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.

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