In the upper apartment of a private complex in Taipei is a round table flush with food and wine. A karaoke system with couches sits adjacent to the dining room. A dozen notable people are mingling around — journalists and a couple of TV chefs; they are all friends, or at the very least acquaintances. This is an invite-only dinner, and Theresa Lin, a lauded Chinese celebrity chef and food stylist for Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, is the guest of honor.
When dinner begins, she goes through great lengths to narrate the cuisine at the table. It’s elevated soldier food, she explains. Back when the Kuomintang (KMT), the nationalist party of China, fled to Taiwan, they also brought their foods with them, a cuisine heavily influenced by the Fujian Province of China. There are pickles, seafood noodles, and a fermented bean curd that’s almost offensive in odor but packs incredible umami; it works beautifully with steamed mantou, a fluffy white wheat bun.
Throughout the meal, attendees mill around the room at will, exchanging gifts, catching up on stories. Guests heap praise on the actual cook of the evening, Lin’s dear friend Haizhen Zhao. Everyone gathers for karaoke and returns back to the table for another glass of wine. Zhao gives out baskets of homemade frozen mantous.
This type of dining is called si fang cai (私房菜), which translates directly to “private room dishes,” and it is the Chinese equivalent of a supper club. This particular style of feasting has spread prolifically throughout mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in recent years.
In some places in China, si fang cai organizers have gone so far as to convert an entire siheyuan — an ancient Chinese courtyard residence — to a secret restaurant with multiple rooms. Old British mansions and French chateaus in Shanghai are another common staging ground for these elaborate dinners, as well as apartments in high-rises overlooking the Bund.
The style has even made its way to California — and forms the basis for one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in San Francisco this year, Eight Tables.
“People are renting out mansions in Beverly Hills or the San Gabriel Valley to create these exclusive dining experiences,” Lin, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Taiwan says. “Or they have private chefs go to their residences and create an experience.” The audience is mainly Chinese people, as word usually spreads through friend networks and by invite only.
California is a ripe place for this type of exclusive banqueting. The San Gabriel Valley, a suburban enclave to the east of Los Angeles County, is home to some of the most affluent Chinese diaspora in the world — many of them government officials and wealthy entrepreneurs.
Lin, chairwoman of the Chinese Restaurant Foundation and a celebrated food personality throughout China, occasionally cooks for these private dinners in Los Angeles. “It’s about $100 a head [at least] if you’re traveling to someone’s home to host an experience,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.”
But si fang cai isn’t necessarily a highbrow event. What was originally reserved for the elite and the literati has now become a common pastime for the average food enthusiast in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
“In the last five years, private kitchens have exploded in popularity in Taiwan,” says Elizabeth Kao, a prominent food blogger and author in Taiwan. “Some places in Taipei, like J&J Private Kitchen and Cat on the Roof, have cult followings now, and you can make reservations online or by calling.”
According to Kao, this is fad that coincides with what she calls the “rise of the foodie culture in Taipei,” which started about five years ago. “Food writers blogging about their private-dining experiences have made these places go viral,” she says.
She adds that the private kitchen is also a cost-effective option for aspiring chefs; cooks can flex their culinary finesse without the hefty investment of a brick-and-mortar space. “In Taipei, a lot of private kitchens are started by young chefs who don’t have much and have yet to open their own restaurants,” she says.
While si fang cai is certainly becoming exponentially more popular, it actually has its origins in ancient China, dating as far back as the Ming and Qing dynasties. According to Lin, Suzhou, a riverside town in the Jiangsu province of China, was the ground zero for this type of dining. Back then, people would host private dinners in boats on the canals.
But as Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s wealth grew in the ’80s, diners fell hard for private dining and shepherded in the contemporary private-kitchen experience.
“I remember there was a woman by the name of Xiulan in Taipei who started hosting government officials in her home for dinner in the 1980s,” Lin says. “These politicians didn’t want the press around and preferred this type of dining because it had an exclusive atmosphere.”
In Hong Kong, the private-kitchen boom was spurred by high rents for ground-level properties. Restaurant owners figured it would be more economical to host meals in residential locations.
Mainland China, still recovering from the effects of the Cultural Revolution, didn’t follow suit until this decade. San Francisco restaurateur George Chen took notice.
“I’ve been [going to] China for the last 15 years and have seen it grow up economically and from a culinary perspective,” the Taiwanese-American entrepreneur says. “With money comes people who want to dine better, and young people are starting to migrate toward becoming chefs. It’s now an honorable position, and more people now want to start private kitchens.”
Chen’s Eight Tables presents an interpretation of the Chinese private-dining experience with eight main courses and eight tables, separated by walls and screens. “When the design group of the restaurant [Avroko] told me they wanted a space to feel like home, I put two and two together,” says Chen, who has frequented many si fang cai establishments in Taiwan and mainland China.
Historically, si fang cai “was more about escaping from the public, feeling comfortable, and getting some privacy,” he explains. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
“[At Eight Tables], you can barely see the other diners and each table feels like a private room,” Chen says. “I want people to feel like they’re coming to my home.” Keeping with that theme, the foyer through which guests enter features portraits of Chen’s father and grandfather, a diplomat and a war general, respectively.
“My grandfather was a general in the grand coup,” Chen says, referring to the Kuomintang that fled to Taiwan from mainland China. “When I was very young, I remember seeing him having private chefs at home.”
While the restaurant is a nod to his personal family and traditions, his altruistic, ambitious goal is to change mainstream perceptions of Chinese food. “The great cuisine of China should be elevated in America, and that starts with high-quality ingredients and fine-cooking techniques,” he says. In alignment with that philosophy, he has a farm in Petaluma that supplies some of the restaurant’s produce, including tatsoi and amaranth.
Food-wise, the menu is an homage to the great traditional Chinese banquets, starting with a cold and hot appetizer, a soup, and then a parade of savory dishes. Seafood is a must, as it is a symbol of prosperity and wealth. Classic Chinese courses such as steamed fish, dumplings, Peking duck, and dongpo pork are seasoned and made with luxurious ingredients like truffles, Russian caviar, uni, and Iberico pork. There are eight courses in total, plus one or two Western-styled desserts at the end; the price tag, $225.
The biggest difference is that unlike the private chateau meals of China, the dining experience at Eight Tables isn’t restricted to one party a night. Still, for many Americans, it’ll be their first exposure to a category of Chinese dining to which outsiders rarely have access.
If it succeeds, Eight Tables will be the first restaurant in America to usher in this new genre of Chinese fine dining on such a broad scale; it will be the first private-kitchen concept to make it mainstream. Chen has his sights aimed high.
“We want the Michelin stars,” he says.