Taiwanese trailblazer

It is a warm autumn day when I meet chef Lanshu Chen during a visit to Hong Kong. Owner and head chef at French fine dining restaurant Le Moût in Taichung City, Taiwan, Chen was named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2014, an accolade awarded as part of S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. In person, Chen is instantly at ease with her modest demeanour, remaining humble about her achievements thus far despite the many years of hard work it took her to reach her current level. “Seven years ago when I opened my restaurant, it was very difficult; now, it’s getting better. The dining scene in Taiwan has been growing very fast, and I think as more people get to know about fine dining, the more accepting they are of the concept,” she explains.

Chen spent much of her childhood in the kitchen while living with her grandparents in Yilan, Taiwan. “My grandfather was someone who was passionate about many things in life, cooking being one of them,” she remembers, “and I would often hear him whisper to my grandmother about how to wash the rice and cook it to achieve the perfect texture, or even go through the steps in how to perfectly cut fruit… with their influence, I often found myself in the kitchen.” As part of a big family, Chen’s aunts are also excellent cooks, and at the age of ten, she would begin learning how to buy groceries at the local market with her mother, and together they would prepare dinner for the entire family. She would spend weekends reading cookbooks and whipping up pastries and desserts, her favourites, and it wasn’t long until she set her sights on Paris. It was then that she really began to advance her culinary skills, receiving formal training first as a pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu and then delving more into French cuisine at the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts in Paris.

During her career, Chen has had the opportunity to work under the guidance of several renowned French chefs, including Jean-François Piège, Jerôme Chaucesse, Pierre Hermé, and Patrick Pignol. “Prior to 2009 when Jean-François Piège was involved with Les Ambassadeurs at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, the way in which Piège interpreted ingredients and treated each dish like a delicate piece of artwork was inspiring,” she recalls. “It was then that I truly understood what was meant by ‘haute cuisine,’ and the importance of details, particularly when it came to desserts.”

However, it wasn’t until after a stint working at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in California that Chen really began to realise a new way of interpreting and developing her own style of French cooking. “[At French Laundry], it surprised me how different the kitchen worked in France and in the US—the management and efficiency really impressed me. During my experience in the US, I felt a cultural diversity and saw how flavours and tastes from around the world could become sources of inspiration for French cuisine. This made me re-examine and redefine what French cuisine meant to me.”

Her experiences working in kitchens across the globe eventually led her back to her homeland, and in 2008 Chen set up Le Moût in Taichung City, aiming to bring discerning diners a new experience that was underrepresented at the time. “With classic French touches, I create my own ‘haute cuisine’ by fusing local produce with luxurious ingredients from all over the world,” she explains. “When luxury produce from around the world meets local delicacies, the kitchen sparks creations. Whether it is freshly delivered Silkie Hen’s egg, sweet baby carrot from Nanto’s organic farm, freshly plucked Angelica sprouts, line-caught wild amadai from Taiwan’s North-Eastern coastline, black truffle from Perigord, the far flung beluga caviar, or the buttery wagyu beef, it is a sensational medley that belongs to Taiwan and indulged at Le Moût.”

Chen equates her style of cooking and creative use of ingredients at Le Moût to that of the French wine making process. “In the French language of viticulture,” she says, “terroir can be defined as the land that is part of Mother Nature and essential for growth.” Similar to how elements such as the sun, air, rain, soil, climate and slope can influence the terroir and therefore produce slight varieties in taste each wine harvest, Chen likes “to try lots of different ingredients and try different things” that give the restaurant its own unique characteristics. It should also come as no surprise then, that the restaurant’s cellar boasts over 1,000 French labels among its collection.

Looking at Le Moût’s menu, which changes frequently throughout the year, there is a clear French accent, thanks in part to Chen’s years spent in Paris while studying her craft. Several dishes pique our interest, such as the Bafun sea urchin with sesame tart, Angelica oil, and straw mushroom; or the poached goose foie gras with summer turnip, preserved turnip, and crispy duck skin. With a rotating medley of east-meets-west dishes depending on the season’s offerings, one element remains consistent: Chen’s use of spices. “If I had to choose one favourite ingredient, it would be spices, such as Sichuan peppers and all different kinds of peppers. They bring a certain element to a dish; an aroma, a different highlight to a course—it’s more interesting for me.”

Nestled among more local Taiwanese eateries in its neighbourhood, the three-storey Le Moût stands out for its distinct food offerings, yes, but also its chic design. Upon arrival, guests walk through an exquisite courtyard with a pronounced water feature before entering into the classically elegant interior, complete with antique chandeliers, comfortably-spaced velvet upholstered seats, and large mirrors in the dining room—elements that would not be amiss, should the restaurant be found in one of Paris’ arrondissements instead. This attention to detail in the surroundings elevates the overall dining experience, and mimics the same care and dedication that Chen takes in putting together her menu.

While Le Moût stands at the forefront of Chen’s bourgeoning portfolio, there is a distinct nod to the chef’s first love of pastries and desserts with sister establishments Choux Choux Atelier and Le Moût Pastry Boutique, also located in Taichung City.

“As the demand [for quality ingredients] has grown, suppliers, purveyors and farmers are noticing these increased requests to do something more delicate,” Chen explains, “so they try to find exquisite products for you. It’s amazing how quickly the mind set of people have changed.” Ranked 26th on the 2015 edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Chen continues to strive for excellence, hinting at an increased use of Taiwanese ingredients on the menu, as well as more European and American influences in cooking, progressing her vision of presenting diners with an unparalleled experience of balanced flavours and tastes. When asked if she would ever go back to solely creating pastries, Chen replies: “I still like pastry a lot, it’s something I can do by myself, but cuisine is something more that I can share with my colleagues and guests.”