Best food forward
Updated: 2012-05-25 09:05
By Mark Graham (China Daily European Weekly)
Chef Daniel Urdaneta teaches staff how to prepare dishes in his restaurant. Mark GRAHAM / for China Daily
Venezuelan chef uses Western expertise to spice up Chinese culinary scene
Chef Daniel Urdaneta learned his culinary skills in the United States and Europe - and is now using that expertise to run two successful restaurants in China. The Venezuelan, who has worked in Miami and Barcelona, now runs two restaurants in Beijing, serving classy Western food at affordable prices.
"I stayed because I liked China and found it interesting," Urdaneta says. "I like the people, I like the food and the culture is so different. There are so many things to learn, and so many things happening so quickly with so many opportunities, especially in the dining scene."
Western-trained chefs such as Urdaneta, who have forward vision, entrepreneurial instincts and the boundless energy of youth, have discovered rich potential pickings in China. For all the flurry of modernization, rising affluence levels and increasingly catholic Chinese dining tastes, neither Beijing nor Shanghai is over-endowed with independently run Western restaurants.
Urdaneta's flagship restaurant, Mosto, is located in Nali Patio, now firmly established as having Beijing's highest concentration of top-class restaurants, featuring food from Spain, Italy, India, Mexico and the US and - in the case of Mosto - the chef's home turf, South America. The other restaurant, Modo, is located nearby in Sanlitun Village.
The restaurants are run in partnership with Colombian Alex Molina, who looks after the front of the house, taking orders, guiding staff and generally making sure the service is slick. Urdaneta handles all food-related matters.
Among the most popular dishes on the regularly changing menu are Argentinean "matambre" beef with roast potatoes, shallots and sauteed mushrooms, Peruvian-style chicken with red pepper, black olives and a spicy sauce, grilled Australian beef and lamb, roasted codfish, and eggplant ravioli.
A six-course chef's tasting menu with free flowing wine costs $72 (56 euros) a head and features country terrine, squid braised in red wine with sourdough bread and red-wine-braised chicken.
"The concept was to give people really good food in a casual environment at an acceptable price," Urdaneta says. "It is not fine dining, but we put a lot of emphasis on the kind of food we serve.
"The most popular dish is the foie gras and wagyu beef - they stay, even though we change the menu every two months. The truffle red-wine risotto is also very popular. The average cover is 350 yuan ($55, 43 euros) to 450 yuan per person, depending on what people drink. The majority of our clients are still foreigners, but the Chinese are getting more interested in exploring our kind of food."
Lack of familiarity with non-Chinese food remains an issue when recruiting local staff. The chef says time spent patiently training chefs and servers pays off in the long term, ensuring a knowledgeable and loyal workforce.
"We opened the restaurant during the Olympic period, so it was especially hard," he says. "Staff just didn't have the experience or knowledge of Western food, but after that, they are great employees. We have to give them a lot of training so they think in the Western way. We treat staff with respect. We are in their country."
Urdaneta is used to adapting to different cultural and professional circumstances. A move to Miami from his native Caracas allowed him to learn the American way of operating restaurants. One of his main mentors was chef Edgar Leal of the Cacao fine dining restaurant.
"It was there that I discovered my aspiration to become a head chef," Urdaneta says. "I refined my cooking skills to a level I never expected. Edgar played a huge role in strengthening my consistency and my team drive. He pushed me to innovate at all times. It was all about peak performance in the kitchen as well as front of the house.
"I developed a real appreciation of the value customers draw from culinary precision and attention to detail. I also learned to adapt to different working and living environments. This was a good base for my start in China a few years later."
After working in the US, the chef moved to Barcelona for studies at the Hoffman Institute of Culinary Art. It was there that Urdaneta began to develop his own distinctive style. Some of the recipes from that time are on the menu at Mosto and Modo.
"I realized how precious and rich the cuisine from my South American native continent is," he says. "There is so much there in terms of variety of spices, herbs, vegetables and technique. I just couldn't ignore this part in my own cooking. I believe that today, South American cuisine has a real status and place on the gastronomic map. There is no label to the cuisine of our restaurants but you can say it is global with a South American twist."
The two Beijing operations are certainly places with a truly cosmopolitan flavor. The chef and sommelier are from South America, the staff from China, and the dishes and clients from many different parts of the world.
"Mosto is the flagship that people recognize and it is a little more service oriented, and classic and romantic," he says. "The menu is laid out with appetizers and main courses - nothing is meant to share.
"Modo is a little more funky. It has small plates, which are like appetizers that people share and try more things. We have a wine machine with 16 wines so they can play with different foods and wines, seeing which are the best matches."
Wine pairing is where partner Alex Molina excels. Molina's pride and joy is the Enomatic wine dispenser, a piece of machinery that allows opened wine to be kept in a drinkable state for many days. In addition, there is an 80-label wine list to choose from.
"We present wines that we like," says Molina who hails from the Colombian capital, Bogota. "We also recognize that our guests are keen to discover and develop their taste toward good-value wines more than big labels."
The pair, who originally came to Beijing to work for a now-closed restaurant, have plans to open in Shanghai if the right venue becomes available. The concept will be much the same: fine food presented in a casual and approachable way with prices that do not stretch the wallet too much.
"We are happy here in China and will stay longer," says Urdaneta, who lives close to the restaurant in a diplomatic compound apartment with his special-needs teacher wife Veronica and son Andres, who was born in the city and can chat away fluently in Chinese, English and Spanish.
"I want to do many things, so it is good to be doing things at a young age. I want to retire early."
For China Daily