Graduation Day

Hello from Shanghai! Yesterday we made the drive back from Hangzhou, encountering our first rain showers since arriving in China. We left having passed our qualification tests to work in the Shanghai store, but only with great difficulty – on the last day before our departure, we practiced and ran time trials on dough cutting and rolling from 4:30 AM until after 8:00 PM, and still needed the next morning to pass the most difficult portion, the dough cutting. I think I can speak for the entire team when I say that we are very proud to have completed our test successfully, but even more so we are humbled by the difficulty of training, and the dedication the staff has showed in trying to help us overcome the challenge. As if the generosity they showed us with their time and patience was not enough, we were presented with amazing gifts at the end of training.

(Left to Right) Ghost Buster, Warrior and Monkey King
(Left to Right) Ghost Buster, General and Monkey King

These masks are based on traditional stage make up that represent different traditional Chinese characters. Jhonny received the visage of an ancient general from the Three Kingdoms period, Gerry was given a character that was described to us as a ‘ghost buster’, and I received the Monkey King. I recalled that Mr. Yang had asked me what my zodiac sign was a few days ago, and being born in 1992, I told him it was the Monkey. To me, that level of thoughtfulness speaks volumes about the quality of people we work with. I never expected that leaving Hangzhou would feel so much like leaving friends behind.

zodiac coins
Zodiac coins – Christmas came early in Hangzhou

Before packing up and leaving our luxurious rooms at the Bo Jiang International Hotel we were treated to one last meal cooked by the ayi (literally translating to ‘aunt’) at the training center. From the first piece of braised pork to the last spoonful of blackfish soup it was extraordinary.Farewell Hangzhou Lunch 2 Yes, sometimes I wasn’t sure exactly if what I was eating was duck or pork, and debates were had over the definition of bacon, but if it tastes good, I eat it. Thanks to Tom for correcting my poor chopstick skills, you would think I would have mastered them by now, but like bao making it’s all about knowing the right gestures, and practicing until the motions as natural as breathing.

The trip to Shanghai was a long one. We packed our Volkswagen Sharon, a model of minivan unknown in the states, until the bags were nearly completely blocking the back window and spilling jenga block style into my third row seat. From there.

We took one last drive past West Lake, taking a short break for a photo op in a rock garden and some more sightseeing. Hangzhou to Shanghai can be driven in less than two and a half hours if the traffic conditions are right. West Lake PanoOur trip took nearly six hours, due to a traffic jam that clogged the freeways from the edge of Shanghai to its center, and a peculiar law that I had never heard of before. If you do not have the correct license (our Sharon was registered in Zhe Jiang Province), you are not allowed to enter Shanghai during peak traffic hours, which end at 7:00 PM. Jhonny commented that there is a similar system in parts of Colombia. By the time we arrived at our base of operations in Tongji University it was nearly 9:00 PM, but none of that matters now, because we’re finally back in Shanghai and as I write this, we are putting on our orange caps and tying on our aprons for our first shift as certified baoists (bao makers).


My colleagues in China, Eva and Penny, have done a wonderful job translating this blog into Mandarin Chinese. Apparently their translation gets more views than my English version. I choose not to dwell on what that says about the quality of my writing… Anyway, if you would like to take a look, here is the link to that version – this is just one of my posts, but I will create a page with all of the links in the near future.


Shanghai sauron tower
A tower in Shanghai bearing a striking resemblance to the Eye of Sauron
Advertisements

West Lake At a Glance

After six days of hard training, we were able to sleep in a full 5 hours later than usual, which meant getting up at 9 AM. We managed to get our documentary film maker and de facto tour guide Jay (星文 to take us to West Lake. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, West Lake is the most well known attraction in Hangzhou, and has been near the center of activity in the area for millennia. After a 45 minute taxi ride we arrived at a bustling, high end shopping district right next to the busiest Apple store I’ve ever seen. We had a lunch of very spicy noodles, and took a short walk through the shopping mall to get a grasp of Chinese interpretations of western fashion and international cuisine. I think what made the experience so strange was how close they were to looking like western shopping malls, but at the same time they all had a small twist or stylistic choice that didn’t quite fit from my perspective… take a look for yourself and see if you agree.

West Lake area Stay Real CafeHipanda

It was a short walk from the rows of designer clothing stores and upscale dessert shops to West Lake. In the past few decades the entire southern bank has been turned into a giant public park and historical landmark, and serves as the city’s main tourist attraction. Unlike most parks in American cities, this one was packed with people talking, playing games, and relaxing with cups of tea, imagine that!

Xihu cruise boats XiHu walkway extension

Unfortunately, my iPhone didn’t do very well at capturing the distant images due to the fog and air quality mixed with overcast skies. However, to the naked eye the low light combined with the tree covered mountains on the far side of the lake to create an amazing visual effect. Through the fog and diffused light through the clouds, all I could see of them for most of the day was dark silhouettes overlapping one another, bearing a striking resemblance to mountain paintings in the traditional Shan Shui style of Chinese classical artwork. There were also some very talented bands playing traditional instruments around the lake, I’ll try to post the videos I took as soon as I get a good enough internet connection…

West Lake OxThere is a small island near the side of the lake called Tiandi, accessible via ornate stone bridges from three sides. On the island we took a break to purify our bodies after an evening at a karaoke bar with piping hot tea (sorry Rosamond) and rest my broken foot for a while. You can’t see us behind the trees, but we were behind and to the left of the golden Ox statue pictured here. Tiandi also had everything from coffee shops to an ‘American Style’ brew pub.

I want to give you all fair warning for this next section and let you know that I am a complete history nerd. My favorite attraction by far that we were able to see on the lake was Temple of King Qian. This compound was built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) as a memorial to Qian Liu, first of the five Qian Kings who used Hangzhou as their capital.

Qian Palace Front GateIn addition to being a gorgeous example of historical architecture, the Temple of the Qian Kings also had some more recent history about the descendants of the kings, where they lived, and what they have done over the past century. I was frankly more impressed that they managed to keep track of them than what they actually did.  I am sure, like many historical sites in China, there were significant restoration efforts made in the late 20th century as international travel and tourism to China became more popular, but regardless, once inside the outer walls, it is easy to get the sense that a procession of Chinese nobility clad in silk robes and wreathed in incense could be right around the next corner. That feeling may be a result of me watching too many kungfu films when I was younger, but I think anyone would agree that this small sanctuary feels a world away from the crowded, busy city streets and lakefront that surround it.

Another metal mural in one of the halls
A large metal mural took up an entire wall in one of the halls
Note the man to the left for scale
Note the man to the left for scale
An inscription from the office space of one of the more recent decendants
An inscription from the office space of one of the more recent decendants
This piece translates to 'King Qian Shoots the Tide', and is part of a popular folk story still told today
This piece translates to ‘King Qian Shoots the Tide’, and is part of a popular folk story still told today

Qian Palace Central Courtyard

Continuing around the lake, I noticed what a spectacle I had become to passersby. This part of the city had a fairly high concentration of westerners, and I was still getting more quizzical looks than back near the training facility. I’m not sure if it was the blonde hair, the crutch, or just the fact that people had their cameras with them, but I saw more people trying to stealthily take pictures of me, or asking to pose with me here than anywhere else. It wasn’t too bad pretending to be famous for a few hours.

Jhonny Bridge West lakeOur wakeup call for Monday was scheduled at 4:00 AM, so after pushing through the crowds for a few hours, we decided to find a taxi and head back to the hotel for some dumplings and an early evening. before leaving the lake side, I looked out to see a large pagoda in the distance, on the other side of a narrow inlet. On another trip I might have tried to push everyone to get there today, but I would rather save it as a reason to come back.

Please enjoy the remaining pictures, and as always, email me with any questions about this post or anything else! XiHu distant Pagoda

I could resist gawking at one of the rarest cars in the world, the Aston Martin Vanquish, displayed a block from the Temple of King Qian
I could resist gawking at one of the rarest cars in the world, the Aston Martin Vanquish, displayed a block from the Temple of King Qian
Special thanks to Jay for showing us around!
Special thanks to Jay for showing us around!
Chiang Kai-Shek's former Villa
Chiang Kai-Shek’s former Villa
These boats are incredibly ornate, and incredibly low to the water!
These boats are incredibly ornate, and incredibly low to the water!
No explanation for this one, about 30 people were captivated by a squirrel in this tree.
No explanation for this one, about 30 people were captivated by a squirrel in this tree.

Did I Mention This Is Hard?

Are you tired of me writing about our first stage of training? Well, too bad! The other two are professional chefs, so while they still have flour specifications and ingredient sourcing to discuss, I’m left with nothing better to do than apply my liberal arts degree as it was intended by pretending that I know what I’m talking about, synthesizing analysis of technical culinary operations with descriptions of a fascinating cultural context… or something like that.

The featured photo for today may seem a little stark, but I thought it was important to showcase the unvarnished, imperfect, and ever-changing Hangzhou. I could have chosen a picture of the stunning West Lake (XiHu) or one of the ancient estates that made this city one of the most famously beautiful in all of China, and there will be time for that later. Right now I want to show Hangzhou as it is lived by many of its residence, who are on the edge of a relentless wave of expansion. To the right you see a tightly packed neighborhood of multi-unit houses, in center, the road we walk to work every day, and on the left, a huge development of high-rise buildings still under construction. To put it simply, there is no place in America, or anywhere else for that matter, that builds like the Chinese are building now. We build a building and call it a major project that will reinvent a neighborhood. The Chinese build neighborhoods in a single project and move on to the next with little fanfare. A friend of mine who lived in China for two years once remarked that the national symbol for China should be the construction crane. If you looked at the skyline of a city like Shanghai or Hangzhou, you might think it already is.

First Batch uncooked
Our first steaming basket, pre-steamer

Today we have increased the intensity of our training, moving our start time from 8:30 AM to 4:00 AM. Our 12 hour redbull fueled shift was enlightening and exhausting at the same time. It began with a huge milestone for the three of us. by 5:00 AM we were called toward the back of the training area and shown to a container full of bok choy. For the first time we were going to get to steam and eat our own bao! The sense of accomplishment made the baos taste that much better, however, the green bits poking out of some of my sub-par folds were a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

First batch cooked
Jingjing and the crew with our first completed steamer.

Much of today was spent discussing how the hell we are going to recreate baos of this caliber in America. Where do we get the correct dough? The dough used in China is soft as a pillow and can stretch seemingly endlessly without tearing. What cuts of meat should we use for the pork? The pork and beef cuts are different in China than in European style butchering. Other than training to make bao, a huge reason for this trip was to learn about the challenges and details of bao making that we need to anticipate once the stores open in Harvard Square and Providence. To sum up what we have gathered so far: 1. Quality is everything. If we compromise the quality of our bao, service, or employees, its over.  and 2. This is really hard.

For contrast, I would like to submit this picture McBaoof Gerry with a “McBao” from McDonalds. I declined to ask why he decided it would be a good idea to get a fried mystery meat sandwich with obviously fake bacon and stone-colored bread with black spackling, but he is ever the inquisitive type and seems to have a strong stomach. I did ask his professional opinion on the McBao, and he described it as “awful” – a short but sufficient answer. In comparison to the GanQiShi baos, he stated that it was “truly insulting” before forcing down his third and final bite before abandoning the sandwich-bao Frankenstein that now sits in my trash. Assuming Gerry has not been incapacitated by his last meal, we will be getting up at around 3:45 tomorrow morning to head back to work, as we will every day of training. There are still plenty of baos to make.

Red Bull
Our plan to cope with the early mornings this week and next.

We Smell of Bok Choy.

As an addendum to this post, I would like to mention that I have been trying to post this blog for two days now. As with all international trips, there are customs, conventions, and other realities that we are still trying to adjust to. Most of these are interesting learning experiences, the other one is the titanic battle we have been waging to get a solid internet connection capable of communicating with home. Using multiple wifi passwords and VPNs, infinitely refreshing our phones between breaks, etc. It is all part of the experience, but may mean that this blog does not always come out when I intend it to, and that pictures are not guaranteed. Anyway, please enjoy and as always, comment if you have any questions!

The past two days have really seen Jhonny, Gerry and I get into the groove of training. I think that the scope of our task has rapidly unfolded before us, in that we are starting to get over the initial overwhelming sensation of how difficult making bao is, and we are beginning to understand what it is going to take to become the consistent and dexterous perfectionists required to one day train others to do this tasks at the same high quality as our teachers can make today. We have begun trying to break off our own pieces of dough from the long serpentine rolls. That should be easy enough, but then you have to consider that we are required to make a clean cut with only our hands, and the resultant piece of dough needs to fall between 58-62 grams exactly. Anything else is discarded.

image

Over the past couple of days, we have also gotten the chance to explore our immediate neighborhood a bit more. Despite the heavy construction in the area, there are also some working class neighborhoods that are positively teaming with people at all hours of the day. Due to construction, we had to take our walking commute through the heart of a neighborhood today. Not only was it one of the more packed places I have seen since getting to China, but it is also one of the most vibrant in its own way. We saw birds being feathered and fish jumping from bins, almost like a desperate attempt to escape their fate in a local chef’s hands. There were also countless stores selling ‘designer’ bags and shoes for as little as $1.50 in some cases. It is astounding how much can be packed into alleys that seem almost non-existent from the main roads of the city. As a non-Chinese man wearing an orange uniform and walking with crutches, swinging one leg through the air, I don’t think I could attract more strange looks the locals if I lit my hair on fire.

Dough sheeting

Back to making bao, today we learned more tricks and tips that allowed us to make good enough specimens to move on from using dough as ‘filling’ to make practice bao, we could now instead use one of the real store ingredients: Bok Choy and Shitake Mushroom. Bok Choy doesn’t like to behave. I found myself pushing cold, wet vegetable into increasingly slippery dough, trying to get the diced green pieces to stay at the bottom of the bao with one thumb while trying desperately to keep 20 folds of dough in place with the other. The results after about an hour and a half were humbling at best, but I have to say, I think we made a handful of bao (out of several hundred) that could actually be worthy of a steamer (maybe). Once again, carefully watching our teachers has proven to be the most effective method to learning the small hand movements. I think more than anything, seeing someone doing it perfectly while maintaining eye contact with us and asking about where we are from makes us realize that this is not an impossible task, it just takes discipline and the innumerable repetition of simple motions.

Holding medicine

Lastly I wanted to take a minute to acknowledge the continued and amazing generosity of our hosts. My face broke out into a red rash soon after arriving – which in my case can be triggered by anything from an allergy to salt water to a light breeze. Tom noticed and asked if I had tried Chinese medicine before to release toxins from my body. Yesterday I received some Niuhuang Jiedu Wan, which is made from cow gallstones and a mix of herbs.

Niu Huang

We also mentioned that we wanted to buy one of the uniforms we work in to take home. The next thing you know, we are being measured for our own uniforms and our colleagues at GanQiShi are refusing payment. We are very lucky to be working with people that not only want to see us learn, but are making sure we have a great experience overall.

First Day at Bao Boot Camp

Today the entire team, still seeing the world through the opaque lenses of 12-hour jetlag, woke up around 5:00 AM for breakfast at 7:30. After a breakfast of fried rice and eggs we sucked down a piping hot glass of loose-leaf green tea and headed to the office.

If anyone ever wants an example of how innovative the mindset of GanQiShi is, they only need take a tour of their open floor plan office. It comes complete with well curated calligraphy, and a break/casual meeting space that is surrounded by bamboo, flooded with natural light, centered around an elegant fountain/sand garden. After meeting the staff (a special thanks to HR Director Hu Cong for helping to coordinate this trip!) we headed into Tom’s office for something truly special.

image

Over the next two hours, we were treated to our own private tea ceremony performed by Tom. We tried fresh and fermented varieties of Pu’er, Oolong, and several other kinds of tea, poured over and over into small cups, with each stage of steeping of the tea providing a different flavor and intensity.image image

Because the tea is either fresh or just released from the fermentation process, it smells, for lack of a better term, more natural. I am an avid tea drinker, but sometimes even I have trouble picking out more than basic flavors in a tea I am drinking, but with this high-quality Chinese tea, I was able to taste sweet and bitter notes alternating during steeping, smoky flavors from some of the fermented tea, and a distinct sense that was I was drinking was from a living plant, not from a dried up brown husk in a tiny bag that typifies the tea I have back home. Waterlogged and relaxed, Jhonny, Gerry and I were taken to the GanQiShi Training Center to begin the work we had travelled here to do!

Gerry had plenty of questions for Tom today!
Gerry had plenty of questions for Tom today!
Tom cutting up a tea cake
Tom cutting up a tea cake

The training center is an unassuming building set back half a block from the street. The trademark orange that graces the front page of this blog covers the exterior of the first story. Once inside, we suited up into our orange and tan bao maker’s outfit, complete with orange cap and apron. We garnered more than a few surprised looks walking into the main training area, but those immediately turned to smiles and waves once our presence was explained to the other trainees in Chinese.

G&J uniform

We watched Mr. Yang first, observing how he effortlessly rolled the dough after putting it through the sheeter, and flattened it with a simple wooden dowel. Mr. Yang is a bao virtuoso – shaping dough in his hands with the dexterity that a concert pianist employs to plays scales. The standard for GanQiShi employees is to be able to take 22 dough balls and flatten them into the bao ‘wrappers’ in one minute. Those flattened pieces of dough are then supposed to be turned into baos, with fillings inside, in one additional minute. Mr. Yang can complete the second step at a rate of 6 baos per minute consistently, one every 10 seconds. Our more modest goal for the day was to make 2 bao in one minute. The tight spirals and plump, rounded shape of a newly formed bao escaped me completely. Not only are the precise gestures of the fingers difficult to remember and master at any speed, but they are all dependent on the gestures that came before, so that if you botch an early step, completing the next one correctly is nearly impossible. After an hour or so I began to understand the basic concept, but all of my bao look like they were made by someone who was blindfolded and dropped the bao on the floor halfway through production. Jhonny and Gerry both had more success, but there is still a long road ahead before any of us are able to make a bao worthy of the steamer at any speed, never mind the blistering pace considered the bare minimum to work in the stores. I’ll follow with another update soon when I have figured out how to close the top of the bao without getting my thumb stuck inside.

First Bites

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – and in my case, that step was made with my left foot as I recently broke my right one running in Boston a few days before the trip. Luckily I have two very helpful and completely mobile chefs with me to help with the bags. We were put up by the gracious TongJi University staff during our first night in China – its an amazing campus in a beautiful part of the city!

Checking out the bamboo gardens at TongJi University in Shanghai
Checking out the bamboo gardens at TongJi University in Shanghai

The flight was uneventful save for the child running and screaming in the isle as his mother relaxed to some in-flight entertainment. I will admit that I thoroughly enjoyed when the flight attendant politely asked that I wait for him to list the dinner menu in Chinese and then English. As soon as he finished the last item in Chinese I said, ‘jirou mifan’ (chicken and rice). ‘You understand Chinese?’, he replied in English. ‘Yidian’ (a little), I said. He then proceeded to launch into a paragraph of fluent Mandarin which I had no chance of comprehending.

After flying for over 14 hours above Canada, the arctic, Siberia, and finally China, we arrived at Shanghai Pudong airport, one of the largest in the world… or so I kept telling Jhonny and Gerry – the main terminal was nowhere near our arrival area. I think they are still skeptical.

I think it is hard for people that have never been to a city in China to picture Shanghai accurately. The estimated population is over 27 million people, and that’s not even the metropolitan area. They don’t build individual buildings but entire neighborhoods at once instead. The only way I can describe it is to imagine that you are driving through Manhattan from North to South. When you pass through downtown and reach New York Harbor, instead of driving into the water, imagine there is another bridge – one that should have started in the Bronx, leading you back into Manhattan. Be sure to take Broad Street and repeat this cycle about ten times over. Now you might be getting close to having an idea of how huge this city is and how endless its buildings feel when driving between them.

We were met at the airport by our guide for Shanghai, Eva, our documentary filmmaker, Jay, and of course, our fearless leader Tom Tong! After introductions and a few pictures we were on our way.

From there we drove directly to the Chifeng Road shop in Shanghai to have our very first baos! The store, featured in many of this blog’s cover pictures, is absolutely beautiful. Its open design allows people in the store and on the street to watch the bao makers at work as they roll the dough, add the various fillings, and steam the small, pale bao until they grow look like they might collapse under their own weight.

After a few minutes spent looking around the store, we all sat down to eat. Never before has so much depended on what I was about to eat. What if I don’t like the taste? What if after months of working toward bringing bao to America I discovered that they were not going to be well received overseas? With my first anxious bite into the Apple Pork BBQ Bao my fears were erased. The sweet and savory flavors worked perfectly together, and soaked into the bao’s bread, combining the juices with the texture of a kind of dough that I can’t say I have ever encountered anywhere else. The closest thing I could describe the taste to is oats, but it is still definitely wheat. It feels soft and spongy to the touch, but has a remarkable ability to hold in moisture without any leakage at all. It also smells slightly sweet.

Tom showed us the proper way to hold the bao to eat it without tearing the bread or spilling any of the juicy goodness inside. We tried most of the bao on the menu, and completely stuffed, headed back to our room to finally rest after our long journey to China. Tomorrow morning we’ll finish sampling the bao for breakfast with Tom, then on to Hangzhou – training begins Monday.

Check out the Baos page, where we will be adding our thoughts and descriptions of various bao flavors.

Pre-flight and Bao-less

It struck me the other night that despite planning for this trip for months, assembling a crack team of chefs (Gerry and Jhonny), searching for local ingredients, setting up kitchens, designing food trucks and talking endlessly about flour specifications, I have never had a real bao!

The fact that I have never tasted an authentic, fresh, handmade bao even after obsessing over every detail of its production for months may seem odd, but in fact, that is exactly why I am so excited about trying to bring them to America. If successful, we will be introducing a type of food that has never been sold on a large scale outside of China – and has rarely been sold anywhere at such a high quality standard.

Today I have been packing bags with clothes and gifts for when I arrive and double checking that we have all the right documents to make the long trip from Boston to Shanghai without incident. However, my thoughts have slipped past what I am packing today, and are instead settled on what we will be bringing back home. New experiences and sights will happen every day as we move around Shanghai and Hangzhou, and I can’t wait to share those with my colleagues at Tom’s BaoBao, my friends and family. But I think there is something even more essential to our mission over the next several weeks (and months). We are going to be bringing back an idea. This idea could – I hope – change the way that Americans view Chinese cuisine and ‘fast’ food. Today in the U.S. both of those terms are associated with generic conceptions of food that is made by the numbers for an indiscriminate audience that wants to know exactly what they are getting ahead of time. That is not us, that is not bao. I want the concepts we bring back with us to surprise people, to make them think of Chinese food in America as a healthy choice, and of fast food as an expression of precision and care instead of just convenience.

I think I speak for my whole team when I say that we can’t wait to get to China, and we can’t wait to show you all what we learn.

We will be flying from Logan airport tomorrow afternoon and will arrive in China 16 hours later. Shortly after we will have our first bao – stay tuned to hear what we think of it!

-Austin