England’s biggest Chinatowns, in London and Manchester, have evolved in recent years to survive. Both have become glitzy, touristy and commercially astute, with branding and themed events, things that have allowed them to expand and thrive.
In smaller English cities, however, the traditional Chinatown has largely disappeared, courtesy of urban rejuvenation sweeps that with varying degrees of success have, in attempts to reverse decades of post-industrial decline, replaced down-at-heel ethnically diverse communities with new high-rise towers and shopping malls.
The latter is certainly true for the northern English city of Leeds. Gritty, gray and once grandly industrial, a Chinatown first formed there in the 1950s, around a derelict mill warehouse in the central Templar Street district. Today it has all-but gone. But while most of its supermarkets, cafes and community associations have dissipated to Leeds’ fringes, it doesn’t mean Chinese cuisine has entirely left the city center. Far from it.
In the same way that England’s Chinatowns have changed, so too have its Chinese restaurants and, indeed, the UK’s Chinese cuisine in general.
For almost half a century, “English Chinese” cuisine largely stood still. For many in England, from the 1970s until today, the concept of “Oriental” food meant the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall takeaway shop.
Invariably owned by former Hong Kong farmers, who as colonial citizens came from the impoverished rural New Territories looking for work in the 1960s, via a post-World War II British Nationality Act that guaranteed labor rights access in the UK to all British Commonwealth citizens, these small shops usually had boilerplate red carpets and walls complete with ornamental Hong Kong kitsch and huge identikit hanging menus, where sickly sweet deep-fried adaptations of Cantonese dishes predominated.
While these type of restaurants are still omnipresent across England, and probably will be for many years to come, in the last 10 years or more, things have significantly changed. Quality regional Chinese cuisine has started to appear in English cities, partly because food palates are now more adventurous, better traveled and, accordingly, more demanding. But also because there are more mainland Chinese in England than ever before – serving both as restaurant owners and customers, with a few coming to the UK as long-term immigrants, some as tourists and many more as students.
“I don’t think food is about locations anymore. t’s not about where you’re from. It’s about tastes. It’s about flavors” – Ben Davey, chef
In Leeds, a good example of this trend can be seen with Red Chilli, a stylish-enough city center restaurant that has been serving passably authentic Beijing and Sichuan cuisine since 2005. With its list-full of awards and its mission that charmingly vows to look after its customers “pockets, stomachs and souls,” it has continued to prove popular with Chinese and local foodies alike.
Yet, in the last year or so, another trend has appeared. And it’s one that the customers in the Leeds Templar Street Chinatown in the 1950s, dining on what would have then been considered incredibly exotic food, would not have thought possible. And that is British chefs making Chinese food. And making it very well.
Just a few minutes walk away from Leeds’ traditional Chinatown sits the three-story Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Once a Victorian children’s entertainment centre, it has, after many years of dereliction, been beautifully restored into a part live music venue space, part bar and part eatery that, occasionally, becomes the home to a pop-up cafe called Fu-Schnickens.
This nuts and bolts kitchen – essentially little more than two tables on a small scaffold rig – turns out northern Chinese steamed guo boa buns so impressive that they won the “Best of the Best” prize at the 2014 British Street Food Awards. Yet these are made by a young chef, Ben Davey, who learnt his craft not in Gansu, Guizhou or even Guangxi, but in Guiseley, which, for the uninitiated, is more north Leeds than northern China.
While Davey says the award surprised him, he no stranger to success. His earlier pop-up ventures – Patty Smith’s (artisan burgers) and Dough Boys (hand-stretched pizzas) – have built a loyal following and something of a fabled status on local foodie social media, while the small and innovative grill restaurant, Ox Club, that he now also runs with three others was, within its first year of operation, listed in the Michelin guide.
“I just thought they seemed worth trying,” said Davey when asked why, after pizzas and burgers, he chose Chinese steamed buns. “As a chef, I am interested in flavor and texture, I have traveled in China. And I also tried David Chang’s,” he says, referring to the hip and popular Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, “and I thought, yes, I could make these.”
Davey’s winning entries came in three conventional flavours, pork belly, mushroom and chili chicken, and were mixed with fairly classic fillings – hoisin, cashew, sesame, palm sugar, pickled carrot and Chinese white radish – but he says he has since played with flavors. “Ox cheek and beetroot works well,” he adds.
Fu-Schnickens gets only occasional run outs these days, says Davey. “The problem is making the buns. They are tricky to get right. They take time. We tried buying in pre-made frozen ones and although they were OK, it really wasn’t the same.”
For Davey, there was nothing unusual about a chef from Leeds choosing to make Chinese food. “I don’t think food is about locations anymore,” says Davey, matter-of-factly. “It’s not about where you’re from. It’s about tastes. It’s about flavors.”
Less than a kilometer away from the Belgrave, just across Leeds town center, hidden behind construction holdings, is what will be, by the early summer of 2017, the restaurant Tattu.
It will be big, glitzy and in every sense upscale and upmarket and, in these terms it couldn’t be more different than Fu-Schnickens. Yet, once again, it is a Chinese restaurant with English owners and English chefs.
“It just had to be Chinese,” says Adam Jones who owns and runs the restaurant with his brother Drew. He is talking about the pair’s first Tattu venue, that opened in Manchester in 2015, and has since received strong press and customer reviews, about its food and its startlingly lavish interior, where a vast cherry blossom tree dominates the upstairs bar area.
The Manchester Tattu is now booked out on most nights and has become a popular dining and drinking venue for a glitzy clientele that includes, among other celebrities, numerous Manchester professional footballers.
“Chinese is my favorite cuisine but, more than that, we wanted the big bold flavors from Asia. Before we opened, we looked in London, across the north of England and actually across the globe and we realized we wanted something unique, an experience, something that told a intriguing story.”
Jones says he has always been fascinated with body art so started looking at different associated themes. “We looked at the Royal Navy, nautical themes and the Orient. And we came up with Tattu,” he explains.
Jones says the Leeds venue will be somewhat different visually from the Manchester operation, the “core” Tattu elements will remain. “And that includes the menu. Since we opened in Manchester, we have picked up a huge following and they tell us what they like and we take that feedback on board in the menu.”
These “key elements” are, in keeping with the overall theme – that is, it has to be said, unashamedly upmarket – and include, says Jones, Sichuan sea bass, wagyu dim sum dumplings, caramel soy beef fillet and Canadian lobster, ginger prawns and yellow bean noodles.
“We do not have a chef’s background, but we know what is good, what works,” says Adam, adding that they brought in consultants who helped them craft the Chinese menus before they opened. “But,” he adds, “we did not expect this kind of reaction. We had no idea we would be this popular.”
Less than a kilometer across town sits another new, and strikingly unusual, Chinese restaurant.
Mans Market on Greek Street, that opened in December 2016, is part modernist industrial bar and part play on a traditional Hong Kong cha chaan teng [teahouse]. The branding is modern and strong while the interior finishes are utilitarian.
Rough long wood tables are surrounded by shipping container walls adorned with Bruce Lee kitsch and gaudily colored lanterns and nicknacks from Hong Kong night markets. It’s a colorful cacophony straight from Kowloon that is initially incongruous in this northern English setting. But it is clever and ultimately successful, as is the food that is classic Cantonese but with surprises. One of the starters is an inspired English and Chinese fusion snack, classic chili salt and pepper jiu yim spice mix served on a plate of chips. It actually works very well.
The restaurant is the creation of Ray Chan. Born close to Leeds, where his family ran a traditional Chinese takeaway restaurant, Chan went on to build a successful career with his events company Candypants, that has run large-scale club nights in the UK, Spain and Dubai. Chan is looking to add New York to this impressive list. But he never stopped thinking about restaurants.
“I grew up working in the family Chinese takeaway,” he explains. “From about the age of 12, I was working in the kitchen. I always thought it could be done better.”
He says when the restaurant took a trade dip, he tried to persuade his family to look at new ways to improve the business. “I said we should buy food from all the competitor restaurants in the area and see what they did right and how we could build on it.” Chan explains that his family wouldn’t do it.
“They wouldn’t spend the money. They thought it was a waste of time. They said we shouldn’t change things. Ultimately, I guess I wanted to prove them wrong.”
That he has done.