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Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development

Spring sensations

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No time of year inspires chefs to create seasonal menus like spring does. That first warmth, the shaking off of winter doldrums, the vision of tiny green shoots emerging from the soil all lead to produce markets bursting with some of the tastiest morsels of the year.

Nobody knows that better than Dong Zhenxiang, the Beijing-born impresario behind the Da Dong roast duck restaurants. He's been quite busy lately, scooping up Michelin stars for two Shanghai restaurants and preparing to open his first US outlet in New York in June. But he is clearly never too busy to enjoy this season of rebirth, when he gives his "artistic conception of Chinese cuisine" free rein.

An imposing presence at 193 centimeters tall, hence the nickname da ("big"), the celebrity chef likes to do things in a big way. His new menu was introduced to media and VIP clients not at one tasting party but about a dozen, each at a different location in his chain. A multimedia show with glamorous hosts and thunderous music, about a dozen courses and a nice selection of wines and cognac made each party a night to remember, with the chef bouncing out of his chair to work the room all night.

"'Spring unfolds a plethora of inspirations' is also the title of an old pop song," Dong says in his introduction of the menu. "Here, one adjective cong cong or 'plethora' could be well substituted by another term cong cong or 'onions' to pun in reference to spring, for it brings a plethora of delightfully edible sprouts."

Quoting literary master Su Dongpo, he adds: "Savoring the fresh delicate greens on the plate is joy beyond compare."

Dong's joy in the season is evident on his plates, from his Miaofeng Mountain Rose Cakes to the flower-bedecked Sauteed Wagyu Beef with Sichuan Pepper and Preserved Vegetable. His dinner guests watching the video saw the chef eagerly roaming rapeseed fields in Dunhuang-indulgently allowing himself to be crowned with a ring of the bright yellow flowers-and digging up the first tender bamboo shoots of the year.

He has traveled widely, apparently eating nonstop as he explores the diverse influences that inspire him, from Sichuanese peasant dishes to the molecular cooking that made French chemist Herve This a culinary celebrity.

While his inspirations are often simple, local food, his plates pack some glam.

"I'm a Chinese chef, so my philosophy is to always focus on Chinese food," he told the Beijinger way back in 2010. "But I draw upon other places and peoples, ingredients and techniques to make my food great." Earlier this year, Dong was named a "food and beverage culture ambassador" by the Beijing Food and Beverage Industry Association, a move to promote the capital's culinary industry.

His recent visits to Gansu province and to Italy, where he spent a few weeks on a culinary pilgrimage last summer, were bookends for a production he calls From Dunhuang to Sicily, a tribute to the Silk Road's food legacy.

These influences run through the menu like a fugue. Sticky rice meets Iberian ham. Fish belly with saffron sauce and rape flowers. Fresh oysters served in two styles are smoothly followed by wonton stuffed with shepherd's purse in Huadiao yellow wine.

His roots also get a moment in the spotlight, with traditional Beijing Zhajiang noodles with soybean-meat paste.

With the arrival of spring, the chef says, "we engage the local farmers in happy conversations and indulge in the pleasures of the farmers meals, by which our bodies, hearts and minds are rejuvenated in this season."

China Daily


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