Since 1864, a centuries-old recipe has made Beijing’s Quanjude restaurant a global attraction. Brunswick’s Ella Kidron and Amy Wang pay a visit
A visit to Beijing isn’t complete without a trip to one of the city’s signature Peking duck restaurants. At Quanjude’s Hepingmen flagship on Chang’an Avenue, Guomin Wang is the Executive Chef for Cold Dishes and the curator of a centuries-old tradition.
Wang defies all stereotypical images of a senior chef. With his lean frame, fitted white top and a pair of gold, round glasses, he looks more scholar than chef – a look appropriate for someone with so much historical knowledge of Quanjude. Founded over 150 years ago, Quanjude’s flagship has hosted many state leaders, diplomats, famous Chinese calligraphers and Peking opera performers. Standing in the Quanjude museum at the top of the seven-floor Hepingmen restaurant, Chef Wang takes us on a journey back in time.
Named after the city now known as Beijing, Peking duck is a technique of preparing roasted fowl that dates back at least to the 14th century, appearing in a book of recipes published in 1330. It became identified as an iconic dish during the later Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In 1864, with the help of a court chef to Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Yang Quanren created the first Quanjude, the roasted duck restaurant that has now grown into a chain with over 100 restaurants in 21 provinces across China and several overseas.
More than one hundred years later, with the opening of China in 1979, Quanjude became the official place to receive world leaders on their visits to China. Along with the game of Ping Pong and the liquor Maotai, Peking duck was for many years one of China’s most important diplomatic offerings, and a highlight of state visits to the nation’s capital. Today, the restaurant remains a window into China’s historic Peking duck tradition for the rest of the world.
“Food should be borderless,” Chef Wang says.
To keep the tradition alive, Quanjude aims for a balance of modernization and preservation. The restaurant chain adheres to the traditional minglukao (“open fire”) roasting process and boasts more than 400 dishes centered on its signature Peking duck, including hot and cold dishes and pastries. Each restaurant is required to offer 50 essential duck dishes and then is given freedom to serve another 40 dishes to satisfy local palates and preferences.
Chef Wang, who has been with the Quanjude restaurant for nearly 37 years, is a graduate of the group’s rigorous apprenticeship program, where celebrated chefs of several generations take on apprentices and teach them all aspects of the trade. The techniques are said to take at least 10 years to learn. Apprentices rotate through different departments, to understand each type of dish before settling into a specialist area of their choice.
Yet even with such a structured program, there is plenty of room for creativity. Chef Wang, drawing inspiration from his years of calligraphy practice, came up with the idea to present cold dishes with carefully selected, famous Chinese poems written in chocolate sauce on the plate. The poems are tailored to not only capture the essence of the dish he’s presenting, but also who it is being presented to.
What will the next 150 years look like for one of the leaders of Beijing’s most prized culinary tradition? Chef Wang says, “My only mission is to make the golden gilded Quanjude sign shine ever brighter.”
Ella Kidron is an Account Director and Amy Wang is Senior Translator. Both are in Brunswick’s Beijing office.
Illustration: Robert Neubecker