A nearly-lost cuisine of China’s Qing era is kept alive at Wynn Macau’s Golden Flower by one of the few men in the world qualified to serve it.
Golden Flower’s stewed fish maw with crab claw in supreme chicken soup looks deceptively simple.
Golden Flower restaurant sits in a jewel-box-like room inside the sumptuously decorated Wynn Macau, with its rich red walls and cloisonné mosaic floor softly lit by Fortuny fixtures. The most luxurious detail, though, isn’t the décor; Golden Flower’s true treasure is its chef, Liu Guo Zhu. Quiet and unassuming, he works diligently in the gleaming kitchens on one of his signature dishes. It’s a painstaking process, involving eight hours of slow-cooking a free-range hen, Jinhua ham, and aged duck together to create the ultimate broth, a soup that needs this kind of time to develop its nuanced balance of sweet and salt. This then forms the perfect base for fish maw and crab claw. Such a meticulous process is a hallmark of the cooking for which chef Liu has earned worldwide accolades—not to mention two Michelin stars: Tan cuisine. “It is very balanced and protects the flavors of its ingredients,” he explains. “But it is also very exclusive and hard to truly understand because of the labor-intensive cooking methods involved.”
Given the origins of Tan cuisine, its rarefied reputation today is unsurprising. Its namesake, Guangdong-born Tan Zongjun, moved to Beijing in the late 19th century as a high-ranking official in the Qing dynasty. Tan quickly earned plaudits for more than just his professional standing. “He brought his family’s food with him, and he was very much an epicure—he absolutely loved to host parties,” explains Carolyn Phillips, author of the James Beard-nominated cookbook All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China. Together with his house cook, Phillips says, this government gourmand developed the 300 or so recipes that now form the basis of the school of cooking forever connected to his name.
Thin broiled beef slices are served with crispy sesame puffs.
Typical ingredients of Tan cuisine include shark’s fin, abalone, and sea cucumber—as well as swallow’s nest, painstakingly cleaned then gently cooked in broth to create the perfect fusion of texture and taste. The repertoire even stretches to a recipe (never used these days) on preparing bear’s paw; the instructions insist that only the left front paw is acceptable, since that alone is used to lick honey. Phillips draws parallels between this culinary school in China and the finest French haute cuisine. “There’s an emphasis on slow cooking, braising, steaming, poaching—anything that takes a long time,” she says. “It’s cooked so the natural flavors blossom, a perfect balance among sweet and savory, land and sea, chicken and seafood, dried and fresh, the north and the south. It’s the yin and yang of Chinese cooking.”
Eventually, in the unstable final era of the Qing dynasty, Tan’s resourceful son Zhuangqing began operating an invitation-only restaurant for other élite Beijingers from the family home, serving the recipes his father had developed. It continued to thrive even after the Qing dynasty was replaced by a Republican government in 1911; indeed, by the 1930s, it was a celebrity magnet, as stars scrambled to be seen there, sampling cooking that so artfully combined the southern flavors of Tan’s home province with local ingredients from in and around Beijing. Eventually, the family shuttered its restaurant and the Beijing Hotel’s kitchens became the base of training in Tan cooking. It was there that chef Liu apprenticed; almost six decades later, he is Tan cuisine’s undisputed master. “The ‘art of balance’ is key to Tan cuisine—we need to balance the ingredients and soup, for example, as well as the skills of controlling heat and time,” he says. “It’s an honor for me to have had the chance to learn and keep passing on this Chinese art.”
Golden Flower’s main dining room looks out at an enchanting garden.
Liu’s reputation spread beyond China when the country opened up to the West in the 1970s; it was further enhanced when Wynn brought him to Macau in 2009 as the head of all Chinese culinary operations. He now works there at Golden Flower, a new outpost to preserve and promote this precious part of China’s culinary history.
Its elegant setting is an integral counterpart to the cooking, notes cookbook author Phillips. “It’s not just the food, it’s the whole experience—this came out of an official’s home, so you should be eating somewhere that looks very traditional. It’s just like the French Laundry in California, where they’re giving you something for the eyes, too: the perfect silverware, an immaculate plate…and there’s a fanatical attention to detail. If you’re having fish, it will be the absolute best fish to the nth degree. That’s what they’re aiming for.” It’s a credo both chef Liu and Tan would endorse.