Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain

Yao Minji
Maik Juengst has given up the urban rat race to open a restaurant in a village 50 kilometers from downtown Shanghai.
Yao Minji
Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Maik Juengst

German chef Maik Juengst is opening a restaurant in this village about 50 kilometers away from downtown Shanghai.

German chef Maik Juengst used to wake up late and work into the night, as most culinary maestros who serve up haute cuisine do. But nowadays, he's up at 5:30am and in bed by 9pm.

What caused such a drastic change in his workday? A shift from the city to the Shanghai rural village of Dongshe in early April.

"It may sound like a cliché when people say you wake up early and really enjoy a healthy lifestyle in a village," he told Shanghai Daily in the two-story farmhouse he rented on the main road through the village.

"But it's so true," he said. "No need for an alarm. I just wake up at 5:30 every morning and am the first customer at the village café. By 6am, locals in their 80s and 90s are drinking tea in front of the café, and they greet me by yelling out 'Maik'!"

Juengst, who has worked in restaurants with a Michelin star in five-star hotels and on luxury cruise ships, spend his last 10 years in Shenzhen and Shanghai, as both chef and entrepreneur.

"After so many different things, I wanted a simpler life – cooking for people away from urban pressures," he explained. "A friend of mine knew about this village, and I came here with plans to open a restaurant on the first floor and live on the second."

Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Yao Minji / SHINE

The German chef has got used to the simpler life in the rural village, and the simpler transportation – his favorite tricycle.

He certainly has landed in a simpler life. On the day of the interview, he was having a shower room installed in a barely refurbished bedroom, after bathing at a neighbor's house down the road for a month.

Another neighbor came by in the morning to kill a chicken for him for the lunch, while a third swung past asking, "When is the restaurant open?"

Chef Maik, as he is more commonly known on social media and by his business partners, is hoping for a soft opening on June 1, but there is no official launch date yet, no set menu and no clear goal on profit.

What is certain is that the restaurant will feature farmgate-to-table fare.

"I will certainly use local ingredients," he said. "And the name of the restaurant will be Le 208."

The 208 is from his house address and "Le" from the Chinese character for "happy."

"I want this to be a fun project," he added. "I can do this with no set plan because there is no pressure here. That would be impossible if you were opening a restaurant in a city, where everything has to be planned and set long before the place opens because you are paying a very high rent. If it fails, it will destroy you. Not here."

Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Yao Minji / SHINE

Six weeks after he moved into the village, the chef is finally getting his mattress, and a shower room installed in the bedroom on the second floor.

Dongshe Village is about 50 kilometers from downtown Shanghai and 15 kilometers from the Zhujiajiao Station on Metro Line 17.

The village, which is home to some 600 households and about a square kilometer of farmland, is little known, even to local Shanghai residents. It's not a tourist destination – at least not yet.

What hardly looks like an ideal restaurant location doesn't worry Chef Maik. The locals are certainly excited by the new venture.

Friends, villagers and strangers who learned about the project by word of mouth or on social media keep pressing him to give them an opening date. Then, too, there are those who express the sentiment "I wish I could do something like this, but ..."

"Many people are taking a greater interest in small towns, for tourism or even for shifting household," he said. "I have some Chinese friends who drive down here every weekend with their families."

Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Maik Juengst

The chef plans to use fire and local ingredients for Le 208.

When he first arrived in the southern city of Shenzhen for a hotel restaurant job, he was enchanted by the city because "it had so much going on and so many things one can do."

Now, as he stands by a decrepit tricycle that is his main transport in the village, he has a different perspective.

"Forget about the city, the future lies in villages."

Venturing out of big urban areas, he said, opened his eyes.

"I've traveled to rural areas in Shanghai and neighboring Zhejiang Province, and there is construction everywhere," he said. "So many people are building motels and restaurants in villages now, and they are very pretty and well-designed."

Dongshe Village too is trying to transform itself into a resort venue for Chinese-style, rural homestays, and Chef Maik isn't the only one seeing opportunities.

"The farmland, rivers, open space and the social texture of a small town really remind me of my childhood in Qibao," said Lu Tingyi, who grew up in Shanghai's Minhang District and moved to Dongzhuang Village next to Dongshe four years ago.

In her early 40s, she first opened a café in Dongzhuang. It failed, but her confidence did not. She's now opening a bakery down the road from Chef Maik's restaurant.

"Nothing changes overnight, but I have seen a lot of young people coming back to villages since I moved here," she said. "You just have to believe there is a different side of Shanghai that people like me can't live without."

Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Yao Minji / SHINE

Chef Maik's staff lunch in front of what calls "the best view"

Rural bliss: German chef embraces the roots of culinary food chain
Maik Juengst

A quiet evening in Dongshe Village

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