Taiwan is my “what if” country.
What if my parents had never immigrated to the United States? What if I had been born and raised in Taiwan? What would my life be like? Would I have the same personality, same career, same way of life? These questions re-surface every five years or so, every time I visit and reconnect with family.
But this trip felt different. This time, I wasn’t weighing Taiwan against myself, but I was comparing it to the rest of the world through an alternate lens—its food and dining culture—just like every other country before it.
How did it fare?
Taiwan is an amazing food country. It is not breaking news that its street food and night markets are the biggest draws to visitors and locals alike. The variety of its walk-and eat-food are the best I’ve experienced anywhere, and the myriad of food stalls make it a challenge to decide what to eat on any given day: regional flavor, style of cooking, noodles or rice, seafood or meat, and so on.
Quality, affordable food is incredibly accessible in Taiwan, but unlike its fellow Asian metropolises, such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai, its fine-dining scene has lagged significantly. It is evidenced by the lack of established world-class chefs opening up restaurants in Taiwan, with the exceptions of Chefs Joël Robuchon, Yannick Alléno and Andre Chiang. Exposure has been slow for this island country, but I feel the tide turning with this generation of cooks.
That’s why I was curious about Le Mout, a French restaurant incorporating Taiwanese ingredients into its cuisine, in Taichung by Chef Lanshu Chen. Can it be that it takes a Relais & Chateau-recognized and San Pellegrino-awarded Taiwanese chef trained in France to finally introduce the Taiwanese population to what a proper fine-dining experience is? And with that, was Le Mout on par with its peers in the region and the rest of the world?
From a diner’s perspective, it certainly seemed like it. The dining room interior oozed gilded French luxury and the front-of-house staff exuded the graciousness I’ve seen in the best of service staff anywhere. Inside the kitchen, the expediting was relatively seamless, especially when the elevator was the only way to move dishes from the top floor (kitchen) to the lower two floors where the dining rooms were located. And the kitchen space itself was a beauty. After a recent renovation, it was set up with ample space and state-of-the-art equipment, with pastry in its own enclosed space to ensure a cooler temperature to work in. Le Mout has undeniably set itself up to be the best in Taiwan, and has rightfully gained the recognition it has captured at the international level. But it still has a lot of room to grow, especially from observing a specific part of the kitchen: the cooks.
The cooks at Le Mout were very good. They were timely, followed orders, cooked nicely and plated beautifully. They knew this kitchen was unlike others in Taiwan based on its quality and atmosphere and wanted to learn there. Most of them had gone to culinary school in Taiwan; a few in Australia, but therein lies the problem. This was a French restaurant, but none of them had been to France or learned from the French. Their French experience was by association from Chef Lanshu, and learning by association is just not quite the same. Particular methods and procedures slip through the cracks and references for taste and quality are missing. It is no fault of their own because they are doing their best with what they know, but I discovered the ones who know they are limited by their experience are the ones who are the most curious.
Because foreign stagiaires are rare in Le Mout’s kitchen, I was a frequent sounding board for questions and opinions about taste. What were my thoughts on this dish? How did the consommé taste, did the components go well together, was it cooked well? And there weren’t only questions about food. I was asked what I knew about certain chefs or restaurants—people and places they had only read about on the Internet. I thought, “If these kids are this inquisitive, they are going to be leaders of Taiwan’s food industry in the next ten, 20 years.”
All they need to do is travel. Be like their predecessor and get those questions answered by finding out on their own. Taiwan is too small for a native chef to have a fulfilling culinary experience. Experience the standards that are in place at the best restaurants in the world, and then bring them back. Taiwan needs those standards to rise in the international arena of gastronomy. Anything that happens after that will be nothing short of spectacular.
It makes me excited for my next visit already.
Photo: Staff bonding day out grilling by a riverbed.