Chinese Culinary Influencer: Da Dong

Da Dong's "Super Lean" Roast DuckWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Dong Zhenxiang, also known as Da Dong (Master Dong), is renowned for his famous roast duck.

Learning from a masterWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

As China's economy went through a transformation in the 1980s, people's attitude towards life gradually began to change as well. Where restaurants once served as social centers, they had become an outlet for personal expression. 

Well-decorated restaurants serving exquisite and pricey Guangdong cuisine sprang up and spread across many Chinese cities. Meanwhile, Sichuan cuisine, being both high-quality and inexpensive, became a favorite in Beijing. It was in this era that Da Dong became a chef. In 1984, he was 23 years old. 

Da Dong's "Superlean" Peking duckWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

That was the year he first ate roast duck. He had just started working as a stir-fry chef at the Beijing Roast Duck Tuanjiehu restaurant, but hadn't yet learned to make it himself. He and a chef specializing in the dish there swapped dishes, and it was then that he took his first bite.

When Da Dong recalls the aroma of that roast duck all those years ago, he remembers, “What attracted me most at that time was not the superior roasting technique. In fact, it had nothing to do with the taste, but rather the oily aroma, which was rare at that time."

Da Dong's "Superlean" Peking duckWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong's innovation with roast duck

In the decade of economic development between the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese people began their pursuit of a more refined lifestyle, which included a healthy diet. In addition, many people who lived in Beijing during that time believed that roast duck was solely a delicacy to be served when entertaining friends visiting from other provinces.

Sweet scented osmanthus baby duck by DongzhenxiangWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

The widespread conception of roast duck as being greasy and unhealthy aroused Da Dong's determination to save its reputation via innovation. Da Dong feared that the idea of resisting greasy food in totality would take root in people's hearts, and would result in roast duck losing its appeal. As a result, he decided to develop a non-greasy roast duck. 

Chef Da Dong making roast duckWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

From the beginning, he surmised that extending the roasting time could cause the layer of fat under the duck skin to disappear naturally in the heat. After many failed attempts, he finally discovered that when the duck was roasted for 70 minutes, the subdermal layer of fat would melt away. A new problem appeared, however. Although the fat disappeared, so did the moisture in the duck meat. 

Roast duck refrigeratedWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong consulted Wang Qiusheng, former head chef at the Quanjude restaurant. He noticed that Wang had a very precise grasp of the temperature necessary for cold storage. After numerous adjustments to the temperature, Da Dong finally found that the skin of ducks stored at 23°F (-5°C) for two or three days would be in the best condition for being roasted, during which they would form a honeycomb shape. The fat could be removed while maintaining the shape and crispness.

Duck skin with fish roe sauce by DongzhenxiangWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

After six years of persistence, Da Dong at long last had created a roast duck that was both crispy and non-greasy. 

Nowadays, this recipe is no longer Dong's exclusive recipe, but has instead become a popular new variety of roast duck in itself.

Chef Dong Zhenxiang applying for MBAWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Grasping an opportunity and establishing a new brand

In 1992, Dong decided to take the Self-Taught Higher Education Examinations (STHEE) and apply for an MBA (Master of Business Administration) to further improve himself. It was then that the catering industry offered him a heaven-sent opportunity.

Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant in BeijingWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Since the market economy was still in its infancy, a large number of small private restaurants had sprung up like wildflowers. Additionally, entirely foreign-owned or joint Sino-foreign catering enterprises were being launched in Beijing. People's yearning and pursuit of food culture had altered to echo the new forms of catering being offered. 

At that time, many restaurants with a long history, which had once been full of diners, had lost their appeal. Countless state-run restaurants were on the verge of bankruptcy. The Beijing Roast Duck Tuanjiehu restaurant, where Da Dong was working at that time, was taking a heavy hit financially, but the relevant departments refused to invest in any form of change.

Chef Da Dong won Golden Dragon CupWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

The cruel reality rang in Da Dong's ears like a deafening clap. All of his hard work over the past few years had been in preparation for this moment. He and his colleagues bought the Beijing Roast Duck Tuanjiehu restaurant and renamed it the Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant. 

Chef Da Dong looking for matsutake mushrooms in Shangri-LaWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

After the peak

Chef Da Dong in ItalyWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

In 2008, the turnover of the restaurants owned by Da Dong already far exceeded the industry average, but he believed there was still room for improvement.

Chef Da Dong searching for sea cucumber in JapanWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong traveled to Japan, Italy, France, and other countries, all the while pondering over the concepts conveyed by the local dishes he encountered. After returning to Beijing, he re-examined his dishes and devoted himself to innovation. 

Braised sea cucumber by Da DongWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Having traveled abroad many times, Da Dong paid ever greater attention to foreign food books and magazines. He was astonished to find that the same dish would look completely different in a foreign magazine versus a domestic one. 

Da Dong gradually realized that the innovation and uniqueness of Chinese cuisine could be exhibited not only by the taste, but also by the appearance of the dishes. 

Italian Risotto with Slow-braised Fresh AbaloneWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

When a dish was placed in front of the diners, they first saw its appearance, then took in its fragrance, or even heard the sounds it produced. Only after taking in these aspects of the dish would they taste its flavor, which chefs of Chinese cuisine had traditionally put the most focus on at the expense of the other aspects.

Steamed King Crab with Huadiao Yellow Wine in Floral EnsembleWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong then aspired to upheave the entrenched stereotype of Chinese cuisine in the hearts of people all over the world. The pursuit of brilliance in visual presentation, like Da Dong's perfection of crispy yet non-greasy roast duck, couldn't be realized without an extensive process of deliberation. 

The team led by Da Dong started by considering whether the aesthetics in cooking was limited merely to visual presentation. After reading the masterpieces of aestheticians such as Jiang Xun and Liu Zongli, Da Dong found that the relationship between cooking and aesthetics didn't lie in one deliberately shaping the other, but in mutual discovery. It was this notion that opened him up to new possibilities in cooking.

Braised codfish belly with safflower juiceWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Undoubtedly, Da Dong also realized that he would succeed in his innovation only by basing it both on traditional Chinese culture and his own experiences abroad. 

Rape Flovers with Saffron SauceWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong believed that only after fully understanding the concepts that Western cuisine conveyed could he successfully present high-quality dishes with similar styles that were unified in the connotations and ideas they were putting forth.

Chef Da Dong keeps on learning in the culinary industryWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Innovation and inheritance

Many people wanted to know more about Da Dong's conception of catering standards. However, Da Dong said there was no standard because the standard was bound to fluctuate in response to the constant vicissitudes of any given era. When it came to the potential for culinary innovation in this era, Da Dong truly had his finger on the pulse.

Chef Da Dong developing safflower juice dishWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

In Da Dong's view, cooking could never remain unchanged. Even if the chefs made no changes when cooking, the dissimilarities in ingredients and seasonings and even climate would inevitably affect the taste of the dishes. Cuisine was part of culture, so whenever different cultures met, food would invariably change accordingly.

Chef Da Dong never stops learningWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Nevertheless, Da Dong often said: "You must see and taste high-quality dishes before you can know how to make them." People are always unwilling to change their perceptions, and they even tend to ignore any external changes they see, especially when these changes occur more quickly than they had imagined. 

Foie gras in cherry shapeWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

The current problem in the catering industry is not the varying quality of innovation, but rather might be the rejection of innovation. 

As Da Dong said, the dishes in some Western restaurants in China are being made using methods that are decades out of date. For example, chefs felt that the cooking method for foie gras they had inherited from abroad had already been perfected. Little did they realize it had been modified several times in the ensuing years.

Chef Da Dong learning from a Chinese cuisine masterWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Da Dong often said that his sense of innovation was not cultivated by himself, but formed naturally with job changes. Da Dong had been a stir-fry chef before he became a manager. It was only after this professional shift that he noticed the problems he had ignored while working in the kitchen.

Chef Da Dong keeps on learning in the culinary industryWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Superlative culinary skills couldn't be acquired in a short period of time, but only be mastered through long-term training. While the daily routine of a chef consisted of cooking the same several dishes repeatedly, as long as they were deft at observation and reflection, they could notice quantitative changes amongst the repetitions, which was bound to result in qualitative changes down the line. 

DongzhenxiangWorld Federation of Chinese Catering Industry

Nowadays, some culinary schools in Beijing have incorporated "Da Dong's Culinary Aesthetics," "Da Dong Artistic Conception of Chinese Cuisine," and "Da Dong's Cuisine Essays" as regular parts of their curriculum. Students expand their horizons as they gradually comprehend Da Dong's innovative ideas and put them into practice. Only in this way can they formulate their own unique cooking style like Da Dong has done.

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