Award-winning Taiwanese chef on why she’s closing Le Moût: too much marketing and social media
Lanshu Chen’s dream was to run the best restaurant in Taiwan. Ten years on, with a string of awards and mentions in best restaurant lists, she is closing her flagship, Le Moût. She continues to operate her other outlets in Taichung
Ask award-winning chef Lanshu Chen why she decided to close one of Asia’s top restaurants and her answer is plaintive and illuminating: “I started to feel I’m not very good at playing this game.”
By that she means the constant whirl of marketing that comes with winning a string of awards for her French fine-dining restaurant Le Moût in Taichung, Taiwan, and coping with the social media age in which every diner considers themself a food critic.
“I need a break, but what I tried to say is that I’m not a very social person,” she says of the announcement of her decision to close on March 12 on Le Moût’s Facebook page. “These past 10 years I’ve worked a lot to make my restaurants known by people in Taiwan first and then the rest of the world, and it takes a lot of my energy to do that.”
In her open letter, Chen writes that the fine-dining landscape has changed immensely since she started.
“Today everyone is a mass critic and their verdict has transformed into millions of nicely edited photos on the internet. Chefs have to come to the stage and speak. Restaurants need to survive by all means of public relation [sic] tactics. It is already very far from what I had been inspired by, in the old days of the grand chef era.”
Asked to elaborate, Chen says marketing Le Moût, which ranked 28th on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, means having to explain her story and philosophy, and create dishes that are eye-catching.
“People are more interested in presentation that is pretty or fun. They don’t really discuss flavours and the layers deep inside,” she says. “I can try to do that, but it really takes my energy and I feel quite tired from that. The pace is too fast for me and I can’t adapt well to this.”
“Ten years ago my idea was really simple, really childish – I wanted to make the best restaurant in Taiwan,” she continues. “It’s that simple and it’s very ignorant to start a restaurant like that in that scale and size in that time from scratch without any core team, without any experience in Taiwan before. Only ignorance can make you do things [that are] stupid, but [be] really brave.”
Scaling down Le Moût doesn’t make sense to Chen, since it would mean not fully expressing herself in terms of her culinary skills and knowledge.
“I’m in Taichung. If I want to do a small restaurant serving maybe 20 people it can be sustained, but I have to do something very simple, not too complicated food, not weird creations that tell [something] about myself.
“If you want to do something a bit more, you need to go outside [Taichung and Taiwan] to find people to appreciate it to survive and then you need marketing.”
After people heard she was closing Le Moût, some suggested she open a restaurant in Hong Kong, but Chen says that would be even worse, as she’d have to promote herself and the restaurant again when she would rather cook and create new dishes.
“I think now it would be best to stop and … I don’t know … maybe I’ll get ready for the next stage of my life in a couple of years,” the soft-spoken, French trained chef says.
She did not reveal what, if any, specific plans she has for the future, only that she will consider some small projects and continue running her pastry shop Le Moût Pâtisserie Boulangerie and bar GoûtBar, as well as noodle shop pop-up Gubami.
Chen admits she is not an ambitious chef. Pressed to explain, she refers to the Michelin Guide and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“I was trying … for the past 10 years to make my restaurant survive. The first few years were very hard. I was doing something very different in Taichung. In 2011 I got listed in Relais & Chateau, an international platform. And then in 2013 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, and named best female chef by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants the following year.
“Since then it’s like spinning fast. And then I started to feel I’m not very good at playing this game.”
About two years ago Chen started feeling it was time to close the restaurant, but it wasn’t until late 2017, and January this year, that she talked to her core team, who already had an inkling that Chen wanted a break, and found them very supportive.
“Ten years is a good number, and I didn’t want to stop right away – it wouldn’t be fair to my friends, my guests and my team. I think I can achieve a bit more before I stop. It was very important to let my team know I have a reason to stop here and I appreciate all their work and contributions.”
“Everyone comes [to Le Moût] because of their passion,” she continues. “They really enjoy working there. It proves I’m right – everyone has stayed since I made the announcement. Everyone now is trying their best to give the best service, to give the best food because there won’t be another chance to express themselves here.”
Taiwanese beef noodles the French way
The premise for our recent conversation was Chen’s visit to Hong Kong for a two-day promotion at VEA Restaurant and Lounge in Sheung Wan with chef Vicky Cheng presenting a four-hands dinner, a collaboration that will continue on July 20 at her restaurant in Taichung.
One of the items on the menu is a variation of the famous Taiwanese beef noodle soup that she serves in her casual noodle bar.
“VEA always has a noodle dish, but the ones I serve at the noodle bar are very Taiwanese beef noodles. I can’t really serve a bowl of beef noodles here because the restaurant is fine-dining contemporary French. So we experimented for a over a month to make it French,” Chen said.
In the end the noodles were made with different flour and a different sauce that is more gelatinous than liquid. “You will have a fresh lingering texture of the soup to contrast with the noodles. In a French way you must have layers in your mouth and after the taste comes out. It’s very interesting,” she said.