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Nicolas Vienne

Guangzhou is known as the Flower City, but its real claim to fame is its food. In China it is known as one of the four main cuisines. Abroad, Cantonese restaurants can be found in all corners of the world.

France, and Paris in particular, has a similar claim to fame – a gastronomic paradise that has spread its fingers far and wide with French restaurants a mainstay in all the major international cities.

Nicolas is the perfect bridge between the two. A pure Parisian at heart with a passion for food, the chef is throwing himself into Cantonese cuisine. While working for Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich he has embarked upon a multi-sensory investigation of the region's food traditions.

His culinary journey from Paris has taken him all over the world: the U.S., Middle East, Bangkok, Beirut, Bora Bora and finally to Guangzhou. "I am a pure Parisian and very proud of that, I have never lived outside the city in France. Parisians are very proud and find it hard to live and work in another city."

"I love Paris for its small streets, busy life, its history – and you can find that in Guangzhou. These ancient city streets packed with culture and food tradition are a really important part of the city's soul."

Nicolas is passionate about his life in Guangzhou. Guangzhou surpasses Paris for the chef in two ways: He enjoys the green mountains you can see from the city, especially Baiyun Mountain, the great lung of the city. He is also keen to note Guangzhou's long and rich history that is often overlooked in favour of landmarks such as the Great Wall or the Summer Palace and Forbidden Cityin Beijing.

Nicolas at work

Furthermore, he is passionate about pulling Guangzhou out of the shadow of nearby Hong Kong and Macau: "Guangzhou has such a long history, the Muslim Hui people came here in the 15th Century and we have old mosques in the city, for example," he says. It's obvious that Nicolas' real passion for the city comes from the food, and when he explored the city he headed straight to the markets. "For a chef, the market is the most important place when you arrive in the city. You can understand a city, what they eat, how they eat, their habits and lifestyle."

Nicolas thinks that Cantonese food is quite plain and was initially quite critical of the city's recipes. He notes that the dishes can feel like medicine, with a subtle flavor but everyone telling you it is good for you in some way. What sets Cantonese cooking apart from the rest of China is the sheer number of ingredients and the almost scientific nature of preparation. This corresponds with Nicolas's own style as he pays a lot of attention to the use of herbs, spices, and even flowers.

It is interesting how the young chef blends the two hallmarks of the city together. Nicolas explains, "I use a lot of greens and microgreens, fennel flowers, and the leaves. The fennel flower is sweet and it has a strong smell so it is good for fish, or vegetables." What surprises the chef is that the Cantonese love to cook flowers in dish and soup. The locals sell alot of edible flowers in the markets.

Chef Nicolas' plating dishes

His favourite flower for cooking, found here in Guangzhou, is the borage flower. "It's a very nice indigo flower, the specialty is that the leaves are edible but they are a little bit spiky, and they taste like oyster. In contrast, the flower is sweet though. "

Nicolas wrote a book together with his wife, documented his culinary explorations into a portrait of the city in book form. It makes Cantonese cooking accessible to foreigners, who may find the number of ingredients and processes daunting. It is also a celebration of the places that are home to the recipes, the people and their stories.

"A lot of the strange ingredients are hard to use," he says. "I want to show some stories from people who are experts in different areas. It's all about urban trekking, to find some beautiful and exciting spots in the city. Guangzhou is an interesting city and the Cantonese are very brave. It is wisdom of life to use flowers and plants as ingredients."

(By Richard Glauert)
Editor:Lynus Tan
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