Bai Yongming, chief chef at Bianyifang, a long-established roast duck
restaurant in Beijing, selects a duck from the oven.
Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily
METRO reporter Lian Mo talks to a top cook on how to make the city's trademark cuisine
Bai Yongming is the chief chef at Bianyifang, the oldest roast duck restaurant in Beijing with a history of almost 600 years.
With 32 years in the time-honored restaurant, the 50-year-old said he has roasted as many as one million ducks.
Bai took some time away from the oven to share his busy day as a roast duck master with METRO.
Bai Yongming gets up later than his family but still feels a little tired. Over the past few weeks, he has been busy with the reopening of the Hademen branch of the restaurant.
Bai feels fresher after a shower and a cup of scented tea. He puts on his leather jacket and goes to work on his mountain bike. From his home in Jinsong area in the southeast of Beijing, it usually takes him half an hour.
He has insisted on this daily exercise for years, although many of his car-owning apprentices offer to pick him up.
Bai changes into his chef's uniform and joins his colleagues in the canteen for breakfast.
Today's dishes include green Chinese cabbage, saute pork with green pepper and egg soup.
"Enough food for more than 60 members of staff is cooked together, so it is far less delicious than that served to customers," he says.
Even though he is a top chef, Bai has to eat bland cuisine sometimes.
As soon as Bai returns to his office, he receives a call from his branch manager who tells him that a certain VIP will visit them in a few days and he must go to the restaurant's distribution center to select ducks himself for the special guest.
Workers at the distribution center purchase only the best 20 percent of ducks on offer from their suppliers. From these ducks, Bai chooses 300 according to their age, weight, fat and skin. A cook with less than 10 years duck experience could not notice the difference, he says.
He returns to his branch and handpicks the best 10. They will be carefully dehumidified and roasted, with the best served to the VIP.
To guarantee fresh taste, Bai says roast duck needs to be served as soon as it is taken out of the oven. It normally takes 45 to 50 minutes to roast one.
Since it is unreasonable to ask customers to wait so long for their food, the real skill of a roast duck chef is to predict how many ducks are needed in advance.
Lunchtime can be very busy. Bai walks around the dining area every 15 minutes to make timely preparation.
When he returns to the kitchen, he tells senior cooks to put another 30 ducks into the ovens.
"Actually, I do not need to go around or count like other chefs - I can just stand in the hall and listen. I will ascertain the amount needed from the level of sound. It is a gift of experience," he says.
The whole restaurant enjoys a quiet hour after lunch.
Bai uses this time to write his work diary. There are two types of Beijing roast duck. The first type is cooked over a fire and the other in a closed oven. Bai is a master of the second style. He keeps trying to improve his technique's flavor by recording every attempt and its result. Bai's ducks have crispy skin and tender meat, which he believes is now better than those cooked over a fire.
As the weather warms, Bai snatches a moment from work and picks up a pair of lightweight shoes from the neighboring shopping mall. He calls two of his colleagues to have a late lunch in the mall to escape from the regular canteen food.
"I have probably tasted all the food in the nearby restaurants," he says.
The branch manager arrives after the meal to ask Bai's advice on a staff matter.
As the restaurant chain's chief roast duck chef, Bai has to visit other branches regularly. Today's task is Xinhuo branch, where customers have complained that the color of the duck is a little intense. In some cases, only Bai can determine the solution.
It is the peak time of the restaurant when Bai returns to the Hademen branch. He first enters the duck kitchen and, opening the door of an oven, uses one hand to gauge the temperature. He nods to the cook in charge to show approval.
A waitress comes to him and says a customer has asked to see the chief cook, since he is not satisfied with a duck he wants to take away.
Bai approaches the customer and politely inquires about the problem.
"The duck is half cold. It has not recently come out of the oven," the customer says.
Bai explains that they usually give it five minutes to cool down before putting in a takeaway bag to reduce steam damage.
"I do not care. I want a fresh one," the customer insists.
"It is important to make every customer happy," Bai says.
He tells the kitchen to pack another one and returns to give directions in the kitchen and hall until all the customers have gone.
After cycling back home, he gets in the lift and thinks about his family. Bai always feels sorry for them because he spends so little time at home.
After a quick shower, he makes himself a cup of scented tea and turns on the TV. He finally gets to relax.