Li is doing all he can to bring it back to the forefront.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chef Li’s great-grandfather worked in Beijing’s Forbidden City where he was responsible for the kitchen of the last emperor in the Qing dynasty. Eventually he returned to live on the countryside but kept the recipes they used, to pass them on within the family. As the political climate in China changed, everything that was linked to the imperial past became oppressed. It was only in 1985 that Chef Li’s father decided to put this traditional cuisine back on the map and opened the first Family Li restaurant in Beijing. Nowadays the family has two other restaurants in Beijing, one in Taipei and recently they opened up their first European branch in Paris.
In Shanghai, the restaurant is located at north end of the Bund, well hidden inside the Huangpu Park. The interior is a mix of traditional Chinese elements with eighties style marble and the rooms are dark. Everything is set for private dining and there is no open space where guests are seated next to each other. In the kitchen, most of the cooking is done on big gas pits and in a large steam oven to replicate the exact cooking style as was used at the imperial court.
Everything on the plate resembles the grand era of Chinese emperors and is as authentic as possible. In modern times however, it is not entirely possible to fulfil this as both eating customs and nature change. For example, today it is no longer allowed to serve tiger stew or elephant trunk, nor is it feasible to guarantee absolute exclusivity on certain ingredients without any other restaurant serving them.
Fortunately, the Chinese imperial cuisine has many other dishes that do fit well into today’s world and where the pureness and tenderness of the ingredients are equally important. Notable examples are the bean curd with pepper, lobster marinated in soy sauce or the famous bird’s nest. Others are the handmade tofu cakes and slow cooked sweet and sour pork. Most dishes are served in small portions and often combined on a large plate. Though fish and meat are widely used, a lot of emphasis is put on high quality vegetables and a rather light kitchen in general.
No wine or tea pairing is available although there is a wide selection of high-end wines to cater for those who insist on having prestige wines. The menus are set and guests can choose out of two for lunch and three for dinner. Since the entire restaurant is based on Chinese tradition, there is not much room for innovation. On the contrary, where most restaurants try to keep up with the latest culinary trends, Chef Li and his team do exactly the opposite and try to stay true to their heritage as much as possible.
The era of the Chinese emperors might already be long gone; those who want to savour its cuisine are definitely at the right place at Family Li Cuisine. Even though it is no longer as exclusive as it was centuries ago, the Chinese imperial cuisine still has very pure and distinct combinations to offer that are worth the detour.
Written by Sebastiaan