Some home truths: the calming effect of food on people
During Shanghai's two-month lockdown, Corentin Delcroix's home-cooking vlogs have been a source of comfort.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, the French chef is known by his Chinese name Guangtan, and has 1.33 million followers.
Fluent in Chinese, he has since 2019 posted more than 550 vlogs of Chinese and Western cuisine.
During lockdown, those forced to cook at home flocked to Delcroix's channel to pick up some kitchen skills, while others found him "therapeutic."
"It's calming to watch Guangtan cook every day," wrote Beijing-based food critic Shu Qiao on Weibo. "I even learned to make congyoubing (scallion pancakes) and shengjianbao (pan-fried pork buns) with him."
"(He would) make steamed rice with broad beans when the beans were purchased in bulk, and tangcu xiaopai (braised pork ribs in sweet and sour sauce) to commemorate the end of the lockdown. He's a true local."
Delcroix, who has lived in Shanghai for over a decade, runs a food research and development consulting firm. He talked to Shanghai Daily on the calming effect of food on people.
Q: How did the lockdown affect your work?
We have an R&D kitchen in Jing'an District. During the lockdown, we couldn't buy enough ingredients, so the R&D programs were suspended. We had no income, and I still had to pay my employees and the rent. But as a food vlogger, I had more time to make videos at home.
Q: Did vlogging help you mentally?
Definitely. I have this compulsive need to work. I will probably break down if I just idle around at home and do nothing. Everyday, I spend a lot of time uploading videos, interacting with followers, answering their questions and reading their comments. I really enjoy sharing my dishes with people. Many fans have sent me their "homework" – cooking with my recipes. I'm glad to see children try following my recipes to make cakes at home.
Q: Most Shanghai people experienced those stay-at-home days. We all struggled with food shortages initially, then got up early to snap up vegetables online; joined a dozen WeChat groups for group buying...
As a chef, I stored more food than ordinary people, especially dried food. But there was a time when food was limited. We just had some cabbages. My wife and I joined group-buying as well and got up at 5am to snap up groceries. My wife succeeded a dozen times; I never made it. There were probably some tricks that I didn't get.
We once group-bought candou (broad beans), with at least 20kg per order. My wife and I spent a whole afternoon pealing the beans. We put up a table near the window and took our time pealing while basking in the sun. An old lady next door was also pealing the beans. So we started chatting, discussing what to cook with these beans and shared recipes.
Q: Some people have said that the lockdown has changed their way of eating and living.
It's interesting that people have started to cherish those life-supporting, long-duration foods, such as sausages, and cured and salted meat. Before, people would place orders online and have them delivered some 20 minutes later. Without that convenience, they will cherish it more.
Like many people, I used to only eat the top part of broccoli. Now I will dice the stalk and put it in the fried rice.
Q: Many people get a sense of achievement from making a dish from scratch.
Yes. I made two videos. One was how to make Basque cheesecake. It begins with making ricotta cheese with milk and white vinegar. Another was to make Mozarella cheese. It is a process of repeatedly heating milk and white vinegar in the microwave. Many followers sent me videos of them making cheese at home. I also saw children trying them, which was pretty nice. It is a precious chance to learn and experience.
Q: It seems that people seek out food or cook for comfort during a pandemic.
First of all, I think it's because, as humans, we share more common ground than differences. Food is a basic need. Also, cooking offers a sense of achievement. That's why I changed my career from business management to chef. When I cook something, my friends and family enjoy it. That's a pretty direct reward. Delicious food is simply enjoyment. Some foods make you feel comfortable, some thrilling. It's possible to adjust your mood with food.
Q: Does the joy and energy that people gain from food differ with different cooking styles?
I think culture affects food styles. France is a relatively small country that has been open for quite some time. Some 200 years ago, the rich French probably got tired of foie gras, caviar and truffles. They wanted something exciting. That's why the creativity of a chef matters so much in France. People don't mind paying 500 yuan (US$74.75) for an egg, as long as the method of cooking is something special or creative. In France, a restaurant does not sell an ingredient but an experience. It is definitely worth the price if a chef can provide diners with a unique experience or tell an interesting story, even with some simple ingredients.
It is the perfect time for the catering industry in China, especially in Shanghai. Restaurants with an offering of creative dishes are trending. We need more young chefs to make creative dishes that can tell intriguing stories or exemplify the chefs' personalities or cooking styles. That's how Chinese cuisine can actually make a move in the global market.
Q: Some say cooking brings people closer. What do you think?
Cooking is a kind of sharing and a way of expressing love. It's a good way to get to know each other and start conversations. I know this couple who never cooked at home before. During lockdown, they sent me photos of the food they made every few days. They were obviously enjoying it.
Cooking is a process of learning by doing. You have to keep doing it if you really want to learn. And I strongly recommend all beginners to go over the whole process in their mind before they start cooking. Write down all the steps and follow them in order. It may take 20 minutes to write the list, but it will work out better.
Q: Does cooking help to calm you down?
Cooking at home is no doubt a relaxing process. While at work, it's different because the requirements from clients are different. I enjoy both.
I love to open the fridge, see what's inside, and think about what to cook. It was interesting during the lockdown days when food was limited. If you just have a cabbage, a cucumber, some qingcai (known as bok choy in the West) and salted meat, then you have to come up with some ideas to cook up something delicious. I like the challenges.
But what really helps me relax is the chopping and preparing the ingredients, say, to peal 10kg broad beans or chop 3kg carrots. I don't have to think, just repeat the move, and make it quick, precise and perfect.