xi's moments

From molecular gastronomy to the written word

By ALYWIN CHEW in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-28 04:43

Christopher St. Cavish, writer and editor

When Christopher St. Cavish sets out to do something, he goes all out to accomplish it. But it is never because of fame or fortune. He simply loves learning new things.

That was why he, despite having a job at a renowned restaurant, decided to leave the comforts of his hometown of Miami, Florida, in 2005 to learn more about the culinary arts in Hong Kong.

“My method for learning is to always work at the best restaurants or hotels. To me, the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong was the best at that time,” said St. Cavish.

“I didn’t care what restaurant I got to work in — I just wanted to work at that hotel. I’m quite stubborn when I set my mind on something.”

Although he didn’t manage to find work in Hong Kong, the American soon landed himself the role of junior sous chef on the Chinese mainland instead, joining Jade on 36, a restaurant in the new tower of the Shangri-La Hotel in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. The opportunity was impossible to pass on — he would get to learn from Frenchman Paul Pairet, who today runs Ultraviolet in Shanghai, the only dining establishment in the Chinese mainland to have three Michelin stars.

“I had never been to the Chinese mainland before so I thought I’d just try it out for a year and see what it was like,” he said.

“If it didn’t work out, I’d quit and just go somewhere else.”

The American did end up leaving the job after a year. He just didn’t see a point in moving halfway around the world to spend all his time using English to teach junior chefs how to cook molecular food. He wanted to learn more about China.

“I didn’t want to be the teacher. I wanted to be a student. I’m a curious person. There’s one job that’s suited for people like me, and that’s writing. If you’re curious, being a writer allows you to ask people lots of questions without them thinking you’re weird,” he said.

His departure from Jade on 36, however, marked the start of his love affair with China.

After hanging up his chef whites, a restless St. Cavish aspired to learn more about his adopted country. True to his nature, he didn’t just settle for a guided tour or a short backpacking trip — he set out on a month-long, 4,500-kilometer road trip in a sidecar motorcycle which took him to the provinces of Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Shaanxi, Gansu and Qinghai.

He even managed to raise some money along the way for Hands on Shanghai, an organization which has programs to help address the needs of migrant school children and elderly people in the city.

Stunning scenery aside, the daily breakdowns his vintage Chang Jiang motorcycle had also contributed to his list of memorable events. In fact, one particular breakdown even resulted in him having to face a near-death situation as he had to manoeuvre his bike down a mountain, past 50 hairpins — with no brakes.

Looking back, St. Cavish laughed at how the only motivation behind this epic trip was down to hubris and ignorance, but there was nevertheless a valuable lesson at the end.

“Before, my impression of China was limited to Shanghai. After that trip, I got to learn that there’s a very different world out there. There’s also a lot of beauty, especially in places like Anhui. That’s one part of China I return to every few years,” he said.

“Before coming to China, my impression of the country was it being a strange and exotic place that was locked down. I had the same stereotypes that I’m sure a lot of people in the US still have today.”

Following the trip, St. Cavish cut his teeth in writing by working for various lifestyle magazines. In 2013, he came up with the idea of documenting Shanghai’s famous delicacy of soup dumplings, or xiaolongbao, in a book.

Released in 2015, The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index analyzes the xiaolongbao sold at 52 restaurants in the city by measuring the weight of the fillings and soup, as well as the thickness of the skin, before grading them on a scale of A to C.

But what most people don’t know is that this book was initially just another example of St. Cavish’s trademark approach of going all out to do something. In this case, it was creating a resume that would capture the attention of magazines he was interested in writing for.

“Editors get story pitches all the time via email and they delete most of them. I wanted to create something that would require them to take one minute of their time to look at and think: ‘What is this stupid project that some idiot in Shanghai did?’” he quipped.

“But after I invested so much time and money into it, I thought that I needed to make some of my money back. That’s why I printed more copies later.”

As it turned out, he didn’t just recoup some of his initial costs. The Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index went viral the year it was printed, and St. Cavish went from being the writer of stories to the subject of them. He has since sold thousands of copies of the book.

Today, as the managing editor of lifestyle portal SmartShanghai, St. Cavish continues to write about food, often in the form of restaurant reviews. He is also frequently quoted as a food expert in other publications.

Despite having lived in Shanghai for the past 13 years, he believes there is still much to learn about the city, especially since it changes so significantly every few years.

“The demand for novelty by Shanghainese fosters a lot of innovation. This is almost what it means to be Shanghainese — you expect something new all the time. That’s why Shanghainese will wait in line for five hours when a new popular store opens. This demand drives the restaurant scene. This drives innovation,” he said.

“Shanghai becomes a different, better place every few years, and I’m addicted to this change. I feel like I’m part of the city now. You know, I keep telling myself every year that I’ll leave next year. Well, it’s been 13 years and I’m still here.”

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