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Westernizing Chinese cuisine

Sometimes, you’ve got to be slow to be fast. That’s certainly the case with Chop Chop Shanghai Bistro, an eight-month-old “fast-moving gourmet” restaurant hard by the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. Partners Doug Lui and Kate Lin-Bautista conceived Chop Chop as a brand prototype for a futuristic, “Chinese-Pop” dining experience, complete with PDA-based ordering and high-concept techno-trendy décor.

It’s no small challenge to adapt a culinary tradition that’s thousands of years old to a quick-service format for a western audience. The food of Shanghai and Taiwan is based on carefully braised and steamed meats, deeply infused with flavor and finished with kicks of hot chili garlic and black bean paste. It’s Chinese soul food, if you will, with nary a stir fry in sight.

There are over 50 items on the menu, with ticket times largely under five minutes, and a customer base that’s more than 50 percent non-Asian. “We’re introducing a lot of people to Shanghaiese cooking,” says Lui. But Chop Chop’s Shanghaiese has been westernized. All the beef dishes use beef shank, a tasty but fibrous cut that needs to be braised for hours. Often served cold in sweltering Shanghai, at Chop Chop it’s more frequently ordered hot. Pork belly, the meat of choice in Shanghai, is used in many of the pork dishes, but so is leaner pork butt.

The menu took nine months to refine. Lui describes the recipe development process as “dissecting” each traditional dish to figure out how it ticked, then putting it back together in a way that makes sense for a fast-moving service environment. Lui and Lin-Bautista were able to break down most of the 50-plus specialties into a three-phase process. The three base proteins (pork, beef, chicken) are braised or steamed in advance in one of three basic sauces (beef, pork, vegetable), chilled and then set out for service in the line, which is set up just like a sushi bar. Per order, team members grab a protein, add a sauce, reheat it in a convection oven or pot and plate it with garnishes and condiments.

Challenge: This Chinese classic is very time-consuming to prepare—traditionally, the pork is braised or boiled, then cooked a second time through stir-frying. Chop Chop, however, has no facilities for woks

Solution: The two-step cooking process was reinvented for the equipment package in Chop Chop’s kitchen.

  • Pork belly is braised in pork sauce for 7 to 8 hours, until soft and thoroughly penetrated with flavor, then chilled.
  • At service, the pork is sliced into bite-size pieces, mixed with vegetables (blanched Chinese cabbage, red and green peppers), then tossed with spicy sauce and rethermed/glazed in a convection oven.

Challenge: Glass noodles are usually dipped in hot stock along with the vegetables, but that process can result in inconsistent texture and vegetables that would be overcooked by Western standards.

Solution: In Chop Chop’s version the vegetables are added later, to retain more of a salad-like bite.

  • The translucent mung bean noodles are presoaked to produce the right soft texture, then chilled and held on the line.
  • Per order, the noodles are mixed with cooked ground pork and simmered briefly in sweet light soy sauce with baby bok choy, chopped Chinese celery (more aromatic than the Western kind) and red-hot chili garlic paste to finish the dish.

Challenge: This traditional Shanghaiese banquet dish is very rich and heavy; it’s made with ground pork mixed with pork fat to keep the meatball moist and juicy during its long steaming over bok choy, which becomes quite mushy in the process.

Solution: The ground pork butt is “lightened” with tofu instead of fat, and the bok choy is cooked separately to keep its texture more intact.

  • The seasoned meat-and-tofu mixture is formed into meatballs, then broiled and steam-roasted in a convection oven until thoroughly cooked.
  • When the order comes in, the meatball is glazed with pork sauce and rethermed in the oven, then combined with blanched bok choy.

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