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Bittersweet Openings

Opening and running a restaurant in a foreign country is hard; trying it in Shanghai is grounds for insanity. The bureaucratic red tape, absurd regulations and nightmarish construction stories should be enough to scare away even the most ambitious chefs, yet new restaurants open (and close) faster than you can say, “Check, please!" TALK sat down with a few chefs whose restaurants lived to tell the tale and found out exactly what goes on the line to serve us some of our favourite dishes in the city.

The resounding chorus from chefs around Shanghai who have opened their own place is “It took longer than I thought it was going to”, generally followed by a sigh. No matter how much they pad their schedules, a string of setbacks and unforeseen circumstances inevitably delay openings.

Stefan Stiller, chef-owner of Stiller’s, was able to pull off a Shanghai miracle, coming in just weeks behind schedule. The Michelin star chef attributes his near punctuality to the team of professionals who helped him throughout the process. After opening a restaurant back in Germany and working in kitchens around Shanghai for a couple of years, he’d acquired a rolodex of helping hands, but he notes one team member is more crucial than many others.

“Everything is more complicated and difficult in Shanghai because of the language barrier and all the regulations,” says Stiller. “You have to rely on someone who is explaining and translating for you and can sort out local stuff for you – someone who understands how to deal with difficult people and difficult positions.”

After finding the right people for the job, it’s all about location. Anyone who has ever apartment-hunted in Shanghai can attest to the luck of the draw that comes with real estate in this city, and finding space for a restaurant is no different. Nat Alexander, the owner of Fulton Place, looked at more than 70 properties over the course of a year before settling on his French Concession spot, while Austin Hu of Madison hit a gold mine with his space, the former home of Vargas Grill. Hu took over the existing contract from Eduardo Vargas, which gave him a definite advantage by grandfathering him in to the rigmarole of regulations and inspections that new spaces have to undergo, including the rigorous food hygiene license.


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