The Taste of Artistry - a Four Seasons concept at Four Seasons Hotel, Tianjin.

Across Four Seasons properties in China, there has been a celebration of Chefs, as they treat guests to a magical exploration of their skills. I have long held the belief that Chefs are in fact artists, so it was appropriate that Four Seasons Hotels should create a concept under the title A Taste of Artistry. For Seasons Tianjin's own contribution was to bring in UMI Shanghai Executive Chef, Bjoern Alexander, to team up with its own Executive Chef, Cyril Calmet, to dazzle guests with their creations on the plate. 

As a preamble to the evening, Chef Bjoern treats a few guests from media to a Cooking Class, showing us how to make Abalone salad with ponzu dressing, rose and caviar. It is an opportunity to gain some insight into Chef; priceless. 

As Chef Bjoern preps for the class, there is a moment that really sums up some important elements that run through this Michelin decorated Chef - he takes a fresh yuzu and looks at it, pauses, feels it, pauses and smells it. Firstly, it is his respect for his ingredients that is evident, something that ties in with his Taoist philosophy as well as a Japanese influence where ingredients are given the utmost respect. Finally, the senses; they are an essential part of his cooking and while I only know him through his instagram posts and what I have read online, it is this moment that allows me to instantly connect with him. 

After a few minutes watching Chef interact with the handful of invitees, his dish is almost incidental. I mean no disrespect. It is Chef's words, as he goes along showing us how to make the dish, that captures me. He has this ability to connect with people. And yes, I am aware that he is also a brand and it helps to engage people the way he does, in front of the camera, but it goes deeper than this. There is a sincerity and genuineness in everything he says. Furthermore, his dish is something we could all make in the sense that the ingredients on his table today can mostly be picked up at a market. Even the caviar, budget permitting, is something you could find. However, Chef reminds us that while there is a recipe to follow, it is intuition and creativity that we should allow to flourish. I love it!

Rosemary Yanjun, the hotel's F&B Director, following Chef's example in prepping abalone.

In the end, the dish is is a real tribute to his passion for Japanese cuisine. While he has added Western elements because of issues of availability of ingredients, it is quintessential very Japanese on a number of fronts. Other than the rose pickles which gives the dish an added sensual quality, the colours have all the subtlety that you would associate with many a Japanese dish. Even the choice of plate reflects Japan and incidentally, mirrors chia seeds, which he uses in this dish. Notwithstanding the caviar, the flavours are delicate. As I thank Chef and go to my room to rest before dinner, I know that the evening ahead will be one to savour. 

As I return to Cielo that night for The Taste of Artistry dinner, I am once more reminded  what an exquisite restaurant Cielo is. It is what most hotels would call their all-day dining restaurant, but that is a term that is indeed a slight to  Cielo. When I hear all-day dining, I picture functionality above aesthetics; I visualise 250 seats in a restaurant where food, in itself, is often functional too. Cielo, on the other hand, is a restaurant, as I wrote in a separate post on the hotel,  with 'endless possibilities'.  Fine elements remain in a restaurant originally earmarked as such - it is as elegant as it is warm. Space has been smartly utilised and at no point did I feel that the restaurant actually can actually cater for 150 guests, comfortably. On a side note, I do miss the presence of a hostess as I walk down the corridor pictured above. I notice an air uncertainty in a few other guests too as they approach the restaurant.  We needed a bit of guidance. Be that as it may, I arrive at 19h35 for dinner and am met my the restaurant manager who guides me to my  table. 

My journey starts with Oysters, clams, citrus, soy and garlic. There are oysters, but then are Gillardeau oysters. The oyster I am served is nice and big, fleshy,  but not unnaturally large, if you know what I mean. Simply plated, sitting atop seaweed and salt, constant reminders of the source of the dish. The problem with an oyster dish, though, as much as it evokes the sea, is it usually has no texture other than the typical soft, sliminess of an oyster. The excitement, for those who choose to have it seasoned with something other than a bit of lemon, is in what else is on the oyster. As the oyster slips into my mouth, there is an explosion of flavour, but an explosion in stages; citrus and soy - the contrast is clear, even on paper, but the excitement of the flavours soon give way to texture of the clams. Chef has used something else from the sea  that in no way interferes with the integrity of the oyster, especially in terms of flavour. The dish is now complete and Chef has managed to change the way I think about having oysters - there is much more one can do with an oyster without doing much! 

As I sip on a glass of Domaine Seguinot Bordet Petis Chablis, 2016, I cast an eye towards Chef Bjoern as he prepares the next dish and adds the finishing touches with the hotel's Executive Sous Chef Paul. my eyes come back tmy table and I look at the wine pairing list created by the hotel's sommelier. The set menu, including 5 flights, offers remarkable value. It would be easy to come up with a finer list, but then the evening loses its key strength - accessibility according to price point. 

My thoughts are pleasantly interrupted as Chef brings the following dish - Snow crab, grilled mango, cucumber, shiso and ginger. Apologetically, Chef explains that due to the unexpected unavailability  of snow crab, he has used Russian king crab. However, if you have had Russian crab, you'll understand this is not a bad problem to have. Chef tells me to use a spoon, and after my first scoop I understand why. The bowl he has used makes it a very eating-friendly dish, but it has to be spoon. 

There is quite a lot happening on the plate and then in my mouth after the first scoop. First, carpaccio-like cucumber is rolled and encases the crab and topped with caviar and grilled mango. This is gently bathed in  a shiso and ginger sauce. Flavourwise, the arresting sweetness of the crab is balanced by the caviar and surprisingly, mango as well. Because the mango is grilled, it loses a bit of sweetness and gets more complexity of flavour  and of course texture. Nonetheless, the real textural element comes in the cucumber as it releases a  crunch with every bite. Sensuous. It is the kind of dish I want to have, sitting on a beach in Cape Town, listening to the Atlantic waves, soaking up the sun and tasting the sea in the air. 

To balance the intermittent sweetness of the dish,  a glass of Ruffino Lumina Pinot Grigio 2015 is served. Incidentally, for those not seeking a full flight of wines, this goes for an excellent price of 45 RMB. 

For the third course, Chef serves a dish that should get you excited just from reading the name - Fresh uni, sweet potato, blue potato and bacon chawanmushi. The uni, or sea urchin to most of us, is sourced from Canada; beautiful. It is an ingredient with which you have either a love or hate relationship. It polarises people. It is a cliché but I will say it anyway: the uni's texture, slithery as it is, is actually quite lovely, but even more so when the chawanmushi with its own custardy texture, seems to reinforce the uni's. It is, naturally, crispy chips, with its loud crunch, that serves as the perfect foil for the uni. This may be the most Japanese dish on the menu, but I may be biased because the chawanmushi is so distinctive in its Japaneseness and pervasive in this dish!

Without much fanfare, what will prove to be the dish of the night, is brought. You know, there are those moments at a dinner when you have an experience, but as the experience starts, you have no idea THAT was THE moment that you will be talking about again and again. You look back and you regret that you did not completely drown out everything around you so as to focus on that moment. Has this happened to you?  

Well, thankfully, I sense something special the moment I smell the burnt rosemary and cast my eye on a dish that reminds me of Autumn. Nothing is lost in the moment. Complete nowness. As the dish is placed in front of me, the scent of burn wafts up to my nose with greater intensity. Sense. I close my eyes, allowing my sense of smell a chance to be used more keenly. John Keats. Ode to Autumn. From my plate, I take up some brown leaves with burnt edges and feel them.I crush them. Sense. I bring them closer to my ears. I move my fingers, crushing them. Oh the crackle of leaves. Sense. Ode to Autumn. John Keats. 

Amidst the ruin of what was once Summer, sits Chef's Chicken yakitori, spiced up, but still conveying a visual Autumn on the plate. Before even tasting it, I have already experienced an emotion. I am one of those people who starts 'eating' long before the dish is served. I fall in love with a dish through my nose, my eyes and tonight I add the sense of touch. In Ode to Autumn John Keats, an English Romantic poet, writes about the beauty of Autumn, elevating a season that is often overlooked in favour of Spring and Summer, one imbued with rich symbolism and the other with supposed happy memories of Summers spent by the beach, on vacation and so on. He argues that Autumn is the most beautiful of seasons. 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Tonight, as I look at this dish, the power of the poet's words hits me full on. This is a credit to Chef who has presented a dish that is able to stir  such very strong emotions. Autumn!

What about the actual chicken? Oh so tender, largely due to Chef's method of cooking - that for another post because it is much more complex than it looks. The spices he has added do indeed bring some flavour, but nothing that overpowers the chicken. Autumn, after all, is not about extremes is it? It is not about the searing sun or icy snow. Nice! What a glorious dish, no, I mean experience. 

After this dish, I request a break. It is just such an emotionally intense dish. How often do you have a dish that takes you through a season? I have a chance to chat to the hotel sommelier, Ye Wang - the conversation is about wine, predictably. I tell her I am encouraged by the fact that I am meeting more and more female sommeliers - still very low comparatively. Our conversation moves to Champagne. Overall, this is a moment I want to see more - in much the same way a chef engages a guest, so too should a sommelier. She has a big job educating guests, especially when it comes to the value of new world wines! 

Feeling ready, though, to try my main course, Chef approaches, sensing my thoughts. A pouring of a Shiraz signals it will be a beef dish. I find it an interesting choice  because it is not as full as I would normally have with beef, but in the end I don't mind. Besides it has some familiar full bodied notes like berries and pepper to keep me interested! Finally, because there is a bowl of ramen noodles on the side, it is probably a good idea to have something medium bodied. 

The dish, Wagyu beef, pumpkin tacos, micro greens, dried egg yolk with truffle, ramen noodles, burned leeks, confit egg yolk is highlighted by a Grade 9 wagyu from Australia. The beef is beautifully cooked, allowing me to appreciate the high level of marbling. It always pains me when a guest requests  a fine piece of beef to be done anything but at least  medium rare. My favourite ingredient in this dish, other than the beef, has to be the leek, served two ways as crispy leek and as ash. It is one of those humble ingredients often overlooked. I am glad to see it on this dish. Finally, nori cracker brings that typical Chef Bjoern texture to the dish, but my beef, I am pleased to say, is very much in tact.  It is not difficult for a chef to use MB9 beef to woo a guest, but to excite a guest with leek, now that is something. 

 I love the ramen noodles served on the side - ramen is a dish that has specific memories for most people and it is such a simple everyday dish that brings balance to the Wagyu. Finally, the connection between the two glaringly different dishes is the beef - Chef uses the beef stock in the noodles; perfectly connected. 

Finally, dessert. Now admittedly, I am quite happy to end a meal after the main course, so as to keep that memory lingering. However, I am intrigued to see what Chef has come up with. Oh it is a very smart dessert. Black sesame ice cream. yoghurt, mochi, lime leaves, passion fruit and basil seeds is all about texture and also surprise. One is used to mochi that is quite glutinous and filled with something from ice cream to  a fruity paste. If you look carefully in the picture below, you will see two 'discs' - that is the mochi. Yes, it is all about texture. The yoghurt, black sesame 'cracker' and the mochi are more about texture - but let's not forget the crunchy passion fruit seeds, while the ice cream and passion fruit are all about contrasting flavours. Note, too, the restraint in colours, once more, a key feature in tonight's menu, except for one dish. It is a  fitting way indeed to finish off this evening. 

Evenings like these are so much more than making revenue. While restaurants can have set theme nights like Seafood or Italian, they need events like these to showcase its F&B product in a  new light. With visiting Chef Bjoern Alexander running the kitchen on the night, it no doubt brings new life to resident chefs who have a chance to look at everything through different eyes. Chatting to Chef Calmet, a hugely talented chef himself and blessed with so much humility, it was clear that his creativity had been taken up a notch. His eyes lit up with excitement every time he talked about his learning experience with Chef Bjoern. Everyone grows. Then, of course, there is the guest. Regulars have a chance to wowed by something new. Finally, value for money is always a buzz expression  for me, especially in a city that is not known for its embracing of concepts created by  Michelin credentialed chefs - they do not want to pay too much money for something not tried and tested. To pay Around 800RMB+ incl drinks pairing for a dinner and experience like this is unheard of.

As Chef Bjoern walks off after a long day, I reflect on an evening that will always be associated with Autumn. When I think of rustling leaves, I will recall tonight. When I step on leaves and I hear  a crackle, my thoughts will drift to this night. Tonight, life imitated art, and Chefs Bjoern and Calmet, were the key orchestrators. Memories were evoked and memories were created. That is Artistry. 


Four Seasons Hotel,
138 Chifeng Road,
Heping District,
+86 22 27 166688

Subway:  Around 45 minutes From Tianjin South - Line 3 Yinkoudao

Brandon Stoltenkamp