Quanjude, the iconic Peking roast duck restaurant chain, is under fire for its plan to use more electric ovens rather than traditional wood-fired ones at some Beijing branches.
Peking roast duck has become a Beijing icon and tourist attraction.
An industry-wide storm has erupted over the proposed changes to the way the time-honored dish is cooked, revealed last month by Quanjude Group General Manager Xing Ying.
The move is part of the chain's expansion from 50 to 100 branches around the country by next year. Speaking at the Beijing Business Summit Forum, Xing said the expansion came in the wake of its phenomenal performance since its November debut on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
Since becoming China's first catering business to go public, Quanjude's share price soared 466 percent to 64.53 yuan ($8.90) this week. The group will use the 388 million yuan ($53.5 million) raised to fund new outlets and introduce computerized ovens.
"We have cooperated with a German firm to produce computer-controlled ovens to roast ducks. Computerized ovens, while guaranteeing quality, simplify, standardize and automate the roasting process," Xing said.
Peking roast duck is traditionally heated by fruitwood in a brick oven, imparting the duck with a golden sheen. Traditionalists have balked at the prospect of a piece of metal replacing a master chef preparing duck in a wood-fired oven .
Quanjude claims to have produced a computerized oven that can standardize the time, temperature and humidity of the roasting process.
An anonymous source at Quanjude said the oven is already used in some of its outlets where fires are not permitted.
But customers are worried Quanjude's ducks could become akin to fried chicken sold at fast food outlets. A survey by Beijing Youth Daily and Sina.com showed 76.8 percent opposed to the use of electric ovens.
Da Dong, general manager of Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, has joined the outcry. "History will prove it is a big mistake," he said.
"The irony is that Quanjude is applying for intangible cultural heritage status, but at the same time it is demolishing part of its culture," Dong said.
"There are two trends in the global catering business - one is to be very modern and fashionable, another it to keep everything traditional and become an example of living history," he said.
"I'm not against electric ovens or standardization, but an excellent example of our culture such as wood-fired roast duck should be preserved as a vital element of Chinese culinary art."
Dong said his business will continue to use the traditional roasting method, which is also the case at Duck King, another popular eatery.
"It is not difficult at all to standardize the traditional duck roasting process," Dong said. "At the same time, today's science and technology can well guarantee the efficient filtering of smoke and oil, and ensure that the fruitwood heating system meets environmental requirements."
Quanjude responded to critics by claiming that, to preserve the original taste, its ducks, which are priced at 168-198 yuan ($23-27), would be sprayed with natural fruit juices before they are cooked. Manual roasting techniques will be retained at some outlets.
In Quanjude's corner is 70-year-old Beijing gourmet Liu Dahua, who believes the use of electric ovens is a development of traditional culinary culture.
"Society is advancing - people used to eat raw meat, but we now find prepared meat better. We used to use fire to heat food, but now we use gas and electricity.
"In the future, we may use other sources of heat such as microwaves and lasers," he said.
"Heating using fruitwood or an electric oven is not the most important part of the roasting technique. What is important is to use a cleaner source of energy," said Liu.