In an interview with Imogen Sandbach, Master Chef Dave Critchley, Executive Head Chef at Lu Ban talks all about his culinary journey, learnings from Master Wu and Lu Ban's partnership with China to bring education of the Chinese culinary arts and culture to the UK.
Photo: Chef Dave by Anthony Lavender
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN STORY OF LU BAN AND WHAT YOU SET OUT TO ACHIEVE?
It’s quite a long story. But the quickest and the easiest way to say it is Lu Ban, first and foremost is an education business. The International Academy of Chinese Culinary Arts, was set up within Lu Ban, unfortunately, things have been delayed due to COVID, but the academy is actually the main aspect of this business, the restaurant almost comes secondary.
THE RESTAURANT IS A SHOWCASE FOR EVERYTHING THAT’S HAPPENING IN OUR ACADEMY
Which is a partnership between the UK and China.
A lot of time, and money has gone into creating this concept whereby we can have international students from all over the world traveling to Liverpool, to go through a course that will be run from Lu Ban. At the end of the course they’ll leave here with an amazing internationally recognized qualification. So it’s a really interesting concept.
We partnered with the leading college of culinary arts in China. After my stay, we came back and opened up the restaurant inspired by what we experienced. As soon as possible, we will get the academy launched. Then you will really see what Lu Ban is all about, which is this beacon of education towards Chinese culinary arts and culture in the UK.
THIS IS VERY MUCH A FIRST OF ITS KIND IN THE WORLD, WHICH IS REALLY EXCITING FOR LIVERPOOL
WHAT HAS INFLUENCED THE WAY YOU COOK AND HOW YOU TEACH OTHERS?
It was after returning from China and we opened up the restaurant, the news came through. Master Wu wanted to take me on as his final apprentice It literally means that I will be the last person he trains before he retires,
which is a huge honour for me, because I will be bestowed with everything he
possesses, all his knowledge, his recipes, even his knives will eventually belong to me.
TO BE HIS FINAL APPRENTICE, IS A HUGE HONOUR, AND IS A WORLD FIRST THAT I AM VERY PROUD TO HAVE ACHIEVED.
We’ve started the process now where Master Wu is teaching me. After I was
inducted, which we have had to do via video link due to COVID, I became the
first registered Western apprentice to a Chinese master chef with the support
of Tianjin Cuisine Association. So massive pressure, but I am really proud to achieve those things.
MY PHILOSOPHY NOW IS TO PASS ON EVERYTHING THAT I HAVE LEARNT.
That is the master plan for all of this, to continue the training of Chinese culinary arts across the world.
WHAT KIND OF FOOD AND EXPERIENCES DO YOU OFFER AT LU BAN?
The word experience is exactly what we’re going for here. This is a venue where you’re not just coming in for your dinner or a quick bite to eat. This is an experience that we’re trying to give to our guests here. So the dishes are all heavily influenced by my training on what I saw out in some of the most amazing restaurants I have ever been to in China. What we probably call New Style Chinese cuisine, which is very prevalent now over in China. This is the style that chefs out there are using, creating some incredible dishes absolutely on another level.
"Chinese food, but not as you know it"
It is not what a UK person is used to seeing on a Chinese menu. It’s not
westernised food. All the flavours we try to keep authentic and true. With the
recipes that we do get sent from China I like to bring my artistic flair to the party and make things look visually beautiful and stunning. Much like what I saw out in
China, it was very visual, very beautiful and very flavourful. So all in all it is a fantastic experience. Great food, great cocktails, great wines and fantastic service as well.
"If you leave Lu Ban knowing more about Chinese food and culture, then we’re doing exactly what we set out to achieve"
WHAT DISH DO YOU RECOMMEND OUR READERS TO TRY WHEN THEY VISIT LU BAN?
That’s a tough question. It’s been a tough year, we haven’t had a full year’s worth of trade yet. We’ve had a few menu tweaks over the five, six months that we have been allowed to open. We’ve got two real stand out winners, which is the Chocolates Sphere, which is a chocolate and peanut sphere with a salted caramel
sauce that kind of melts at the table in front of the guests. That’s obviously very impressive. One of our signature desserts was the Cherry Blossom Tree. Again, very visual, very Instagram, very beautiful and tastes fantastic and it is a spectacle to see.
There’s a couple of dishes I would really like every customer to try when they come, one of them has never left the menu and it was the first dish I was showing out in China, which kind of blew my mind a little bit. It is the Five Flavour Cucumber.
IT’S STUNNINGLY SIMPLE, BUT WHEN YOU TASTE THE FLAVOURS, IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.
With these amazing five flavours that are prevalent throughout Chinese cuisine, it is literally the ethos of Chinese cuisine. Every one of these flavour profiles is here in this dish. So, it’s the perfect dish to start your meal with.
WHAT ARE THE PLANS FOR THE FUTURE OF LU BAN AND YOUR OWN PERSONAL PROJECTS?
The priority is ensuring Lu Ban stays open and is a vibrant business and it is busy every day, that is the dream at the moment. We want to launch the Academy, which would run at the start of the week, and have the international students over here. We're always designed to come here and launch everything that we wanted to launch last time around, in terms of moving forwards, I’m sure in the future, we’d love to have a second Lu Ban or even something slightly different, that would also be fantastic.
For right now we are securing this business and trying to protect all the jobs that we provide. Personally, I can’t wait to get back to China and pick up my studies again, because they were really hit hard in terms of Covid, I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that was planned for me for last year. We’ll pick that up again. I’ve just started my Mandarin lessons again and hopefully by the end of this year, I should be able to speak at least a modicum of Mandarin.
WHERE CAN READERS FIND YOU ONLINE AND VISIT LU BAN IN LIVERPOOL?
Lu Ban is in the Cains Brewery Village, just through the Guinness courtyard.