Published: 12:34, December 14, 2023 | Updated: 16:53, December 15, 2023
A matter of taste sets menu apart
By Li Yingxue

Zhang Zhicheng (center), the executive chef of the China Tang restaurant with his team of chefs in Beijing. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chef experiments with ingredients to deliver plates of creativity, Li Yingxue reports.

At the age of 6, Zhang Zhicheng crafted his first-ever plate of fried rice; by 19, he was running a newly opened restaurant.

At 24, he became head chef of a private kitchen, Yanjintang, where his reputation in Beijing's culinary circles soared. At 28, he went to Macao to take charge of the two-star Michelin restaurant Golden Flower.

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Zhang, a native of Beijing, is affectionately known as "Little Fatty" by patrons and colleagues alike. Despite his youthful age of 30, his professional journey already boasts a prolific tapestry of accomplishments.

This year, the seasoned yet youthful chef embraced a fresh challenge, assuming the role of executive chef at the China Tang restaurant in Beijing, shuttling between the gastronomic hubs of Beijing and Macao.

For me, deliciousness is about cooking and processing being balanced, the product being standardized, and harmony between contrasting flavors. 

Zhang Zhicheng, Executive chef of the China Tang restaurant

"What I want to do is high-end Chinese cuisine, without too many Western techniques or much Western presentation. The key is deliciousness," Zhang says, adding that it is better to spend time on preparing the ingredients and controlling the cooking temperature than on presentation.

He excels in classic Chinese cuisine and creative fusion dishes. His dishes are characterized by richness, intensity, and freshness, inheriting traditional cooking, while interpreting Chinese culinary aesthetics with his unique skills. "I believe that innovation is making today's dishes better than yesterday's."

Speaking of his "delicious and rich" cooking style, Zhang says, "For me, deliciousness is about cooking and processing being balanced, the product being standardized, and harmony between contrasting flavors".

Food vlogger Li Xiaonan, says that Zhang embodies the spirit of a young culinary hero and that his cooking style is versatile, exhibiting a fearless and agile approach.

The pairing of assertive, bold and, at times, audacious ingredients might appear domineering. However, upon closer examination, one discovers a subtle finesse — a fusion of tradition and nuanced local innovation, Li comments.

Zhang's culinary journey started when he watched the anime series Cooking Master Boy. Upon watching this cartoon for the first time, Zhang instantly realized his calling was to become a chef.

From then on, the show not only served as a source of inspiration, but also exerted a profound influence on his present cooking style.

This photo shows "Crispy Onion Abalone" - one of the signature dishes of Zhang Zhicheng, the executive chef of the China Tang restaurant in Beijing. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At 19, he secured the position of chef for pop singer Su Xing's new restaurant.

After gaining two years of experience at Su's establishment, Zhang, along with others, established the upscale takeout platform Shetouhenmang "busy tongue".

The platform attracted a 3 million yuan ($418,000) angel investment in 2016, yet Zhang eventually decided to step away from the project because he didn't want to make standard food, but concoct creative Chinese cuisine in his own style.

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He then became the chef of Yanjintang, a private restaurant that only serves one table per day, which is located in a Beijing hutong.

In 2021, he took up the baton from his predecessors and assumed the role of executive chef at the then two-star Michelin restaurant Golden Flower.

Beneath the restaurant's iconic sign, the inscription reads, "run by Zhang Zhicheng".

Zhang believes that the experience gained in the past few years through interactions with diners have significantly contributed to his growth. They have also provided him with a clearer understanding of the culinary path he should tread.

This photo shows "Xiaopang Feicha" (Little Fatty's roasted pork) - one of the signature dishes of Zhang Zhicheng, the executive chef of the China Tang restaurant in Beijing. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"The more I comprehend, the more I realize that deliciousness is paramount," he says.

The owner of China Tang, Peter Lam Kin-ngok, a Hong Kong businessman, has been enjoying Zhang's culinary creations since the early years of his chef career.

Lam extended several invitations for Zhang to join the restaurant, and finally, this year, Zhang decided to accept the offer, embarking on a new challenge.

"Mr Lam has a profound understanding of gourmet cuisine; some dishes in the restaurant even bear the flavor he personally crafted."

After a period of refinement and adjustment, this winter, Zhang unveiled a menu for China Tang that embodies his distinctive personal touch.

Featured prominently on the menu is his signature dish Crispy Onion Abalone. This exquisite creation centers around the glistening and crisp white segments of green onions from Zhangqiu, Shandong province, showcasing their innate sweetness through a meticulous process of deep-frying.

This photo shows "Crispy Onion Abalone" - a dish on the new menu of China Tang restaurant. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The fresh Dalian abalone undergoes slow-cooking at low temperatures, while a precision cross-sectional cut in a "staggered" fashion ensures optimal absorption of the delightful essence from the crispy onions.

When savored together, the amalgamation of crispy onions and abalone delivers a symphony of textures — crunchiness, tenderness, aromatic richness, softness, and a subtle chewiness — that tantalizes the palate.

The freshly fried crispy-skin chicken is also an irresistible delicacy. Zhang has selected free-range chickens raised on a diet of corn and spring water, resulting in smooth chicken skin and firm yet tender meat.

According to his introduction, unlike traditional fried chicken, his crispy-skin chicken is raw-fried, with a crispy skin and boneless chicken meat, similar to that of steamed chicken. The crispy skin, and the tender and juicy boneless meat is its most prominent feature, also posing the greatest challenge to the chef's precision in controlling the cooking time.

This photo shows "Hongpao Roasted Baby Pigeon" - a dish on the new menu of China Tang restaurant. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"When serving this dish to guests, they will hear the sound of the golden crispy skin being cut open, experiencing its crispiness visually and by auditory perception," Zhang explains. "I would recommend guests to first savor the chicken skin, followed by the chicken meat, and then combine the two for a unique layering of textures.

"When enjoying this dish, if there is no conversation in the room, all you will hear is the sound of the crispy skin crunching," Zhang adds.

In the selection of desserts, Zhang has chosen some traditional Beijing pastries, including handmade yogurt and double-colored Lyudagun.

"Lyudagun originated during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with a yellow rice skin, red bean filling, and finally rolled in roasted soybean flour powder. Its characteristics include a fragrant sweetness, a soft and glutinous texture, with a subtle bean fragrance," explains Zhang.

In addition to the traditional flavor, Zhang has also created a cheese-flavored filling, complemented by the addition of coconut shreds, resulting in an overall taste that is both sweet and tangy.

Gao Zhaolei, a food writer also recognized as Zise Touming, is impressed by the innovative menu crafted by Zhang. Several dishes made a lasting impact on her.

This photo shows "Roasted Beef Rib with Spices" - a dish on the new menu of China Tang restaurant. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Her particular favorite is the Xiaopang Feicha (Little Fatty's roasted pork). Zhang elevates the Cantonese tradition of enjoying roast pork to a new level, presenting a meticulous balance of "half-fat, half-lean" for all.

"The roasted pork exudes a richness that is both succulent and devoid of any greasiness. Upon being served, the 20-year-old dried tangerine peel is freshly ground, infusing the air with a delightful aroma of sweet oranges and tangerines. It's a delightful interplay of freshness and indulgence," recalls Gao.

The Hongpao Roasted Baby Pigeon stands out as another culinary gem, according to Gao. The impeccably glossy pigeon is cleverly concealed within a bed of Sichuan pepper of the Hongpao variety, she notes.

In the realm of traditional crispy-skin squab, renowned for its tender, juicy meat and crunchy, vibrant skin, Zhang elevates the dish further. Drawing inspiration from smoked flavors, he blankets the seared pigeon with stir-fried Sichuan Hongpao peppercorns, allowing the squab to absorb their nuanced essence.

"It's a multi-sensory experience, engaging sight, smell, and taste, creating a truly memorable dish," Gao says.

According to Gao, Cantonese cuisine traditionally places a premium on its meticulous selection of ingredients and refined flavor, coupled with an inclination toward simple presentation.

"Beyond these two features, Zhang's culinary creations also embody the boldness characteristic of northern cuisine. The presentation of the dishes is grand without being overly intricate, highlighting the food itself, without getting bogged down in trivial decorative details," she explains.

"His dishes are both robust and refined, casual and carefree."