A Japanese chef, who is a wizard with Shanghainese cuisine

One of Hong Kong’s youngest restaurants has one of the city’s newest Michelin stars, and it’s all down to a Japanese chef, who is a wizard with Shanghainese cuisine.


Yu Lei’s Michelin One Star Menu

[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]hanghai cuisine traditionally contains more sugar, salt and oil than other Chinese cuisines. There is an old saying in Chinese that Shanghainese food can feel like a bomb exploding on the palate of those who are not accustomed to its peculiarities.

In times past, when the supply of salt was strictly controlled and seasoning was considered a luxury, Shanghai cuisine’s bold flavours could only be fully enjoyed by those Shanghai residents who were wealthy and had enough rice to pair with the food’s pungent taste.

Today these rich and heavy flavours are still widely sought after by epicureans, and yearned for by native Shanghainese who were born in the first half of 20th century, many of whom have become influential entrepreneurs in the new China. Some of these left home at an early age and latter became homesick for want of the flavours tasted in their youth. These Shanghai-born elites have added to the economic status Shanghai has enjoyed in China’s booming economy, especially after the Shanghai Expo in 2010, leaving more people who are keen to try authentic Shanghai cuisine.

In recent years many people have gone to Shanghai in search of its traditional cuisine. However, many have been disappointed because of the heaviness of the dishes, and online forums are full of complaints about food that bloggers believe to have been wrongly prepared. Anybody who is beguiled by these comments and decides to cross Shanghai cuisine off their list will miss a great deal of good food.

Shanghai cuisine actually consists of two branches – Benbang dishes, which are harder to adapt for non-native palates, and Haipai dishes, which are the type made by Yu Lei from K.O. Dining Group, who has been awarded Michelin star in 2013. It is rare for Haipai dishes to gain international recognition, and for a restaurant that has been open for less than a year to receive such emphatic recognition from the world’s most famous food guide.

Haipai dishes are famous for absorbing the characteristics of other cuisines, like an ocean that gets its water from different sources. In the early 20th century, Shanghai was the most important city in the Southern China. The incoming population from other provinces had significantly increased and so had its foreign population, creating an unprecedented opportunity for Shanghai cuisine to exchange with other Chinese cuisines and the western ones. The result was that Benbang dishes began to be cooked using different techniques and ingredients, from which different recipes were created and new dishes born.


Executive Chef Miki Imagawa

This melting pot of culinary influences led to decades in which Shanghai cuisine became too wide a category and many dishes that claimed to be Shanghainese barely deserved the title. Sometimes the Benbang dishes discovered in the most traditional Shanghai restaurants had missed out decades of development and fine-tuning and tasted very odd to non-native palates. To clarify this situation, Shanghai food connoisseurs spent three years surveying Shanghai restaurants and announced in late 2003 that 448 dishes could be properly recognised as Shanghai dishes, according to a report in Eastday.

This strict categorisation is rare among other Chinese cuisines, and it has divided Shanghainese dishes into different categories – traditional, creative dishes and dishes combining Shanghainese and western materials and techniques. Yu Lei in Hong Kong has integrated fashionable and creative cooking techniques and fresh Japanese seafood into Shanghainese cuisine, creating unique Yu Lei Style Shanghainese dishes.

The key to Ye Lei’s style is the raw materials. Most of the Shanghainese dishes feature fresh water fish that are abundant in the many lakes and rivulets in the region around Shanghai. Famous dishes include braised catfish, braised eel, steamed shad and sautéed shrimps that need more seasoning and cooking to cover the earthiness that is common to freshwater seafood. The Japanese-sourced fish and seafood that Yu Lei opts to use has long been regarded as the most fresh, and the least polluted, without complicated bones, more al dente and tender with juice that is part of taste of the open ocean.

A dish called Buddha jumped over the wall is very common in Shanghainese restaurants, so it is a must-have for Yu Lei. “The difference between Yu Lei’s style and that found in other restaurants lies in the raw materials,” says Miki Imagawa, Yu Lei’s Executive Chef. “Although a lot of restaurants use rare ingredients, Yu Lei imports the most exclusive items specially from different countries, aiming for the best possible materials. And the shark fin and sea cucumber must be from Japan.”


Yu Lei’s Michelin One Star Menu

Buddha jumped over the wall is a Shanghainese stew having a rich taste, requiring ingredients such as scallops, sea cucumber, abalone, shark fin, chicken, Jinhua ham, pork tendons, ginseng, mushrooms, quail eggs, bamboo shoots and taro. The delicacy’s name alludes to its heavenly taste that can make even vegetarian monks abandon strict Buddhism to eat a meat-based dish. The version made at Ye Lei is included in the Michelin One Star Set Menu, which has been composed in the wake of the restaurant’s new award.

To maintain the necessary level of freshness Yu Lei gets a special daily air delivery from Japan with the freshest seafood. If anything prevents the ingredients arriving on time Chef Miki says, “I will explain in person to our guests, and introduce other dishes to make up the deficit as best I can.”

This might be one of the rare opportunities to see Imagawa coming out of the kitchen. Unlike Kazuo Okada, which has an open Kaiseki kitchen, giving fantastic opportunities for interactions between chef and customer, Imagawa likes to stay where he excels and believes in himself. He explains that before coming to Hong Kong he hadn’t accepted any interview requests from the media, despite the fact that such exposure is exactly what the many “celebrity chefs” who have spread like an epidemic around the globe seek.

“I won’t change my dishes because my customers ask me to. I want to be a chef with his own style and personality. I also tell my team to do the same. Good chefs should not make change their dishes because customers ask them to,” says Imagawa. The much-envied Michelin star he has just won will not have much influence on Yu Lei’s style either.

“I had never thought about winning a Michelin star, and was surprised to receive one. A call was made to our restaurant looking for our manager or me to tell us the news, and I answered the phone. At fist I thought it was a fraud.” Imagawa still laughs at how he reacted to the news that is dreamed of by chefs around the world. “But I won’t be changed by it,” he insists.

Imagawa’s insistence on the best ingredients is not just a case of waiting for the air courier to arrive either. Just before we met, the chef had been searching for good quality razor clams in the Mongkok wet market, because a regular client who loves them was booked to come. “He likes our dishes made from razor clams, and would like to have them today. Unfortunately the ones from Japan have run out, so I need to search for them in the local market. And I must go in person because it is very important to have the right ones.”

Besides the excellent quality that Imagawa insists upon, his ability to turn Shanghainese dishes into works of art is another reason that high-end diners have been flocking to Yu Lei. His signature combination appetiser plate, although having different ingredients from day to day in ensure freshness and seasonal suitability, is presented in a most poetic fashion, setting the right aesthetic mood for fine dining. The appetizer has also been included in the Michelin One Star Menu, which also features other famous Chinese dishes such as roasted Peking goose.

“We have chefs who specialise in other forms of Chinese cuisine, especially Cantonese cooking,” says Imagawa. “We like to discuss and learn from each other, and make menus that show the best of Yu Lei.”

For the coming Chinese New Year, Imagawa reveals that Yu Lei will prepare dishes with ingredients that have auspicious names for customers who enjoy the best of fine dining at the start of the Year of Snake.  Maybe one of them will be called Buddha jumped over a Star.


Yu Lei’s star dish, roasted Peking goose


Both of Yu Lei’s sister restaurants at the KO dining complex in Hung Hum received honourable mentions in the new Michelin Guide to restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau, but neither Hiro Imamura at Kazuo Okada or Francesco Greco at Messina il Ristorante quite rose to the stellar heights of Chef Miki. We asked both of them what the increased competition between the three restaurants will mean for diners in the New Year. 

Kazuo Okada is a kaiseki restaurant with two VIP Rooms, one sushi counter and two teppanyaki counters. Hirofumi Imamura, who is fiercely dedicated to creating the best kaiseki style food in Hong Kong, oversees its 88 covers. His signature dishes are Smoked Salmon, Beef Roll with Foie Gras and Tsubo Steamed Seasonal Seafood Soup. Kaiseki is the most refined form of Japanese cuisine. Chef Hirofumi seeks to balance the taste, texture, appearance and colour of ingredients perfectly to take this multi-course cuisine to the level of art.

Q.The new Michelin Guide described Kazuo Okada as a “particularly pleasant restaurant”. What does that mean and why do you think your cooking was given this honour?

A. I would think that they look at every aspect of what we do before giving such an award.

Q. Is it tougher for a Japanese restaurant to win a Michelin star than for other types of cuisine? 

A. I would think it’s difficult to achieve a Michelin star no matter what type of cuisine or restaurant.  

Q. What plans to you have for Kazuo Okada over the next year that you think will bring your restaurant its first Michelin star? 

A. There is no plan.  I will simply stick with my belief and provide the same food and service.  The key to achieving a Michelin star is consistency.


Messina il Ristorante serves modern Sicilian cuisine under the guiding hand of master chef Francesco Greco. He has fifty-five seats and his signature dishes are Tuna Carpaccio and Crispy Suckling Pig. Greco’s food is an impressive synthesis of classic and modern Sicilian dishes with French twists.

Q. The new Michelin Guide recommended Messina. Why do you think your cooking was given this honour?

A. We are very happy to be included in the 2013 guide, Messina il ristorante has an elegant and warm atmosphere. We focus on using the best ingredients with the right cooking methods to give to our creations a gourmet taste.

Q. What plans to you have for Messina over the next year that you think will bring your restaurant its first Michelin star? 

A. I’m planning together with my team to continuously work harder to please our guests, which is very important for the restaurant’s success. If a star arrives that will be the cherry on the cake!

Q. How much competition is there among chefs over Michelin stars? What did you do when you heard that Yu Lei had won a star?

A. I guess everybody wants to be successful in life and be the best, therefore there is such “competition” but it is just a positive one that keeps the standards of restaurant dining at a high level. I actually predicted the star for Yu Lei the first time I tasted Chef Miki’s food, when I heard the good news I was and I am still very happy for Chef Miki and all the team for the daily passion they have put into  their work since the opening. It is well deserved.

Q. How important is the interior of the restaurant to creating the conditions for winning Michelin stars? Are there changes you plan to Messina’s ambience that will make it easier to win a star? 

A. From my experience the first star is about the food, then the service, décor, wine list etc become more important for the second and third stars. One clear example is those street food restaurants that are also given a star.