The notice on the website is brief: “Fung Shing Chinese Restaurant is now closed due to the retirement of the owner. We would like to thank all our customers for their loyalty over the years.” It’s like a cloud passing over the sun.
Some years ago I sat in Fung Shing listening for more than 20 minutes to two Chinese gentlemen discussing the texture of chicken skin in one dish. Apparently, it took five days to prepare this particular classic, and its success or otherwise depended on the exact quality of the skin. If the skin was not just so, these judges indicated, the dish just wasn’t worth eating and the fowl might as well be thrown away. That’s what I call taking food seriously.
That was the thing about Fung Shing: it took Chinese cooking very seriously at a time when very few Chinese restaurants here did. At one point, it was, along with YMing in Soho and the Yang Sing in Manchester, one of the three Chinese restaurants of any note in the country, and even now I suspect its menu would be classed as one of the more testing. Deep-fried pig’s oesophagus anyone? Eel with pickled plum? Braised sea cucumber? I never really came to terms with sea cucumber, but the eel and pickled plum combo was masterly, and the pig’s oesophagus tasted like the most delicate and exquisite porky scratchings. At least, I thought so. Alan Rusbridger, my companion on that occasion, wasn’t so persuaded.
In those days, the presiding spirit in the kitchen was a man universally known as Uncle Wu. A milder, gentler man in daily matters it would be hard to imagine. When it came to cooking, however, it was another matter. Uncle Wu was a stickler. He had reason to be. He was a classically trained Cantonese chef, possibly the only one in the UK. He told me that he had started his training at the age of 12, and for the first four years of his apprenticeship all he was allowed to do was clean the floor of the kitchen and polish his master’s boots. It was small wonder that he referred to most Chinese chefs in this country as being mere “wok bashers”. At least, I think that was his term. I had to rely on someone to translate when I spoke to him – although he had lived in this country for over 30 years, Uncle Wu spoke not a word of English.
I spent three days in the kitchen of Fung Shing in its heyday in the early-1990s. The only way Chinese restaurants made it into the pages of newspapers in those days was in one of those “half an alsatian in the fridge” stories, so it took me a little time to persuade Fung Shing’s owners that I wasn’t interested in writing a stitch-up piece. It was one of the most pleasurable and fascinating periods I have ever passed in a kitchen.
For one thing, it was set up completely differently from what I was used to. Everyone, from Uncle Wu downwards, was involved in preparing the ingredients for the service to come. Then, as customers began to arrive, two or three chefs would assemble the ingredients needed for each dish in small metal bowls, and place them in the order in which they needed to go into the wok, stacked up on a table behind Uncle Wu and the other chef manning the stove. All they had to do was reach behind them and tip the contents of each dish into the superheated wok. There would be a hiss and crackle as they hit the heat, a deft flick of the wrist to send them spinning over the surface, and then, probably no more than 90 seconds or two minutes later, they were tipped into the serving bowl, and away it went. In this way, a kitchen team of just five could crack out 250-300 dishes a night.
The cleanliness of the place left other professional kitchens I had seen far behind. Water flowed continuously over the surface of the cooker, with its eight superheating gas burners – if it hadn’t, the cooker would have melted. This had the added benefit of automatically keeping the cooker’s surface spotless. All chopping preparation was done on circular wooden boards the size of reasonable tree trunks, the surfaces of which were removed at the end of each day, and sometimes during it, simply by using the blade of the cleavers used for chopping.
I learned about making stock, about short cooking times, about the importance of texture and, above all, how heat is an active ingredient in Chinese cooking. That is, knowing how the precise temperature for a precise length of time affects each ingredient you put into a wok. I learned, too, about professional humility: Uncle Wu would help wash the floor before and between services; and he would cook the staff lunch. I remember him slitting open an enormous, silvery-grey herring, cleaning out its guts and gills with a few flicks of the cleaver, smashing some cloves of garlic and a thumb of ginger with the same and then popping them inside the fish, which was simply steamed for about 10 minutes. We ate it with some lightly steamed lettuce splashed with oyster sauce, and it was as satisfying to eat as it was so seemingly easy to prepare.
It was the ease that comes from complete mastery of what you do. Uncle Wu was one of the three or four greatest chefs I have ever seen at work. You know how certain sportsmen – footballers, rugby players, cricketers, boxers – seem to be able to suspend the laws of time, remain still when everyone else is racing around at a furious pace. Uncle Wu at the wok was like that. He must have been in his late 60s or early 70s when I met him. He stood at the cooker, a ladle like an arm extension in one hand, controlling with his knee the levers that controlled the jets of flame that burst from the burners with the force of rockets. He seemed hardly to move, and when he did it was with an elegant minimalism, each slight shift reduced to its most productive essence. It was mesmerising, made the more so by the hiss and crackle of the ingredients as they hit the surface of one of three woks he kept on the go, and by the roaring of the gas jets and the flurry of the chefs collecting the elements for each dish that flew from his section.
And what dishes: soft-shelled crabs, sweet and scrunchy inside, their light crust decked out with chillies, spring onions and shards of fried garlic; crisp belly pork years before it began decorating the menus of smarter European restaurants; steamed scallops with ginger; suckling pig; lobster; abalone braised in chicken stock, all dense and chewy; shredded eel with coriander; and on one memorable occasion what Uncle Wu called “rice-fed sparrows”, tiny birds netted over the paddy fields, which he had smuggled into the country. They were served, like little dark plums, complete with heads attached as if they were stalks, and had a pronounced dark, nutty, flavour. Uncle Wu died some years ago, and although Uncle Wu-trained chefs struggled to keep faithful to the standards of authentic cooking and the more esoteric dishes at Fung Shing, for me, the light dimmed. I have to admit that I hadn’t been back for a good many years. Perhaps some new Fung Shing will rise from the ashes of the old, like a phoenix. There’s got to be a Chinese recipe for phoenix, hasn’t there?
For the recipe for Uncle Wu’s basic meat stock, see Eating In.