To this day, many are haunted by the memory of mealtimes at central quarantine hotels in China. Think unidentifiable morsels of meat, limp greens stripped of any nutrients, lukewarm soup the color of ditchwater, and the like. After days or weeks on end, it wasn’t so much the quality of food that was depressing, but the monotony of the spread — there are only so many times one enjoys baozi for breakfast before beginning to long for the buttery aroma of a croissant or something, anything remotely different.
Unable to alter the truth of her circumstances, creative Camden Hauge came up with a brilliant idea to inject some fun into her centralized quarantine stays. As French draughtsman Henri Matisse is famed for stating, “Art is an escape from reality.”
The co-founder of Social Supply Shanghai — which is responsible for throwing events such as Shanghai Supperclub, Feast, FeastCon, and most recently, a collaboration with the Museum of Hangovers — packed a few extra things in her suitcase, namely serving ware and seasonings. Come mealtime in her hotel room, she replated her drab meals and documented the process on Instagram.
Shanghai Hotel 1927, the name of her tongue-in-cheek project, provides a snapshot of meals from four different hotel quarantines in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Nanjing (Covid-19 or not, Hauge had to travel frequently for work), and is christened after her first hotel and room number.
“It was the Shanghai Hotel on Wulumuqi Lu, and room 1927. The vibe was retro, so it seemed perfect,” says the creative, who describes her pet project as “Shanghai’s newest pop-up, an insouciant take on the captive dining experience.” Little did she know that it would start a small movement.
Tickled by the idea, Jesper Larsson, a friend of Hauge’s and the founder and creative advisor of No Problem Business Consulting, decided to follow in her footsteps. Like her, the Shanghai-based Swedish national equipped himself with knives, a cutting board, and a plate before disembarking from Hong Kong International Airport and surrendering to an eight-day quarantine in a vacant apartment in Hangzhou.
“One of my creative principles is to always do more with what’s already there, so I found Camden’s concept of ‘quarantine fine dining’ especially inspiring,” says Larsson. “It also includes all the phases of a classic creative challenge: Surprising and limited resources to work with, having to think of ideas, experimenting, making mistakes, producing and styling something photogenic, coming up with a creative and ‘pretentious name,’ and finally, documenting and publishing the results.”
Larsson is particularly proud of how his ‘deconstructed bird’s nest egg’ turned out. In fact, the latter inspired a third culinarian’s own ‘quarantine plating’ (see cover image).
Sarah C and Astrid Chan, who collectively run Mais Oui Food, a food content studio focusing on photography, food styling, and recipe creation, were next to take up the baton in the ‘quarantine plating’ challenge.
After a whirlwind trip of eating their way around Europe, C, who was culinary trained at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and Chan, a skilled photographer, returned to their home base of Shanghai, excited for a challenge.
“During the quarantine pop-up, I was looking forward to 8 AM, 11 AM, and 5 PM, when our lunch boxes were delivered. It felt like I was in restaurant mode, where I had to check in on the daily ingredients and see what was available to create. It was a lot of fun,” says C, who plated each of the dishes, which Chan then photographed.
While everyone’s visuals overflow with creativity, their captions are marked by hilarity and poke fun at fine dining culture, which may occasionally take itself too seriously. Hauge’s cheeky side comes through in her dish descriptions, like “yeast-leavened steamed bun” and “lacto-fermented milk” instead of simply saying “baozi” or “yogurt.”
Likewise, Larsson put a lot of thought into the “ironically pretentious naming” and chuckled over coming up with new terms, such as “beef walled” (see below).
The creatives even scaled down their serving sizes to keep with stereotypes of fine dining portions.
“I was taking the piss a bit with the minimal plating, which was mostly inspired by cliché ideas of what fine dining has recently produced, but some dishes were specific references,” Hauge tells RADII.
Take, for instance, her homage to French icon Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s iconic ‘egg caviar’ dish, which sees an egg precariously perched atop the lid of a thermos. Instead of sturgeon roe, chunks of chili crown the lockdown ‘counterfeit’ of what is possibly one of the most expensive egg dishes (388 RMB or approximately 56 USD) in the world.
Whether or not they approached the challenge with prior culinary experience, each personality had a grand time of it and took away something new.
“I have never worked as a chef, so I learned that you can surprise yourself when you take the time to fully focus on something new, and that a more sustainable way of life or doing more with less is possible,” offers Larsson.
“I learned that you can be creative with all types of cuisine, especially with Chinese food. Usually, Chinese cuisine is served right out of the wok, and it needs to be piping hot and served fast, so not a lot of plating is involved,” observes C.
Very recently, China announced that from January 2023 onwards, inbound travelers will no longer be subjected to hotel quarantine. But while the world heaved a collective sigh of relief, Hauge felt a slight sense of loss.
“I’m currently out of town and knowing that there will be no quarantine when I get back makes me a tiny bit sad, because I did kind of look forward to the challenge [of quarantine plating],” she laughs. “I was wistful leaving without having packed my ‘tools,’ like my plates, bowl, knife, and seasoning packs.”
Cover image courtesy of Mais Oui Food
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