A little more than 10 years ago, Sue Zhou, a Zhejiang native educated in the Netherlands, never imagined she would end up in Beijing as the owner of a Yunnan restaurant, chef, culinary teacher at The Hutong, catering consultant and organic food proponent. Now she is a rising figure in the culinary community with plenty of accomplishments under her belt, bringing her “make it from scratch” cooking philosophy, local Yunnan dishes and unique gastronomic insights to Beijing’s food culture.
Food has always been a central part of Zhou’s life, especially when proper Chinese cuisine was hard to come by in Europe during her childhood. She was merely 7 years old when her family shipped out to Holland, where they opened a Chinese-Indonesian restaurant.
Working in her parents’ restaurant and seeing them make everything from scratch kept her closely knit to her family and developed her love of food. “Food and culture are really connected to each other,” she says. “Even for simple things like mac and cheese. For someone who grew up with it, it brings them back home. So food is always calling up emotions.”
After attending University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing, Zhou moved to the Netherlands and worked for a European food trading company, traveling to China to visit factories and see the food production process. Unhappy with her humdrum day job, she quit and moved to China to pursue her passion of building up something truly creative. She spent the following years in pure exploration, absorbing inspiration from different recipes and expanding her skills, with no particular plan in mind.
Last year, Zhou’s business partner Wen Juan, a Yunnan native, approached her with the idea of opening an authentic Yunnan restaurant in Beijing. After embarking on a research trip and sampling a range of dishes made by the Hani minority in Yunnan, the pair came back ready to open Hani Gejiu in Zhonglouwan Hutong.
“We really believe in bringing a part of Yunnan culture [to the restaurant] as well,” says Zhou. “For example, my business partner went back during the Spring Festival and she brought back flowers. So during that week, we were doing these special dishes. You wouldn’t find that in big restaurants or big chains.”
With a populous city like Beijing, any cuisine is bound to be commercialized for the public. But Zhou doesn’t mind the competition. “Luckily there are a group of people that are more like artisans, focused on specialty products that can’t be produced on a big scale,” she says. “I think it’s complimentary.”
At any rate, it’s virtually impossible for one restaurant to capture the entirety of Yunnan cuisine. The province of Yunnan contains over 20 ethnic Chinese minorities, as well as mountainous terrain and tropical regions, making it one of the most diverse provinces in China biologically, culturally and geographically. Its richness unsurprisingly affects the region’s cuisine, which utilizes a wide range of ingredients including fruits, flowers, mushrooms, cured meat and even dairy products.
“Yunnan has not been traveled as much, it’s still ‘pure’ in a sense,” says Zhou. “Not the biggest cities, but the smaller towns.” And unlike Beijing, where seasonal vegetables only include cabbage, potatoes, and leeks, Yunnan markets are full of a wide variety of fresh, seasonal produce, culled from its rich topography.
Yunnan’s use of naturally fresh ingredients adheres perfectly with Zhou’s cooking philosophy of using purely organic ingredients when she can. Her catering business aims to operate with 100 percent organic ingredients, but there are challenges. Sometimes clients are unwilling to pay the high price for organic fare, or ingredients out of season that need to be imported.
“I like to serve people the same food I would serve my friends or myself,” says Zhou. “So I really take care and take time to source my ingredients.”
Zhou’s commitment is no joke considering she hand-picks individual farmers across Beijing to supply her kitchen, going as far as to visit their fields, seeing the vegetables with her own eyes, which she considers fundamental for being a chef. “You can be an amazingly talented chef,” says Zhou, “but if your base is crappy, you can’t be talented. It’s your foundation.”
She claims people often forget how food such as chicken—real chicken, not a mashed-up amalgam of chicken bits, fillers and starch found in processed nuggets—used to taste. Food and the ways in which we eat, like other traditions, are passed down from generation to generation. And from that belief comes Zhou’s commitment to preserving the art of cooking, an appreciation of the process and educating people to be aware of what they’re eating. It’s a quest that is increasingly difficult for chefs worldwide.
With industrial food chains worldwide increasingly influential in what we eat, prioritizing profit margins and the bottom line over quality, safety and taste, it’s reassuring to know that individuals like Zhou are watching our backs for what we put in our mouths.
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