Notes From Beijing

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Recently I attended the first Beijing International Culinary Competition. There have been many China wide culinary expositions, but this was a first that included highly accomplished foreign chefs. These included Cyril Rouquet from Paris, British Food Ambassador James McIntosh, Mathias Dahlgren from Sweden, Chakall from Germany, Chinese American Chef Martin Yan from California, Sean Connolly from Australia, Russia's Igor Tumarkin, Korea's Teo Kyun Ngok, Thanaphat Bualipt from Thailand, Mr Kuma from Bangladesh, Duong Khai from the United States, and many more. Thirty four countries in all were represented. It was a who's who of the culinary world, presided over by Beijing Superchef Da Dong. In all, 200 Chinese and foreign chefs attended the event, whose philosophy was "Tasting and Sharing Healthy Various Cooking."

Organized by a team headed My Liu Guangwei of Beijing's EastEat Media Group, and Mr Edouard Cointreau of "Gourmand International" (Paris), with support from the Beijing Municipal People's Government, this may have been the most international cuisine occasion China has ever seen, a brilliant example of high level government and private sector collaboration.

The foreign chefs were treated to dinners in Beijing's best restaurants during the course of the week, and it is clear that the story of the modern and ancient cuisine of China is still waiting to be told to the rest of the world. Most of them were absolutely amazed by what they learned and all commented that their understanding of Chinese food was completely turned upside down. Chinese food has never migrated out of China with all the dimension and complexity that Chinese cuisine has within China. New ingredients and food experiences were applauded and enjoyed, with some humorous moments such as when British Chef James McIntosh, when eating a soup that contained abalone, pork, chicken and fish at the superb Beijing restaurant Zhi Li Hui Guan, (combining many meat and fish products in one dish, although common in Asian cuisine, is rare in Western cooking) declared that he thought he was "eating the zoo!" Each of the Western chefs left with a new appreciation for China and Chinese food.

Chef Da Dong's Beijing restaurants are avant-garde and have inspired a blaze of creativity in China. Innovative, playful and poetic, his menus are redefining the notion of Chinese food within China, much as Il Bulli did for the Western world. The techniques and dishes generated here excite and energize the chefs of China, and it is well known that the Da Dong kitchen is full of gastronomic spies, employees of other restaurant groups, planted here to learn and feed information back to their bosses! Not surprising-whoever would have thought that foie gras stuffed "cherries" (made with red spun sugar) would take stage in Beijing, and ever be on a Chinese menu? Or BBQ Pork Ribs that are dusted tableside with confection sugar while a server recites a traditional poem about falling snow (Shangai Chef Jason Cui joked that the modern version should instead reference the confection sugar as Beijing's legendary pollution). The duck here is incredible, carved tableside, all smoke and crunch, and served dipped in sugar. I loved the soft sea cucumber, simmered for hours in a caramel/soy mix, equally the outrageous abalone cooked with wild rice and truffles in a clay pot, and the perfect soft crab custards. None of this is what most outsiders would think of as "Chinese food", but of course that is the very point. Da Dong is to dumplings what Dali was to doodling: provocative, artistic, inspired -- and to these foreign chefs, totally unexpected.

And on the other end of the time and tradition continuum, the astounding restaurant chain Zhi Li Hui Guan, whose menus are based on recipes and records from the Qing Dynasty and provide an elegant and brilliant record of China's culinary history. As Da Dong reaches into China's future, Zhi Li Hui Guan reaches into it's glorious past. Food is served by elegant "cuisine models" -- beautiful girls in traditional costume with almost Star Trekkian detachment-and as giggly as this level of showmanship can be, it is brilliant dining theatre, pure and simple, and a history lesson on court cuisine in the Qing Dynasty. The whole experience, so very Beijing.

And in between, all manner of brilliant eateries. Restaurants were thriving here way before they were "invented" in France. China has been overcharacterized by the "oddities," like the donkey based restaurants that serve every part of the donkey (that's every part of the donkey, all displayed on an "anatomical" menu, balls and all), or the notorious street stalls with scorpions, starfish and rats. Remember -- they're only odd to us. We're odder -- try pitching haggis to a Chinese visitor, or explaining America's willing addiction to nutritonally disastrous processed foods -- it's all perspective and perception. And besides -- the crickets and bugs are just a small part of the whole magnificence. There's endless food to love and learn from. And there's real brilliance in Beijing, way, way beyond what we think of as "Chinese food". And for that, you'll just have to come here.

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