Nov 25, 2019
By Matt Gross. Photographs by Sean Marc Lee
In Taiwan, the highway rest stops are destinations in their own right, thanks to the unusually elaborate snacks they serve. Those snacks—congee, tea eggs, roasted sweet potatoes, and other humble, nourishing, everyday delights—have lodged in the brain of chef Kai Ho. At Taïrroir, his elegant, Michelin-starred, three-year-old restaurant in the capital, Taipei, Ho serves a dish called Memory of a Highway Rest Area. The congee is lush; the yolky, yielding, Pu’er tea–marinated egg comes from silkies, the black-skinned chickens prized for their medicinal value; the broad, crispy buckwheat tuile that lies across the top is dotted with sweet-potato fondant and wisps of green herbs. You want to savor it, yet it vanishes in a few bites, a brief stop on a multicourse tasting menu that romps through the island’s traditions and ingredients with dishes like roast Ping-tung pigeon, salt-baked bamboo shoots, and Taiwan Beer tofu mousse.
Ho belongs to a new generation of chefs who are reimagining what fine dining means in Taipei. They’re a mix of Taiwanese and expats—including veterans of kitchens in Vegas and Paris—who could be running restaurants anywhere in the world. Yet they’ve chosen to make their homes and careers on this particular island.
“I want to showcase culture, history, everything,” the 34-year-old Ho told me. He’s referring to his menu’s hard-to-define blend of regional cuisines from mainland China, Japanese influences from the half-century Taiwan was a colony, and homegrown dishes and flavors rooted in the island’s mountains and oceans: braised pork, briny oyster omelettes, beef noodle soup, and unnervingly fresh mangoes and guavas.
At Taïrroir, the food is playful, unpretentious, and deeply rooted—in short, a deliciously accurate yet updated evocation of the Taipei I’ve come to know over 22 years of regular visits (many of them with my wife, who grew up in the city). The current high-end culinary scene in Taipei is, like in Singapore and Bangkok, a complementary evolution from its still-thriving lower-brow food culture. YouTubers assiduously document their night-market visits. Instagrammers showcase local trends like wobbly pancake towers and lattes adorned with images of Shiba Inus. Bubble tea, invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, is now ubiquitous in cities across Asia and the Taiwanese soup-dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung has locations in most corners of the region as well as in the U.S, the U.K and in the Middle East.
The movement began in 2014 with the opening of two restaurants. Raw, which sits just north of the city center in Taipei’s Dazhi neighborhood, was launched by André Chiang, the Taiwanese chef behind Singapore’s (now closed) Restaurant André. It focuses on Taiwan’s 24 “microseasons”—the subtle shifts in weather throughout the year that produce stellar but short-lived raw ingredients. Meanwhile, Taipei’s restaurant-dense Daan District saw the arrival of Mume, where chefs from Australia, the U.S. and Hong Kong apply New Nordic principles to local ingredients.
By 2018, those two had been joined by many more. Taipei native Vanessa Huang returned from France to bring her artistry to Ephernité (best dish: a delicate rainbow terrine made with several seasonal, local vegetables). Lam Ming Kin, originally from Hong Kong, and the former chef de cuisine at Jean-Georges Shanghai, opened the cozy-yet-upscale Longtail, which serves a mashup of French and Japanese-inflected mains. And Eric Liu, Hansang Cho and Melanie Garcia, who’d been cooking in some of Las Vegas’s best restaurants, came to collaborate on their own place: Gen Creative, in the Daan District.
Liu lived in Taipei as a boy, but the Korean-American Cho and the Guatemalan-American Garcia had never even visited. Cho said he didn’t need much persuasion, though: “Eric didn’t convince me to move to Taipei. He didn’t have to. We always shared the same dream of opening a restaurant of our own. Sometimes things happen for a reason, and we were all at the right place in our lives to take that next step.”
Taipei’s energy was evident as the trio led me around the produce and fish markets of the city’s Zhongshan District one morning. Storefronts stocked a dozen kinds of clams and squid in deep, bubbling, cold-water containers; one farmer sold remarkably leafy basil; a roving cart offered piles and piles of fragrant strawberry guavas. No lettuce, though: its microseason hadn’t started yet. When the shopping was done, it was time for breakfast around the corner, at Gusto Market of Taste, an Italian grocery store where we munched on panini while the owner demonstrated to Japanese tourists in a cooking class how to pound veal cutlets. The mix of cultures and cuisines seemed incredibly natural, as cosmopolitan as it was laid-back.
You get the same feeling at Gen Creative, where the hearty dishes nod both to local traditions and to the chefs’ own backgrounds— radish cake incorporates chorizo, fried chicken is accented with pomelo, hot-and-sour soup is deconstructed into an eggy, explosive puzzle. Gen, you may not be surprised to learn, means “roots” in Mandarin.
Apart from Kai Ho, none of the chefs I met called their restaurants Taiwanese. Yet they were cooking Taiwanese ingredients (mostly) for Taiwanese people (mostly); their culinary training might be French or Californian, but didn’t that put them in line with the centuries of migrants—from China, Japan and beyond— whose contributions form the basis of “official” Taiwanese cuisine?
To expect such a label—or any label, for that matter—however, is to overlook the reason these chefs came to Taipei in the first place. “We do everything like a fine-dining restaurant, but we don’t consider ourselves a fine-dining place,” said Paul Lee, another Las Vegas veteran, who was born in Taipei and raised in California. His Michelin-starred restaurant, Impromptu, which opened last summer and serves a 12-course tasting menu—one that includes red rice with watermelon jelly, deconstructed squid-ink lasagna, skewered sweetbread with bergamot and sesame-leaf gremolata—goes for a mere NT$2,140 per person. He describes Impromptu, tentatively, as “modern American.” But really, he said, “we just want our own identity in the culinary scene.” And in a city chock-full of identities—all of them shaped by a world’s worth of experiences, each presenting a uniquely delicious facet of Taipei—he fits right in.
Mume mume.tw; mains from NT$970.
Longtail longtail.com.tw; mains NT$455–$1,650.