It was something no one expected: On 21 September, the Michelin Guide announced the list of Michelin Star winners in Shanghai and Taian Table was among them. We spoke to their Hungarian head chef, Jenő Rácz about stars, Asian culture and his plans for the future. The young chef only arrived in China seven months ago but, together with co-chef Stefan Stiller, he has already brought the restaurant Michelin Star status.
When the restaurant opened six months ago, was it your goal to win a Michelin Star?
The fact that we have got it already is really special, given that not many new restaurants receive such recognition. But I would be lying if I said that we didn’t expect it. The Michelin inspectors visited us a few times, and the first time they made their presence known. Before the official announcement, we got an invitation to a press conference, which was more than a little suspicious. At the same time, it was never our goal to win a Michelin Star. Very simply, we didn’t just want to be one of the best restaurants in Shanghai, we wanted to be perfect. “Good” is not good enough for us, we want to be the best.
Why do you think Taian Table got a Michelin Star just half a year after opening?
We prepare innovative food with love and care, and it shows. Everyone has access to the same ingredients and cooking methods, but the food we make from them is special. And that’s what the Michelin Guide is all about: in a given area, a given country, where should you go to eat, even if it is out of the way? If you want exciting food in stylish surroundings, our restaurant is the place to be.
What can people expect when they go to Taian Table?
Novel, creative and provocative dishes. A new menu every month. We don’t stick to one particular type of cuisine. You can’t categorise our food as French, Japanese or international. But we always add one or two Japanese ingredients to every dish to give our Asian guests a pleasant, familiar sensation.
How did you end up in Shanghai?
After graduating from the Csepel Catering College in Budapest at 18, I did my three years of mandatory work experience at the Meridien. It was a defining period for me, and, with a lot of good experience under my belt, I decided to travel the world. I started in the UK, then went to Noma in Denmark. Next I moved to Asia – Singapore be precise – where I worked alongside Joel Robuchon, before going back to London to work with Heston Blumenthal, among others. After all, that I received an unexpected offer from Shanghai. The owner found me via LinkedIn and asked me to be one of the head chefs for the new restaurant he was building. It was an incredibly exciting challenge to open a completely new restaurant.
Was it hard to fit in and get used to the way of life there?
Not at all, I’d had a taste of the Asian mentality in Singapore and I really liked it: Chinese culture is very respectful, and they recognise and respect talent. We work 15 hours a day in the kitchen and have a close, disciplined team. Everything is very controlled and precise, but friendly at the same time. There’s only one problem: the ingredients are not the best. Most of the fruit and vegetables are watery and tasteless, so it’s very hard to create something with a lot of flavour, but of course we take that as a challenge. There are no juicy apricots or fragrant strawberries like at home. You also have to source everything nearby, as a lot of basic ingredients are on the list of prohibited imports. Raw meat and even live animals often get smuggled in in someone’s suitcase.
How long will you stay there?
I’m an impulsive person, even though I’m very thorough. I don’t hesitate if I get a good opportunity. That said, I plan to stay in Shanghai for a while. There has been talk of opening another new restaurant in the city. It’s not been long since we won the Michelin Star, but offers have been flooding in.