Taipei’s Shi Yi Restaurant (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Shi Yi by SUi doesn’t serve typical restaurant fare.
Bellies bulging, we reflect on the eight-dish meal we just ate. The drunken chicken, stir-fried mixed vegetables, braised cabbage, noodles with yuxiang-flavored pork, and meatballs were not quite like anything we’d had before, yet they were also familiar. Neither pedestrian nor over the top, the dishes didn’t incorporate dazzling knife work, or expensive lobster or abalone. Instead, they were just well crafted, made with high-quality ingredients, and simply seasoned without any artificial additives.
Each dish was seemingly prepared with loving care, and that feeling lingered after the meal.
There’s an old saying that home cooking “suits the mouth to a T,” suggesting that nothing could be more delicious. People never forget the taste of home cooking, even after consuming the most exotic of dishes. The allure of homey fare lies in its classic, time-tested flavors. More than just nutritious, home cooking serves up cultural memories that are hard to put into words, yet pull on our heartstrings.
But some of us crave this kind of food and lack the skill to cook it for ourselves. Where are we to find it?
Shi Yi by SUi is here to help. Owner Chen Yingxuan, who goes by “Cherry,” is a restaurant-industry novice who spent years in corporate planning and marketing. She was inspired to open Shi Yi when she noticed that retired members of her family were facing decades with nothing to do.
“Many senior citizens have been cooking since they were kids, and have a lot of time on their hands after their retirement,” explains Cherry. “They also have rich life stories that are old hat for their own kids, but interesting to other people. Similarly, while their families feel like they’ve eaten their cooking a million times, these same dishes are new to others.”
Beginning with family fare and drawing on the people around her, she taste-tested recipes, recruited cooks, and started the pop up that later grew into Shi Yi (which means “food memories”).
One of tonight’s chefs checks in with diners, and is thrilled by their enthusiastic response to the meal. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Extending the home kitchen
Shi Yi has drawn on several trends, including “private chefs,” “menuless dining,” “shared kitchens,” the “silver economy,” and the “experience economy,” to create a top-flight restaurant.
It features an eight-dish meal that changes daily, and 20 silver-haired chefs who range in age from 57 to 94 and run the kitchen in groups of three that change from day to day.
Where do the recipes come from? All are specialties of the individual chefs.
Modern restaurant kitchens tend to operate like mini production lines, with each worker assigned a specific task. The prep cooks prepare ingredients and the cooks cook. Such kitchens aim for efficiency and quality control. Shi Yi takes a different approach. Each chef prepares two or three dishes, and personally handles every step in their preparation, from the purchase and preparation of the ingredients to the actual cooking.
Here, “tastes like home” is more than a slogan. It’s the extension of Shi Yi’s foundational ethos.
Presentation, scent, flavor
Today’s three chefs, Lingling, Mama Chen and Big Sister Wu, started their workday early. They bought the meats and veggies they needed from familiar markets near their homes before making their way from their homes to the restaurant, bringing with them seasonings and condiments that they had prepared themselves.
Though Shi Yi is still empty at 4 p.m., the kitchen is already warming up.
Today’s three chefs may not have any previous experience with restaurant work, but they have Jimmy, a professional executive chef, there to supervise. He acts as the kitchen’s director, barking out commands to the rookie senior-citizen chefs and deciding when each gets to use the four wok ranges.
At half past the hour, guests begin filtering in. Today’s cold appetizer (Mama Chen’s special drunken chicken) is already prepared.
The restaurant performs an “opening ceremony” each night before service begins: Cherry shares the restaurant’s guiding philosophy with the evening’s guests and introduces the chefs who are working that evening.
Once the “ceremony” is complete, the kitchen gets rolling, hastening to get dishes out to the tables. Soup; rice and noodle dishes; and poultry, meat, fish, and soy-based dishes follow the cold appetizer in quick succession.
The chefs take a moment midway through to make the rounds of the tables and chat with the guests.
Coincidentally, all of the chefs today are wearing lucky red, matching the restaurant’s energetic atmosphere. The colors and excited clamor make it feel as if we’re attending a big clan’s New Year’s banquet.
It’s then that we realize that dining at Shi Yi is like attending a remarkable performance, one that uses food and connections that reach across ethnic and generational lines to call forth the boundless yearning for family that exists within each of us.
Lingling, 63, retired sales manager
Lingling has always taken pleasure in work, and retirement hasn’t slowed her down. She has enjoyed cooking since she was a girl, and majored in home economics at Chinese Culture University. She also holds a master’s degree in home economics from CCU, and another in restaurant management from New York University. Though she’d never worked in a restaurant prior to Shi Yi, she was well versed in the field.
Lingling’s cooking style is straightforward, and her dishes are enjoyed by young and old alike. When making her handmade meatballs, she adds whatever she’s in the mood for. “Today, it’s onions, daikon, celery and scallions.” Such additions get children eating vegetables without being aware they’re doing so. And her preference for cooking in water, rather than frying in oil, makes her dishes healthy, light, and easy on the stomachs of the elderly.
Mama Chen, 63, loving homemaker
Mama Chen has been a homemaker for most of her life. She came to work at Shi Yi after her son threw her name into the hat.
Asked how she developed her skills in the kitchen, she explains, “My husband and children are all picky eaters.”
Mama Chen’s “red-yeast rice wine drunken chicken” is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. She makes it with four to five kilograms of chicken at just the right level of leanness, and shops the market at three or four in the morning to be sure of getting fresh, high-quality ingredients.
The recipe itself has an unusual source. While making the dish one time, she discovered she was out of Shaoxing wine and substituted a bottle of red-yeast rice wine that she had sitting around, one that a family member had brought back from a wedding. She was surprised when her usually picky son gave it high marks. She’s used the sweet red-yeast rice wine instead of the more bitter Shaoxing wine ever since, and has passed the new recipe on to the younger generation of her family.
Big Sister Wu, 60, retired securities broker
Big Sister Wu sought work at the restaurant on her own initiative. Scion of a family with its roots in Shanghai, she was well versed in many of the techniques used in Shanghainese cooking.
She easily manages authentic Shanghainese dishes like vegetable rice, yanduxian, and fried beancurd rolls. As a home cook, she strives to do everything herself, even when preparing time-consuming items such as egg dumplings or wontons, or common condiments such as osmanthus syrup and sweet wine.
Today, the restaurant is serving winter melon and pork ribs soup, which Wu has transformed into something exceptional with the addition of Jinhua ham. Shi Yi’s offerings naturally include famous Shanghainese appetizers. Today it’s a vegetarian mixed braise. To prepare it, she first stir-fries dried tofu, tofu skin, and gluten rolls separately, then simmers everything together, and finally adds hand-shucked green peas.
Wu is very confident in her own cooking. “Just one bite and you won’t be able to stop eating!”