When we first spoke with L.A.-turned-Shanghai chef/restaurateur Kelley Lee, the 33-year-old was telling us about the more than half dozen American-style restaurants she's opened in China since moving there seven years ago. Not that it's all been a piece of cake. Convincing locals there's more than one way to make a hamburger was first on the list of cultural barriers. (“When you ask locals what they think of American food, they say it's McDonald's.”)
The Patina alum has stayed away from white-glove dining. (“The Chinese love a deal. Like Chinese Americans love a deal.”) Instead, she's focused on a casual Mexican cantina concept, a café, upscale burger joints, and more recently, a “molecular” cocktail lounge. She's also been a key player in the budding craft beer scene in Shanghai. Yes, we're feeling a sudden need to take an entrepreneurship class, too. Turn the page for more, and check back for her sous-vide “Egg'Wich” recipe.
Squid Ink: So we were talking about smoothies, burgers, those sorts of trends in Shanghai. What about cocktails?
Kelley Lee: Things have really changed a lot in Shanghai in the seven years I've been there. You've got a lot of interesting things going on in the cocktail scene now, people have been exposed to more things, more flavors. I probably couldn't have done a place like The Alchemist when I first got here, but now seemed the right time to open it.
SI: A good time for lapsang souchong tea “smoke” and other molecular gastronomy cocktail tricks. But what about basics, like good old craft beer?
KL: The beer culture is there, or starting to be. People go out to drink a lot, especially in Shanghai. That's why I started Boxing Cat [a brewpub]. The young people in Shanghai are savvy, more willing to try new things, like Mexican food, a different beer, a new cocktail. Or at least once they know how to order from a menu they're not familiar with.
KL: Oh definitely. The beer culture in China is really interesting right now. A lot of people, especially in the U.S., are starting to look towards China. Even the last two months I've been getting more inquiries from craft brewers in US who want to learn more about opening something in China. A lot of it has to do with what a huge market it is. And beer has been around for so long here [historically speaking], of course. But right now in China, as far as brewing craft beer, we have a long way to go.
SI: In that it's just getting started.
KL: Yes. Still, When people say we're 20 years behind in the craft beer industry than the United States, that's true. But I wouldn't be surprised if that changes in as little as four years. Things just happen quickly here.
It's also interesting to see the perception of what most people think of beer here. They think it's too bitter, that it's hoppy, but they don't know the words to describe it. We're actually getting a lot of younger generations coming in to the brewery more and more. They seem to relate to the craft culture. There are quite a lot of expats that come to the brewery also, but lately, we're really expanding to locals. It's the same thing we experienced with some of our other restaurants, actually. The first customers were the expats, then the locals came here and there. They start coming slowly until they feel comfortable. Now we're at closer to 40% locals, and we've got two Boxing Cat locations.
SI: So how did you get in to the brewery side of things? Were you always into craft beer?
KL: I really missed having a microbrewery to go to, and also that American-style food that you get there. But when I met Gary [Heyne], our former brewer, I knew nothing about brewing to be honest. He was at that time the brewer at another place where the beer was great, but the food really sucked. What a waste. Something that I can do is come up with a great concept, but I didn't know a thing about beer. I called up the owners [of the other gastropub] and asked if they wanted me to consult on the food.
They weren't interested, so I ended up talking to Gary, who was this big Texas guy wanting to open his own place. It just kind of built out from there. We wanted to do something food-wise that went well with beer, and since Gary is from Texas, we wanted to do Southern things, like jambalaya, fried chicken. Also California dishes, along the lines of modern American but more in casual sense. We opened in 2008. Unfortunately, Gary passed away suddenly last year.
SI: Very sorry to hear that.
KL: He was a great brewer, a great guy, and things were really getting going. It was sad. We ended up bringing in another brewer from Seattle who was working in Denmark, a guy named Michael Jordon.
SI: So basically you now have a Cal-Tex gastropub in Shanghai with Michael Jordan as your brewer.
KL: [Laughs]. He's a big white guy. Yeah, it's pretty funny.
Check back for the recipe for an “Egg'wich” — sous vide egg yolks with arugula-racette pesto — that Lee's head chef serves at The Alchemist cocktail bar.