Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 26 — The Gourmet Coach (Crystyl MO, The World's 50 Best Restaurants)
Crystyl Mo is an Academy Chair at The World's 50 Best Restaurants and has been reporting on the world of restaurants and the fine dining experience in China for over twenty years.
CM: Why isn't there a Gordon Ramsay of China?
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
We talked briefly in last week’s episode with the fire engineer Michael Kinsey about the delights of British cuisine. But for today’s episode we’re moving on from the likes of steak and kidney pie with baked beans on the side, to the equally majestic world of global fine dining. Today’s episode is with Crystyl Mo, who is not only an expert in gourmet cuisine, but is also a coach. And maybe it’s because of this that our conversation today spans not only the life of a professional foodie, but also the story that has got Crystyl to where she is today, the China Academy Chair at The World's 50 Best Restaurants, one of the most highly sought-after positions in the world of food.
As part of this story, we talk a lot about Crystyl’s somewhat unconventional childhood. But I think the impression we leave is a little unbalanced, so I wanted to add this quick disclaimer right from the start that Crystyl did feel incredible love and devotion from her parents as a child.
There are some other updates about Crystyl that I need to mention, but I’ll save those until the end of the episode. So let’s get on with it.
OF: So I'm here with Crystyl Mo, thank you so much, Crystyl.
CM: Thank you, I'm excited to be here.
OF: Me too. “You are Crystyl Mo, and you are…” How would I complete that sentence?
CM: Foremost, right now, I am a life coach and public speaker on issues around self-awareness and mindfulness and meditation, and how that overlaps with my other career, which is in food and fine dining and restaurants.
OF: Got it. And it reminded me of Michael Zee, who was the person who introduced you.
CM: Instagram celebrity Michael Zee, love you.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Michael ZEE: I would like to hear more from my friend Crystyl Mo. She is the chair of Asia's 50 best restaurants. She's extremely eloquent, and she's just been someone that I've immediately clicked with.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: How did you meet Michael?
CM: We must have crossed paths several times at food events. He's just the ultimate food writer and food celebrity. And beyond that, we have a very similar worldview politically and culturally. And so we just totally hit it off. I adore him. I don't get to spend enough time with him, certainly not now. He just really knows his stuff.
OF: Absolutely. Well, before we get any further, the first question I would ask you is, what object do you have with you that in some way represents what you do in China?
CM: Like I said, I work in food. And I am the Academy Chair for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which is a very prestigious role. So in order to evoke that - and my career for 15 years, as a food journalist - I chose for my object a knife, which represents, you know, food and cooking and dining. And also pain and separation, which was a part of being an expat for over 20 years, being cut off. Voluntarily, but also in some way psychologically forced to, because I was escaping from the difficult parts of my childhood, and my relationship with my parents. So there's a lot going on with this knife. And this happens to be my mother's knife, which she's had for many many years, which I wouldn't have had if I was still in China.
CM: So that's what I've chosen.
OF: And so tell us, where are you right now? Because you have been stranded outside of China, right?
CM: I have been stranded outside of China. I am in my childhood home - in Cambridge, Massachusetts - and I'm sitting here in my childhood room, actually. This is where I slept from age five to when I went to college, 16, I went to college early. So this is really interesting. And behind me is one of my mother's paintings, my mother is an artist and a writer.
CM: And my daughter is sleeping in a loft above my head.
[Distant Voice]: I am not sleeping.
CM: Oh, she's not sleeping.
OF: Great. With that knife in mind, you mentioned that you were part of the ‘Top 50 Restaurants,’ so could you explain what that situation is?
CM: So The World's 50 Best Restaurants is an organisation that started I think about 18 years ago in London. It was started on a lark by two young guys who wanted to create an award list for restaurants that wasn't so stuffy and traditional like Michelin, but represented the kind of restaurants and food that young people wanted to eat, but was still an incredible experience. So they were seeking a new Academy Chair for China, and I had been a food journalist in China for about 15 years, and my name was suggested to them, they contacted me. I hadn't really known very much about The World's 50 Best Restaurants when they wrote me their first email. I didn't really know what it was, I was very very busy. I think I was still the food editor for Time Out Shanghai, producing a 16-page section every month and just flat out. And I was like “I really don't need another volunteer position”. So I never replied to them. And then they wrote me three more times. And then finally the woman who had recommended me called me and was like “Crystyl, can you please just return their email?” I was just like "Fine, I'll reply”. And then we had a call. Anyways, it was a funny story because I was quite clueless about the opportunity that was presented to me. And eventually I learned that it was, you know, one of the most highly sought-after positions you could possibly have in the world of food. And you are suddenly invited to restaurants and events all over the world.
CM: With the most genius chefs. I mean, it's been an astonishing ride.
OF: Well, you know, you played hard-to-get Crystyl, it's a lesson that we can all learn.
CM: Yes. They actually loved it. They were definitely far more interested, because they were like “Wait, you don't want to do this?”
OF: Maybe it's similar to how I got you onto Mosaic of China, but that’s probably elevating my status a little bit too high, I think. Wonderful, so what does that role entail for you on a practical level?
CM: OK, well, right now, because of COVID, we are not doing our regular events. But during the three years when we were, I would probably once or twice a month travel to visit incredible chefs and restaurants around the world.
OF: I'm assuming that you also visit chefs and restaurants within China too, right?
CM: Yes, absolutely. Previous to being the Academy Chair, I focused almost exclusively on domestic chefs and restaurants. In fact, when I discover a great chef in China, I would say it is the most thrilling, because there are not enough chefs at that level in China. So if I discover one in China, it's mind-blowing. Why isn't there a Gordon Ramsay of China? Why isn't there a Massimo Bottura? Why isn't there a Rene Redzepi? With a country of over a billion people, and 5,000 years of history, and the most celebrated cuisines in the world - recognised by chefs - where are our leaders? And the thing is, we don't have a single mainland Chinese chef who's known globally. Why is that? And there are many reasons, but one crucial one is that we had a civil war, and we had the Cultural Revolution. And so people did not continue this legacy of fine dining or exquisite cuisine during that time. And people still do not think of being a chef as a respected career. So if you are a brilliant person who gets into a top university, you will definitely not become a chef. And the type of people who become chefs are - like my husband - people who were failing out of school. So basically, when he was little he was a very poor student, because he had a horrible abusive teacher. And so his choices were basically some kind of vocational school or the army. And he chose to go to a culinary school, not because he had any interest in food or cooking, it was basically just a way to make a living. And for most chefs of his generation - and also even now - that is their story. They are not passionate about food. As soon as they get off work, they go home and make, you know, 方便面 [fāngbiànmiàn].
OF: How interesting. Because that explains, I think, the experience that someone like me would have maybe going to a fancy restaurant in China. Where you do get really good food, but then there's often that disconnect, right? Where you can tell that the waiter there doesn't really care about what he's serving you.
CM: Right, even though the food might taste great, but they're not creating a fine dining experience. The chef is not obsessed with every ingredient, the chef is not thinking “I can't wait to wow every diner”. There are definitely becoming more and more.
OF: For sure.
CM: But the question of why there aren't already hundreds of well-known chefs, is that the social status of chefs is still very low. Therefore, it creates this vacuum of talent in the F&B industry. Thanks to the booming economy in China over the past 20 years, many chefs from all over the world came to Shanghai - Shanghai definitely is the heart of fine dining in China - to open their own restaurants. And they trained a lot of local chefs, and they also just brought the idea that being a chef could be a very prestigious career. You can be considered an artist, you can be considered a thought leader in the greater society, not just in your one restaurant. And so there are starting to be Chinese chefs who were influenced by that, who were inspired by that. So you have five-star hotels, which were some of the first to open fine dining restaurants. And so this created an F&B scene which I think is extremely sophisticated, and can compare with many other top-level cities around the world.
OF: Right. And what you're describing is not dissimilar to what happened in the UK. You know, you mentioned Gordon Ramsay, it was only him and his predecessors over the last 20-30 years that did the same thing in the UK. Except in the UK, you know, we had a cuisine which most people across the world would laugh at. If we can say that there are the likes of Gordon Ramsay from the UK, then it's only logical that there should be the same coming up from China, right?
CM: It is inevitable.
OF: You know, we're taking for granted that you are this writer here in China, knowing about the food scene, knowing about restaurants. But how did that come about? Were you always in this world?
CM: Not always. I had this romantic idea that I wanted to be a writer. And it's hard to get paid as a writer. So one shortcut is to become a journalist where - at the time at least - journalists could make a living. Now it's very difficult, but at that time traditional media was still booming. I was graduating from a UC Berkeley Chinese training programme at 清华 [‘Tsinghua’] in Beijing. And I was in the right place at the right time, because the sleeping dragon was awakening, and everyone wanted to know what was going on in this mysterious country of China. I got a job as a China correspondent for one of the major Time Warner magazines in the region, it was called Asiaweek. At that time, it was a very influential publication. And, beginning of 2002, I wanted to go freelance, so I started pitching stories to travel magazines. And when you write for a travel magazine, you always end up writing about food, because that's what people do when they travel, they want to know where to go out to eat. And that was how I started to write about food, serendipitously. I just started writing a bit about restaurants, and as I started writing about restaurants, I discovered that I knew a lot about food and cooking. And that was from my childhood, growing up with a creative artist chef mother, an organic garden, and making everything from scratch. From grinding our own wheat to make bread, to making tofu, to never having any processed food in the house. And so the fact that I grew up learning about that way of cooking actually gave me a huge advantage in writing about the trendy ways of cooking now. I'm very grateful to my mother for being this super far-out home cook.
OF: Let's go into that story then, because obviously you do have some Asian ancestry, I can tell of course. What is your family's story?
CM: My mother is originally from Shanghai. She came to the U.S. when she was a teenager. My father's from New York. And they grew up in these very opposite families, in some ways. My mother was very poor, my father was born into a very wealthy New York family. But both of them had extremely traumatic childhoods, with parents who were either absent or completely absorbed in other parts of their lives.
OF: Interesting. And so did that also transfer to your childhood, or was it relatively happy?
CM: I would say it was relatively happy. ‘Relative’ being the key term. They were both carrying the tragedies of their own childhoods. A lot of my parents’ pain was in the atmosphere of the home. And I carried that with me very much. And I was also treated like an adult from the time I could walk around. In some ways, I loved that, I had total independence. But I also had no guidance. For example, from the time I was five, I was going on the subway by myself, nobody to make me breakfast, nobody to dress me, I would take myself to school. We had a bare-bones house with no heat in Boston, so I was freezing all winter long, I couldn't sleep. I had no-one to take care of me, I took care of myself. My mother cooked a lot, we had wonderful food, I certainly wasn't starving. But I had rags for clothes, I never had a decent haircut. I had a lot of crazy people living in my house, because my father is this incredible Jesus-like figure who wants to save everyone, from schizophrenic people to alcoholics and drug addicts, to just very emotionally damaged people who we would have in the home all the time, which drove my mother absolutely crazy. It was a very chaotic childhood. In retrospect, I realise how unsafe I felt, although I did feel love from my parents, and they were certainly never intentionally abusive. They didn't scream at me, they didn't beat me, they respected me deeply. But they respected me as an adult, to just get everything done on my own.
OF: Gosh. So I'm guessing that with that background, you were destined to be somewhat of a loner. Like, I'm just thinking about how you could possibly fit into a corporation? Do you have a visceral reaction against that kind of mainstream life? Or actually, do you long for that kind of life?
CM: That is a good question. I don't long for that life. I would say I'm pretty anti-establishment and anti-mainstream. The biggest reason though, that I don't fit into corporate life, is that I am nocturnal.
CM: And I operate on a nighttime schedule. My whole life I’ve been nocturnal, my mother's nocturnal, her mother was nocturnal. So it is very hard for me to wake up and go to an office in the morning.
OF: Goodness. I've never heard somebody give themselves that title. I've heard people who are like “Oh yeah, I tend to function better in the evenings. I'm a bit of a night owl.” But you are wholeheartedly embracing this as a way of life, are you?
CM: I am. And as a coach, one of the things I studied - learning more about bio-individuality - is that we don't need to go by when the sun comes up and goes down. When you realise what your ideal circadian rhythm is, it gives you a lot more power. For a long time, I was seen as almost shameful to not wake up in the morning in this society, people would really look down on that. And I'd always try to hide that fact. So people will be like “Oh, I'll call you tomorrow at nine” and I'd be like “Oh, I'm busy”. Now I'm like “I will be asleep”. Instead of having some kind of shame around that. I get as much - if not more - done each day as anyone else. I just do it during different hours of the day.
OF: Well, I can definitely see the strands between what you do now and your previous life. And thank you so much for sharing that part of your story. How did, then, you parlay this into what you're doing now in terms of coaching? Is it because when you deal with people who work in the restaurant industry, the archetype is that there are very highly-strung chefs. They are these angry, abusive, short-tempered, impatient people. Is that just me creating a silly analogy? Or is that where it first came from?
CM: It's not, but there is a relationship. Chefs have definitely lots of psychological issues, they have a lot of relationship issues, they don't see their family enough. There are so many divorced chefs, or chefs who never see their kids. My epiphany was not sudden, but what I came upon was, I was going to these very very crazy exclusive experiences at restaurants around the world, where literally you will be picked up from the airport in a limo, and then taken somewhere - maybe by helicopter - to this $1,000 meal with caviar and wine pairings, and luxury for the sake of luxury. And that didn't feel like my purpose. And so that's when I started thinking “I don't know if I want to continue doing this. I want something that really resonates with my purpose here, during this short time I have on the planet, which is to help other people heal and to heal myself”. Hurt people hurt people, but healed people heal people.
CM: I won't ever say that I'm fully healed. But I want to be on that journey. And so some chefs started to ask me to come to their restaurant and give mindfulness workshops. And so I gave a workshop at the number one restaurant in the world - which is called Mirazur, in southern France - on mindfulness, and on dealing with issues of childhood trauma, even. Like, really asking some hard questions in a half-day workshop with their staff.
OF: Right. That is a great combination, the idea of using your knowledge of the restaurant industry to then give them some coaching, which actually can be relevant in that world. That is a great niche to springboard your career into the next stage. It's nice for you to talk about that, because I think otherwise people would look at your life - you know, as you said, you're going from helicopter to amazing meal - and it is good to know that there is something else going on. Thank you so much Crystyl, on to Part 2.
OF: Good, well, Part 2, it is the same 10 questions that I ask everyone. Are you ready?
CM: I am.
OF: OK, let's start. What is your favourite China-related fact?
CM: My favourite China-related fact is, the longer you stay in China, the more you realise how little you know about China.
OF: Because you have been then trying to know how many years?
CM: 23 or 24.
OF: Ach, is that all?
OF: And were you the kind of person who at the beginning were the super expert, and you thought that you knew everything? Or did you always have that humility from the start?
CM: I never thought about how much I know or don't know. But I have definitely met many people who feel they know a lot.
OF: Yeah. Can you remember one particular ‘aha moment’ where you had this transition from ‘Oh wait, what I thought I knew actually is 100% the opposite way around’?
CM: One interesting thing I learned is that when I first came to China, I thought that the U.S. was perfect. And so coming to China and hearing another perspective on the U.S. - seeing global geopolitics from outside the U.S. - was a very big ‘aha moment’.
OF: Yes, this is when American exceptionalism clashes with China exceptionalism. Question 2, do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
CM: A phrase that I love is 麻烦你 [máfan nǐ], which is a very polite way of saying “So sorry to trouble you”. And Americans don't really say this, we wouldn't off the cuff kind of say “Oh, I'm so sorry to trouble you”. But in Chinese, that's very common. Like when you ask somebody to do a favour, or when someone just does something nice for you, can say 麻烦你 [máfan nǐ], I'm so sorry to trouble you. And it's just a very kind and generous recognition of someone doing something for you.
OF: Yes. Although I would take exception to say that the Americans are not polite. I think Americans can be very friendly and polite, of course.
CM: Very friendly.
OF: The Brits use their politeness as a weapon sometimes.
CM: I’m allowed to say that, but I will agree with you.
OF: What is your favourite destination within China?
CM: 云南 [Yúnnán], and 香格里拉 [‘Shangri-La’], where it's the Switzerland of China. Absolutely stunning.
OF: Every other person, when answering that question, says 云南 [Yúnnán]. I think I should call this podcast ‘Mosaic of 云南 [Yúnnán]’. Yeah, it's something else, isn't it?
CM: I would say, if everyone says 云南 [Yúnnán], then that's the right answer. I mean, 云南 [Yúnnán] is so diverse. I had my honeymoon in 西双版纳 [Xīshuāngbǎnnà], which is basically subtropical, and we were in the rain forest in an orchid forest. And then I've also been to the northern parts around 香格里拉 [‘Shangri-La’] up into the snow-capped mountains, you know, all in one province.
OF: Yes, and everything in between. Great, next question. If you left China - which to you is actually the reality right now, hopefully temporarily, and not for much longer - what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least? So I should reword that to ‘what do you miss the most, and what do you miss the least?’
CM: The people and the people. So, Chinese are not great as strangers. Americans are very friendly and have a warmth to them, that you can have some kind of friendly interaction with a stranger, which I think makes just walking around the city feel like more of a community. And yet, Chinese - while they can be quite cold and selfish to strangers - they are so warm and generous as soon as you are on any kind of friendly terms with them. You go to their house, and they will cook you a banquet and take care of you. And so that kind of warmth and generosity is something that struck me as a student when I first went to China and lived in Nanjing. And so I would say that I don't miss being a stranger in China. But I do miss being a friend.
OF: Lovely. And there's quite a theme, isn't there? Because we're talking about this politeness. We're talking about it in the context of America, UK and China. You could also throw in Japan as well. I think the Japanese and the Brits can be similar with a politeness. But it's still courteous. What they have in China, it lacks the courtesy. In many ways, it’s more honest. Because, you know, the Brits don't care about you as a stranger either. But you really feel it here, don't you?
CM: I wouldn't say I'd exchange it for British strangers either. They're both somewhat cold.
CM: Actually, I would prefer the Chinese one, because you know where they stand.
OF: Exactly, exactly. On the metro in Shanghai, you are going to be steamrollered by a Chinese stranger. In the metro in London, you’re not going to have anyone making eye contact with you. It's a very different kind of rudeness.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
CM: No. It feels like home.
OF: Yeah. I guess the equivalent would be, is there anything that surprises you about life in the U.S. in that case?
CM: More so. Because I have literally spent the last half of my life in China. So being here, there are more surprises. I have been the recipient of so much generosity here during COVID, and warmth from strangers who heard my story, and would deliver food and clothing for my daughter, and a bicycle, and babysitting. I mean, it's been astonishing.
OF: And I've noticed as we've been talking that sometimes you refer to Shanghai as ‘home’ and sometimes you're saying ‘home’ as in the room you're in now. Do you have this bifurcated ‘home’ existence? Or actually, it just depends on where you are?
CM: I very much feel that both places are home. I don't feel more or less comfortable.
OF: Nice. Next one's gonna be a hard one for you. What is your favourite place to go out, to drink or eat or hang out?
CM: I'll just say one place that I love, which was a cocktail bar I used to go to every Friday with my girlfriends for years. And that's Senator Saloon in the French Concession.
CM: Where they make perfect classic cocktails, including my signature drink, the sidecar.
OF: Oh, my one is the basil gimlet there, they do a great basil gimlet.
CM: Oh yes they do. They do. And it's just consistent every time. I love the bartenders there. I love the guy who founded it, David Schroeder, a brilliant American bartender and specialist. And they also have the most amazing bar snacks out of any bar.
OF: Even the freebie chips they give you seem to be elevated.
CM: Small and perfect.
OF: Nice. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
CM: Oh, right.
OF: Oh, I like this. That's very good.
CM: Well, this is just a handy sticker. Because in WeChat groups, often people will accidentally send something, or say something inappropriate. And you just need to have a sticker for that occasion. It literally happens every day. So that's just a fun one.
OF: Can you quickly describe it?
CM: So this is a sticker that has just a giant button that says ‘unsee’. So this person is just frantically tapping this button. Unsee unsee unsee unsee. Like, please just take me back to five seconds previous in time and let me not have seen that thing.
OF: I've never seen this used. I love it.
CM: I hope you’ll start using it.
OF: Totally, how can I not? Next question, what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
CM: I would rather stab my eyes out with forks than go to KTV.
OF: You have obviously been, though. You haven't been able to avoid it entirely.
CM: I really have only been maybe three times in my early career in China before I realised that I will never go again. People who don't get paid to sing, should not sing.
OF: What about in your daily life? Like if you're having a shower, if you're whistling down the street, do you have a song that you like to sing?
CM: Well, I'm thinking of a song that nobody will know. But it's a song by a wonderful folk singer, which I've been listening to a bit more recently. Her name is Catie Curtis, and the song is called ‘Magnolia Street’.
CM: It’s a beautiful song, she’s an amazing singer songwriter. I love acoustic guitar folk singing.
OF: Yes. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
CM: Well, I do love the more long-form writing about China in The New Yorker. So I will read their essays, written by some of the top writers like Peter Hessler.
OF: Well, thank you very much, Crystyl.
CM: Thank you, Oscar. It's really been a pleasure. I feel like I could talk to you for two more hours.
OF: Thank you so much. The only question I would have left to ask you is, out of everyone who you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
CM: I would really love to recommend my dear friend Ricky Li, who is a child prodigy businessman, started his first businesses literally as a grade schooler. He's helped to build a natural gas line in Seattle. And he opened up an incredible fine dining restaurant in 深圳 [Shēnzhèn], where he hired a three-star Michelin chef from California to be the head chef, Christopher Kostow from The Restaurant at Meadowood. He's brilliant, he’s very humble, he’s a visionary, incredible businessman, and also a connoisseur.
OF: Wow. Well, I thought that you had a busy life. It sounds like you've recommended somebody who is going to be equally hard to pin down. Thank you so much.
CM: He does schedule his day in 15-minute increments.
OF: Oh wow. OK, gosh. Well, thank you so much. He sounds fascinating, I can't wait to meet him. And thank you again, Crystyl, that was a real pleasure.
CM: It's been an incredible honour to chat with you.
OF: At the beginning of today’s episode I mentioned that there were a few updates to share since the recording of the conversation. Well sadly Crystyl is still stranded in the U.S. because family reunion visas are still not being issued for China. She has been running groups for people in this same situation on Facebook and WeChat this whole time, so please reach out to her personally if you’d like to be added. She would love to connect with you, or indeed with anyone who enjoyed this episode. And on a slightly happier note, Crystyl’s husband who is Chinese was able to come to the States and return to China with their daughter Phoenix, who is a dual citizen. This has left Crystyl with all the more time to focus on the biggest project that she has run this year, which has been producing and directing her mother's cooking show, Mother Zen Chef. So if you want to check that out, head to the transcript for today’s episode at the Mosaic of China website, where you can scroll to this part of the conversation for the direct links on YouTube, Facebook and Patreon.
Speaking of Patreon, that’s one of the three ways that you can also check out the PREMIUM version of the podcast, which includes an extra 10-15 minutes of extra content every episode. Here are some clips from today’s show.
CM: Much to their surprise, almost every chef came, including Ferran Adrià of El Bulli, a God in the culinary world.
CM: Ancient ways of cooking, using pickling and using the whole animal or the whole vegetable.
CM: The most stereotypically rude and arrogant and condescending service, I wrote a scathing review for Time Out.
CM: I have a superpower, which is that I metabolise alcohol very efficiently.
CM: It's the ‘Oscars’ of food, to have a spot on that list cements you in the firmament of great chefs.
CM: He was in the kitchen, I went in the kitchen, I met him there. Basically love at first sight, and I was like "Wrap him up, and I'm taking him home”.
[End of Audio Clips]
And finally, you can see all the images from today’s episode on all the usual places, including photos from Crystyl’s childhood; some from the first time she stepped foot in China in 1995; some shots with her husband, mother and daughter; and of course there are also great photos of Crystyl alongside some of the world's top chefs, including Dan Barber, Rene Redzepi, The Roca Brothers and Heston Blumenthal.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. A great accompaniment to today’s show is the interview with the China street food tour guide Jamie Barys from Season 02 Episode 02. And you heard his voice at the beginning of the show, well you’re about to hear it again, because coming up is a catch-up recording with the Instagram food writer Michael Zee from Season 01 Episode 07. So be sure to listen to Michael’s original episode if you haven’t done so already, and I’ll see you back here again next week, where - who knows - there might also be a connection to food…
OF: Hello, Michael.
MZ: Hello. Back again.
OF: Here you are. You're not in the studio, you're at my house this time. For people who didn't necessarily hear our original interview, you are the man behind @symmetrybreakfast, the Instagram account. What was your story during COVID?
MZ: I was having a haircut at the beginning of January 2020. And my barber is from 贵州 [Guìzhōu]. And he was saying “Oh have you heard about this virus in 武汉 [Wǔhàn]?” I was like “Yeah, I saw it on the news”. "That is something we should keep an eye on”. But I was about to go on holiday to Australia. And whilst we were in Australia, it all started of kicking off in China, everything was starting to go into lock-down, until we were kind of watching it and looking at the news every minute of the day. We got to the end of the two weeks in Australia, and we just made the decision to delay returning. So we went to Indonesia. And then Mark had to go to Europe for work, so we came to Europe. And seven weeks later, we ended up back in Shanghai after a lot of our friends said “It's fine. Just come back”. So I actually came back before they asked me to quarantine. So I came back and I just went home. And it was only a few weeks afterwards that the borders were closed. It's very difficult to be in this position as a social media ‘share-all' position…
OF: That was exactly what I was going to ask you, yeah.
MZ: … When actually my 2020 was pretty good.
MZ: And so I've been very cautious not to go overboard with “Oh my life’s totally normal, having a great time”. Because I understand a lot of people are not in that situation. And I took a step back from social media. I've been definitely a lot less on Instagram and social media. and just kind of taking it day by day. Sometimes it's better just to be quiet.
OF: Which is interesting, because during our original conversation, you were saying how there is no job description - you've made this job yourself - and there's no off-ramp either. You don't know how this is going to end, you can't pass it off to anyone, you are @symmetrybreakfast. So did this give you a little bit more insight into that end game?
MZ: Absolutely. I think I should have this escape route. Because ultimately, people get trapped in social media because it's their income. I came to China four years ago and I remember my agent emailed me a matter of months later saying “Are you ready to write a book about China?” And I was “No, of course I'm not ready”. But then four years later, “Hmm maybe, yeah.”
MZ: OK, I feel I do have a lot of knowledge. I do have a lot of opinions and perspective. I think I'm ready to do another project, another book or something that's more than just Instagram and breakfasts.
MZ: And we're leaving Shanghai. Now going to Italy, it’s “How do I continue that energy?” And I have to just go for it.
OF: Are you going to have to finish everything while you're in China?
MZ: I'm definitely putting projects into place now, with the hope that I'm going to be able to come back in September/October for research and for planning around those projects. I haven't really seen any significant research on Anglo-Chinese food. You know, there is just not the same breadth and depth compared to American-Chinese food. That is something I really want to explore. If I'm going to be back in Europe, and back in the UK, I can use that to interrogate my dad about those sorts of stories. And so I'm excited to see how moving away from China physically can actually bring out certain projects that will enable me to come back.
OF: Yes. And of course, you're going from a country with a very important food culture to another country with a very important food culture, right? Do you think that when it comes to Italy, there are going to be some connections that you haven't thought about?
MZ: Oh, at the moment I can only think about the parallels. They're both very hyper-local cuisines, very specific to certain communes or provinces or regions. And they're both very much grounded in a sense of provenance and seasonality. But what I don't see in Italian culture - that is so prevalent in Chinese food - is this connection to health, and food as medicine. I don't know if actually any European culture has such a strong connection to health. You know, I'm definitely going to go to Italy and probably still drink a lot of hot water.
OF: Yeah, you can't take that out of you now.
OF: Well, what little tidbits have you learned - I guess this will be my last question for you - in the two years since we last met here on mic?
MZ: Oh, I think the biggest thing is that for every stereotype, it's also completely untrue. You know, I've been to places like 成都 [Chéngdū] and you meet people who hate spicy food.
OF: Oh right.
MZ: And I follow other Chinese food writers - and Western food writers who write about China - and they say things like “Chinese people don't eat salads”. With every statement about China, the opposite is true also.
MZ: For me, some of the best food in the world is Chinese and some of the worst food and world is Chinese. And there's no right or wrong here. China is the most beautiful and the ugliest country. People here are the nicest and the meanest. And you can't make a generalisation.
OF: Well, this is the stage you should be, having been here for four years and on the way out. You have to be leaving under a cloud of confusion. Because if you were leaving, like “Oh, I know China” then you're not doing it right, Michael, right? Why would we even try and encapsulate a country where, you meet a nice Chinese person, you meet a bad Chinese person, just like you would anywhere else.
MZ: Anywhere else.
OF: So on that note, and we've talked about the other food influencers… One of them of course is the lady who you refer to me for Season 02, Crystyl Mo.
MZ: Oh, yeah.
OF: And it will be alongside Crystyl’s episode that we release this catch-up.
MZ: Oh, amazing.
OF: So have you been in touch with Crystyl at all, since she's been locked out the whole time?
MZ: Yeah, I mean, we've only spoken a handful of times. I mean, I feel terrible for her situation.
OF: Yes. And she seems to have a very philosophical idea about how to live life. I mean, you have to just get on with it. I believe that's what everyone who is in that situation is doing.
OF: But thank you. It has been great to have you as part of this Mosaic. And this is the first catch-up, I hope there are many more in the future.
MZ: Brilliant. Thanks so much for having me.