Journalist hits the headlines with his private kitchen
Following years of traveling and investigating stories on the dark side, French journalist and now chef Gil Gonzalez Foerster decided to slow down and recuperate in the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in the southwestern Yunnan Province.
He opened a private kitchen named Casabai in a Bai village, cooking modern French cuisine with a twist and using local ingredients.
With Spanish, German and French bloodlines, Foerster grew up in the Alps. Adjusting to a countryside lifestyle in Dali, at the foot of Cangshan Mountain, was no problem.
“It’s a bit connected to the environment I had when I was a kid, except there’s no snow in Dali. I miss that because I love the snow in winter, so something is missing in winter, but it’s also very nice,” he told Shanghai Daily when in the city on a recent business trip.
Foerster graduated from Spain’s University of Leon in 1991, majoring in journalism and Middle East studies. He also studied Arabic. Not only because there’s a large Arabic community in France and he grew up with friends of an Arabic background, but also because he had a very interesting teacher.
“I think teachers are very important, when they are brilliant like that, they can really help you to make an important choice in life, that’s what happened at that time.”
His goal was to become a journalist based in the Middle East, and immediately after graduation he started investigations into drug trafficking for Geopolitical Drug Watch, focusing on drug trafficking and how the drug was impacting international relations while based in Turkey and Middle East.
He then started working on press freedom in the Middle East and eventually went on to cover topics in Asia. He worked for magazines and newspapers as writer and photographer, and also for many NGOs including Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace and Action Against Hunger in 2012 and 2013.
During that period, Foerster was based in Paris, so he constantly traveled back and forth, going to different places for periods of months at a time.
“I was just looking for stories that hadn’t been covered by all the other journalists.”
But having gone to some very remote places to cover some very dark stories about people struggling in life and death situations, he found it difficult to adjust when he returned home.
“There’s such a clash, such a difference between what you experience and then what you have at home,” he said. “You are living in a privileged environment, and your friends are not doing the same work, and they are not so much interested in what you are doing, so you kind of have a double life, this I think sometimes can be a bit hard, but you have to adjust every time, it was also a choice.”
The first time he came to China was in 1996 when he was writing a story on the Naxi minority culture. Going to Yunnan for the first time, Foerster slowly developed an interest in the place, but he didn’t settle there immediately.
He relocated to Chengdu in 2005 and lived there for five years before moving to Beijing where he spent another four years. The decision to live in China was made because he wanted to stay more connected to Asia.
“I think it was mainly an idea of going deeper. This personal experience besides writing was about living in a place, breathing the Chinese or Asian air,” he said.
Foerster also decided to overcome the language barrier by learning Mandarin in order to talk to more people. He also had good experiences in China when he visited and had worked in the country for shorter periods in the past.
“But I didn’t have it planned, nobody asked me to come to China. It was a choice I made,” he said. “I’m always a freelance journalist, I refused to be a staff journalist, it was a choice of life.”
Speaking French, Spanish, German and English, Foerster started learning the Chinese language in Chengdu, for a number of reasons.
“I fell in love with a girl in Chengdu at that time and she could speak very little English and no French, and we very quickly switched to very basic Chinese. When we went out with her friends, she had to translate from real Chinese to our Chinese, which was quite funny,” he said.
“So, slowly my knowledge grew and I also started working in Chinese, that’s how my vocabulary grew.”
From 2010 to 2014, Foerster stayed in Beijing because his work was more focused in the northeast of China. There, he lived in a siheyuan, a courtyard residence typical of Beijing, in a hutong. When he left the job, he was very tired of traveling — staying at home no more than 10 days a month — and he got sick of it.
Foerster loves cooking, and some friends encouraged him to do a private kitchen in his siheyuan. The business slowly became bigger and he was cooking for small groups of people in his house for a year.
“Then I left. The food experience was fantastic, but I didn’t want the pollution and pressure anymore, because the rent was very high, which meant cooking more and no more fun.”
Moving to Dali
In 2014, tired of the urban lifestyle but not yet ready to leave China, he started looking at other places, including Xiamen and Taipei. A friend suggested he should take a look at the very traditional villages outside the city of Dali.
He flew there, rented a bicycle and rode around. It was an exciting experience because he was discovering more and more as he made each turn and talked to the villagers. Before he had even checked out Xiamen City in Fujian Province, he rented a house.
But the transaction wasn’t without its surprise. Although he signed a contract with the landlord, he couldn’t get the house right away because the landlord’s three pigs just gave birth to 40 small piglets and he needed another month.
“That’s the reality of countryside and farming, you just have to accept that. Now we have a very good relationship,” said Foerster.
Foerster wasn’t the only one who relocated to Dali after living in large cities. A lot of other people also chose to live in the evergreen land to escape the pressures of urban life.
“Sometimes I like to call them social refugees, because they cannot find their place in the Chinese cities, because of work pressure, family pressure, like a girl who doesn’t want to get married and every week her mother said ok you have to get married and have kids,” he said, “It can be a boy or girl who’s gay or lesbian, and who doesn’t want to face the discrimination and cannot talk to parents.”
In Dali, people are looking to reinvent their lives and there isn’t much space in China where one can do that freely, said Foerster.
There’s no money to make in Dali when compared to the big cities, one can make a living, no problem, but nobody gets rich in Dali.
“It’s a good thing, if people are driven by money, then the place is driven by money.”
Another important factor is that Dali is a place where people can experiment with their lives rather than taking the same path as everybody else. This is another thing that connects Foerster with Dali because he grew up in a very free family in the 1970s, his parents being hippies when he was young, and he became really free-minded.
Although Dali is known to most Chinese people as a tourist destination, there’s an underground community of people who come from many countries and places in China with their own creative ideas.
Casabai opens once or twice a week, and Foerster does his best to use local ingredients.
“I not only have the market, but also my garden and friends who are growing produce. I have a good friend from Iran who grows artichokes, which are not easy to find in China, as well as lemons, cherries and avocados. I have a Japanese friend who’s growing his own rice and making miso and sake, and also a friend making amazing wine.”
In Dali, people not only have access to lots of produce, but also know where it comes from.
“I think cooking is about giving a chance to people to have a link with the soil, that’s what we miss in the cities, where there’s no link,” Foerster said.
“If I want to cook as a French chef, I can go to Taobao and get everything I need and do the same food exactly like in Paris. I’m not interested in that, I want my food to connect to my land, to my garden and to the ingredients which are growing locally.”
The only imported ingredients he uses are olive oil and some herbs. Not even the French cheeses because he wants to use the local rushan, a dairy fan that’s made of milk, and rubing, dairy cake, as substitutes. If he doesn’t have an ingredient in a French recipe, he would just change it or not do it at all.
“I have neighbors who come to my home and they try the rubing or rushan, they are shocked sometimes, because for years they are cooked in the same way as fried and never changed.”
The majority of people who dine at Casabai are tourists from other places in China who have heard of the private kitchen and want to enjoy Dali more. Foerster loves this way of connecting people and stories with food.
In his free time, Foerster is also writing his first novel, something else that’s very different from the investigative stories he used to do.
If you want to make a reservation at Casabai when traveling to Dali, you can contact Foerster through WeChat: Gil-Beijing.
The private kitchen has an average price of 288 yuan (US$45.82) per person, which includes 10 courses.