Ivan Li is many things - qualified interior designer, artist, calligrapher, preserver of Chinese heritage, restaurateur, chef. As of last week, he also became the recipient of the 2014 Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award for his tireless work as a custodian of Imperial Chinese cuisine.
Li’s grandfather Li Shunquing was in charge of the imperial kitchen in the Forbidden City at the time of the Qing dynasty, so you could say his dedication to upholding the traditions of a forgotten cuisine is in the blood. His Family Li Imperial Cuisine restaurants are reviving and preserving the grand old recipes of yore, not only in China, but as far afield as Tokyo and Melbourne. And there are plans for more, as Chef Li explained to Fine Dining Lovers.
Can you describe your first reaction when you were told you had won the Asia’s Lifetime Achievement award?
I was very surprised. I was also very delighted and thrilled that our effort is recognized.
Why is it so important to preserve traditional Imperial Chinese recipes and cooking techniques?
Imperial cuisine is not only a traditional of way of dining, it represents the essence of traditional Chinese culture and values. For example, the important principle of it is to be moderate. It is natural and never goes to extremes. It is the attitude that matters.
Tell us about some of the traditional ingredients used in Imperial Chinese cooking.
For example, the Imperial cuisine menus included elephant trunk, tiger meat, bear pawn, bear ribs, deer, swan, etc. There was a great varieties, but insects were not included. There were no horse, dog, cat, snake, fox or wolf in the menus.
Which ingredients used in traditional recipes are now difficult or impossible to use, and which ingredients have you used as a substitute?
For those I mentioned in the previous answer, none of them are still available except deer meat and deer tail. For those ingredients, you cannot find any substitute either. But as there are 4 to 5 thousands of main dishes, more than thousands of dim sum, so there are still lots of dishes that can be cooked with common ingredients.
Tell us about some of the Empress Cixi’s favourite dishes, and how they have been recreated in your restaurants.
Cixi liked roasted pork, bird’s nests, sweet soup of green beans, etc. The ingredients of dishes are still available and they can be cooked according to our recipes. Only for the roasted pork, the pigs required for the Imperial court must be around 25kg of weight, except for suckling pigs. Such size of pigs are difficult to get now, so we have to add one or two more steps in handling the pigs, in order to achieve the best texture and taste.
Have you found any modern cooking methods that work particularly well with Imperial Chinese cuisine, or do you stay strictly with the old methods?
We use the modern oven, to cook those dishes for which “open-fire” is not essential, but we can still achieve the best results. It is similar as in the china making industry, people now use the high-tech oven to make china products. The modern methods can achieve better results so people do not need to stick to the old methods. But our principle is: when we use modern cooking methods, we will not change the original taste and texture of the dishes.
How important is your interior design background in recreating the atmosphere of an Imperial Chinese dining experience?
It is very important. But it is ridiculous to simply copy the superficial decorations of the original Imperial court. It is only through abstraction that the interior design elements lead the imagination of the diners. Only in this way, the diners can be impressed and their imagination can be unlimited.
There are Family Li restaurants around Asia. Are there any plans to branch out to Europe or the Americas?
We are working on a new branch in Paris. Hopefully the project can be materialized later this year. There is no plan for branches in the Americas yet.
What does the future hold for you now – do you have any exciting plans, or is it business as usual?
I plan to write a book. It is something I always wanted to do but has been putting off. I think now it is a good timing to start working on it.