Culinary Theatre for the WeChat Generation
Opening in February 2016, the restaurant Anthologia is a window onto developments in the Japanese culinary field in Shanghai.45 This high- end eatery - whose Chinese name better translates as Global Gourmet Theatre (Diqiu meishi juchang) - is quite literally a culinary theatre, in which Japanese food culture is staged by a mixed Sino-Japanese staff for a largely Chinese audience. A set menu is priced at 1,080 yuan per person (approx. $166 USD). Though far beyond the means of the average urban worker, I use this example not to show a typical Japanese dining experience but as an ethnographic study of the changing practices of conspicuous consumption in urban dining, and the new online trendsetters who now shape the culinary field.
Since Anthologia only opened in February 2016, it is too early to know if it will be a success or failure. It is located in a new culinary themed shopping street called Happiness Lane between Xingfu Road and Fahuazheng Road in the western section of the Former French Concession, a district of low-rise heritage architecture that now (as it did a century ago) houses some of Shanghai’s richest and most powerful residents.
Patrons enter the plain windowless facade through noren-curtains into a traditional Japanese entrance. Backed by a gorgeous Japanese flower arrangement, two Chinese hostesses in bright floral kimonos greet us at the door. There is a place in the foyer for removing footwear. Immediately we know we are in a Japanese space. Indeed, Shanghai’s citizen food reviewers on Dianping frequently mention the requirement to remove shoes as a sign of culinary authenticity in Japanese restaurants. These busy online reviewers are now the new collective culinary gatekeepers in Shanghai. Not everyone posts reviews on Dianping, but nearly all diners share photos and comments with their circle of friends through the medium of WeChat, a dominant social media platform, used by 93 per cent of all cell phone users in urban China. A few customers may be influential food writers, with thousands of followers on the blogging platform Weibo.
From the foyer, we then enter the main restaurant space, which can seat roughly 40 guests. Seats arranged in rows face inward towards a sunken stage surrounded by a five-metre wide bank of video screens that effectively fill the diners’ field of vision. Customers start arriving at 18:30 and are seated as they would be in a theatre, each facing his or her own private table. Other than myself, all the customers are male-female couples, who look to be in their twenties or thirties. There is one group of two couples who arrived together, but the space does not function for group dining, because there are no private rooms, or even tables around which a group could converse. You can only hear the person beside you, but diners can still be constantly in communication with their friends outside the restaurant through WeChat.
An artfully folded paper menu on the table describes the eight-course omakase set-menu dinner that will follow. Except for the drinks, there is no need to order. The menu is entirely in English and Chinese. Surprisingly, there is no Japanese, though most of the Chinese staff speaks Japanese, some well enough to fluently explain the elaborate dishes. All of the patrons this night, however, are Chinese, which is typical in the restaurant.
The projections on the screen have already begun, black and white scenes from a sake brewery in Japan accompanied by music. Sake and whiskey bottles are placed in the sunken stage in front of the screen, and people are ordering drinks, mostly sake (for sake and Japanese national identity see also Stegewerns’ article in this volume). I order a Kirin dark beer, waiting for my host, the Shanghai-based restaurateur Hirano, a native of Tokyo, to arrive. This slideshow is subdued in comparison to what will come, but all the customers have begun taking out their phones and texting the exotic images to their chat group friends.
My Kirin arrives. Then Hirano arrives from a meeting. We then order sake, which is delivered in colourful irregular sake pitchers specially made for the restaurant at a suburban Shanghai kiln. The head chef emerges onstage in a kimono, with his face shockingly painted like a kabuki actor. He introduces himself as Bulizo, a stage name meaning roughly ‘Master Yellowtail’. Bulizo makes a dramatic speech in Japanese about seasonal ingredients. Because it is spring, the theme of the meal is spring. The Chinese sous-chef, also in kimono, gives a dramatically rendered translation. As Bulizo speaks, the huge screens behind him bloom brightly with a kaleidoscope of flowers. The kimono-clad waitresses deliver a salad of raw red cockles flavoured with a hint of miso. We are then handed a mysterious paper package to shake and dump into our salad. It contains coloured lightly sweetened popcorn and flowers that beautifully match the images of flowers on the screen. Everyone immediately photographs the flowery popcorn and cockle salad, the face-painted kabuki chef, and the kaleidoscopic floral screen. It is a spectacular show of culinary Japonaiserie, a visual collage of stereotypical images and real culinary skill intended to shock, please, and entice, not only the diners, but their friends on WeChat.
Like many other visitors I am reminded of a famed French restaurant in Shanghai called Ultraviolet, which at 3,000-8,000 yuan per diner, makes Anthologia seem cheap. Ultraviolet, which is run by Shanghai expatriate chef Paul Pairet, often tops the rankings for all restaurants in Shanghai; it pioneered the idea of set-menu dining at nosebleed prices. The chief innovation of Ultraviolet is the projection of images on all four walls and even on the table, making dining a multisensory and multimedia event. It has set a model for ambitious chefs in Shanghai,
and Anthologia is one of its several imitators. The images make for good photography. This is conspicuous consumption for the WeChat generation, for whom posting the meal is as important as eating it.
Hirano is not too pleased with the cockles, complaining they do not have enough miso flavour. I find them tender, fresh, and tasty. Like most of the seafood, they have been purchased from Nagasaki by a Sino- Japanese joint venture that flies in high-end seafood three times a week. Bulizo makes a pass by the tables. Bulizo only speaks in Japanese, but his stage sidekick, the Chinese sous-chef who has worked with Hirano for five years, translates the speech into Chinese. One of the waitresses also has nearly perfect Japanese, having lived in Japan for 13 years, returning to China after a divorce. The core staff members have been working with the owner Hirano at his three other restaurants in Shanghai.
Everyone is looking at the screens on their phones as they send out their photos on social media. The man closest to us, however, is trying to cuddle with his date while she texts, putting his arm around her waist and touching her in as many places as the situation would allow, reaching over to kiss her, when she lets him. This is meant as a dating place, Hirano said, a place designed to appeal to women, since they are the ones who decide where to eat. ‘The idea is that this should be a place you go before having sex’, he quipped. ‘You watch this show, you eat some light and fresh food, you feel excited and happy, you pay a lot, and then you go back and have sex’. Not all couples are on a first date. Towards the end of the dinner another couple, we found out, was celebrating their wedding anniversary, and they were congratulated by the chef.
There are eight courses, each with its own performance and video presentation. The most memorable video presentation was a scene shot by Hirano himself of the restaurant staff out fishing off the coast of Nagasaki. We receive a piece of extremely tender and sweet hiramasa (goldstriped amberjack) as we observe the sous-chef fishing a similar fish out of the bay. The silvery fish writhes hugely on the screen. One is convinced that one is eating a genuine product, and the diners are collectively urged by the sous chef to travel to Nagasaki where the fish is caught. As we eat, Hirano reveals to me that he hopes to open a boutique hotel near this fishing area in Japan. The ideal is to appeal to the global boom in gastrotourism, and especially to the interests in travelling to Japan among well-off Shanghai urbanites like his customers. The collective longing to travel to exotic places and to experience fresh natural tastes is merged in the restaurant. We are next given a deep-fried beef katsu in a broth with an eggy foam dip. This is Australian wagyu, a common substitute in China, which bans Japanese beef imports, since the discovery of BSE (‘mad cow disease’) in Japan in the early 2000s. The accompanying video is more abstract and consists of steers engaged in combat in a bullfight in Japan. Except for Bulizo’s explanations, most of the performance is in Chinese. An English speaker would be lost. A Japanese person would be bewildered by the cultural mishmash from bullfights to Buddha images. Hirano was not concerned.
The restaurant was not aimed at Japanese he said. ‘There are no rich Japanese in Shanghai anymore, just young expatriates with their families,’ Hirano said, a view echoed by other restaurateurs who pointed out that corporate budgets had been cut, with dinner expenses limited to 400 yuan (approx. USD $61) per person, now a mid-level restaurant budget in Shanghai. The effects of the change in the market are not limited to this restaurant. Hirano has been running a traditional sushi restaurant for seven years. When it opened, 70 per cent of the customers were Japanese, 25 per cent Europeans, and maybe 5 per cent Chinese. Now 80 per cent are Chinese, 10 per cent European, and 10 per cent Japanese.
At the same time, Hirano pointed out, there were no private rooms in this restaurant either. Private rooms were essential for the Chinese banquets often involving businessmen entertaining government officials, a type of ‘face’ giving banqueting, or yingchou. This type of ‘face consumption’ has been the focus of much writing on post-socialist Chinese entertainment culture. Now, this market also maybe in retreat. ‘I don’t want businessmen,’ Hirano said. ‘They smash their cigarettes into the floors and are demanding and rude to the staff.’ With the anti-corruption drive in full force these days and economic growth rates falling, corporate and government banqueting is falling out of favour, at least publicly. The goal for restaurateurs such as Hirano is to attract rich second-generation young people spending private income and advertising the restaurant for free on social media.
Hirano stays in the background and lets Bulizo be the public face of the restaurant. The idea of a star chef is relatively new in China, where chefs are generally treated as anonymous workers in the kitchen. But the globalization of the fine dining scene in Shanghai, pioneered by Michelin-starred chefs like Ultraviolet’s Paul Pairet, has changed gastronomic culture. Anthologia takes the chef as performer to a new level, with Bulizo’s painted face and bombastic tenor working as a simulacrum of Japanese bushido culture. At one point in the show, he slices sushi for the audience using a monstrous knife Hirano specially purchased in Japan. He even produces a flower arrangement during one of the courses. Bulizo however told me that he is proud of his role as a performer in the culinary theatre. ‘The first time the patrons gave a standing ovation, I nearly broke out in tears,’ he said.
Bulizo, whose real surname is Terada, worked at several famous restaurants in Tokyo, including the Tokyo branch of the globally famous fusion restaurant Nobu, which has influenced the style of dishes he serves in Shanghai. His career goal had been to work in Nobu outside Japan, but the opportunity did not emerge. So he began applying online for jobs internationally, and he was thrilled when offered the opportunity to be the head chef at Hirano’s third restaurant Kappo Yu, located in central Shanghai. He came to Shanghai with his wife, who was a pastry chef at Nobu.
Although Bulizo is the star, the concept for the restaurant is Hirano’s. Only 40 years old, he is a graduate of Musashino Art University, where he studied design. Side-stepping into the food and beverage industry, he was sent to China to manage the restaurant investment of a large Japanese company. When the parent company failed during the 2008 financial crisis, he acquired the Shanghai business for himself. This was not a smooth transition. The first concept was a high-end Japanese family style restaurant in a historic villa on Donghu Road. ‘It completely failed. This was a bad time for me. My business failed, and my wife left me.’ He saved the business by converting the location into trendy Spanish tapas bistro managed by a charismatic Barcelona native, who goes by the name of ‘Willy.’ The experience taught him about the type of innovative, design-focused, bold style of marketing necessary to succeed in Shanghai. ‘You have to be willing to do something outrageous to succeed in China,’ Hirano said. ‘This is what the Chinese expect. It has to be an interesting experience. The food must be good, but it doesn’t need to be spectacular.’ The concept of a theatre-style restaurant does not require a large staff. There is only one sitting, and all the dishes are served at the same time. A small kitchen can manage the production. Hirano has made his career in Shanghai with four restaurants, and he is now married to a Shanghai native with whom he has three daughters. But he wants to move away. The air is bad, he complains, and he’s been there long enough. He is devoting himself to the boutique hotel project. The focus would be on gastrotourism and ecotourism. So he would open up a place in Nagasaki and people would have a chance to fish and also eat the fish. Even in his ‘leaving Shanghai plan’, he is counting upon the power of the increasingly globalized Chinese consumer.
The story of Hirano and Anthologia illustrates the increase in Chinese urban spending power and the dominance of well-off young Chinese as a consumer group. With the rise of an affluent middle and upper class, we see great changes in the dominant style of consumption, from yingchou- style business consumption focused on building connections, to personal consumption among the young and wealthy. Both are forms of conspicuous consumption, but with different ‘audiences’ and purposes. For the latter, the purpose is to show off a glamorous lifestyle to friends on social media. It is thus essential to create a restaurant that is visually as well as gastronomically exciting. This also means that the chief arbiters of taste and authenticity in the Japanese culinary field are now Chinese consumers on social media.
-  BI Intelligence, ‘WeChat Breaks 700 Million’.
-  ‘Omakase’ means ‘leave it up to the chef,’ and such set-menus are now regarded by Shanghaidiners as a sign of high quality dining.
-  Farrer, ‘Shanghai’s Western Restaurants’, 119.
-  Yang, Gifts, Favors, and Banquets.
-  The two are still partners in the Mediterranean restaurant called Elefante. See Farrer,‘Shanghai’s Western Restaurants’.