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Visiting the kitchen of Yvan Collet, Executive Chef, Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin

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We鈥檝e recently had the opportunity to visit Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin, and talk with its Executive Chef, Yvan Collet, one of the most experienced foreign chefs in China. Yvan has lived and worked in China for 20 years, serving as the head chef in establishments in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Hainan. Chef Collet originally studied culinary arts in his home country of France, accumulating an extensive knowledge of European cuisines.
Hong-Kong based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts operates 95 luxury hotels globally and has recently brought Chef Collet to the Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin to oversee a complete revision and expansion of its menus.
 
cs_97A3417_2.jpgYou鈥檝e been at your current position with Shangri-La Hotel Tianjin for several months now. What was your primary goal in coming to this prestigious hotel?
 
Coming to Shangri-La was about joining a prestigious brand and continuing to challenge myself. What I love about the Shangri-La is how all of the food contains Asian influences. For example, the foie-gras that we do here contains flavors similar to Cantonese cuisine, and we mix Eastern and Western flavors in many dishes.
 
Could you briefly introduce us the restaurants and outlets that you are managing in Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin?
 
The Shang Palace is a Shangri-La signature restaurant featuring traditional Chinese cuisine, and is present at most of Shangri-La locations. Our Peking duck dish should taste the same throughout the "Jing-Jin-Ji" Area. We also have an international all-day dining restaurant, with an open kitchen, buffet and a-la-carte menus. Lastly we have a dining lounge with snacks and afternoon tea.
 
How has the food at Shangri-La Tianjin evolved since you arrived? What promotions will you be holding this year?
 
My goal is to make dishes that suit the local palette, and to make the menus feel more international and modern. This April we will hold a Middle-Eastern themed promotion, and in May we will have an Indian-themed. We鈥檒l bring in visiting chefs, who can also teach us about their respective cuisines. I鈥檒l be able to learn from watching them cook, and maybe put some new dishes on the menu. If the opportunity arises, I鈥檇 love to run some French themed promotions later in the year.
 
What specific challenges do you face running a hotel鈥檚  operations?
 
Hotels are much more complex than restaurants. You need to be conscious of corporate goals, and manage several spaces at once. We sometimes serve upwards of 900 people in Cafe Yun per day. Changing the menu helps to keep staff focused and breaks their normal routines. We鈥檒l change menus here every two to three months, based on the season, customer feedback, etc.
 
Tell us a bit about your creative process for designing a menu, cooking dishes, etc. What inspires you to try a new dish?
 
Well, I always start from my base, what I know, which is French food, then try to blend in other ideas. I don鈥檛 use soy sauce, because I鈥檓 not familiar enough with Asian cuisine to use it, but I鈥檒l add ginger or Asian vegetables to change the flavor of the dish. Appetizers are my specialty, I enjoy the process of garnishing, the visual appeal and presentation of a dish.
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What do you see as the future of Chinese cuisine? What trends are you noticing, and how have the restaurants you鈥檝e worked in changed over the years?
 
It really depends on the city, as China and Chinese cuisines are so diverse. For example, French food is really taking off in Shanghai, whereas Guangzhou is still a very traditional city, all local food. Western food is actually a competitive market now, which it wasn鈥檛 before. When I first came to China, cities were lucky to have one restaurant. Now Western restaurants really have to deliver high quality food to stay in business.
 
cs_97A3439_1.jpgAre you able to share experience or advice with chefs in other Shangri-La hotels?
 
Last month I went to Paris, and visited the Shangri-La Hotel, Paris there, which is situated in the former home of Napolean Bonaparte鈥檚 grandnephew. I was able to meet the Executive Chef, who gave me a tour, and spent several hours discussing cuisine with me. Shangri-La has done a great job building a family-like environment between staff from different hotels. We will have chefs visiting from other branches in the next few months, and our chefs will have the chance to travel to other hotels. The Shangri-La encourages us to build bonds, exchange ideas, and they also give me freedom to develop menus the way I see fit.
 
What have you done to improve the dining atmosphere of the Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin?
 
Shangri-La has many long-staying guests and repeat customers, who appreciate more variety and new events. We鈥檝e recently started to do wine tastings, pairing food with various wines from around the world. The breakfast menu has also been expanded from a 4-day rotation to a 7-day rotation. We鈥檙e trying to add Southern Asian items on the menu, from Tomyam soup to Tandoori-cooked items.
 
The challenge is always balancing quality with quantity, and catering to everyone鈥檚 tastes. Time management is very important; you have to implement changes very quickly.
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You have been in China for almost 20 years now. What鈥檚 your overall impression of the country, and why did you decide to pursue a career here?
 
The easy answer is to say I stayed here because I found a Chinese wife! China is always changing, moving quite fast, and that was very enjoyable when I was younger. My Chinese isn鈥檛 great, but I learned it out of necessity, and now I speak Chinese to most of my staff. Much of my instruction to the other chefs is through example, as cooking is a very manual job.
 
The Shangri-La Hotel, Tianjin, certainly did well to bring Yvan back to town. Such a well known and uniquely experienced has the ability to satisfy everyone with his culinary expertise. During our visit it was clear that Chef Collet is also respected and admired by colleagues and customers alike. Be sure to stop by the Shangri-La throughout the year to get a taste of its new exotic dishes.
 
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