Daphne Cheng is a vegan chef by necessity. Now the haute dining darling of New York and Shanghai’s cosmopolitan foodie circles, she became a vegan after reading The China Study, one of the most comprehensive nutrition studies ever performed on the link between diet and disease. At the dawn of a new millennium, and not many vegan food options in her hometown of Chicago, Daphne started experimenting in her own kitchen with what she could purvey at local stores.
More than a decade later, this Berkeley dropout’s culinary performances are a tour de force. Whether devising her sought after, fine-vegetable-dining, supper club series, Suite ThreeOhSix, or crafting a vegan menu as the executive chef at New York’s Mother of Pearl, Daphne creates an unusually tantalizing dining experience, where vegetables always play the leading role.
I meet Daphne on a surprisingly fresh Shanghai morning at Xiaonanmen Station, a gateway to the Old City area stretching along the Huangpu River’s eastern bank. We are looking for a wet market: A traditional produce and live animal shopping spot where silver-coated fishtails stick out of wicker baskets and where you might still know your red chili vendor by name. Locals prefer to shop at the wet markets, but these Shanghainese establishments are becoming harder to find by the minute, due to the breakneck speed of development that the city has seen in the last few decades.
As a recent transplant to Shanghai, from New York, Daphne navigates the busy street with enviable prowess. As the la mian noodle vendors beckon me through morning rush hour, I can barely keep up. Daphne’s flowing black skirt with a pop of rose serves as my orienteer in the sea of darting mopeds, dexterous bicycles, and wooden carts loaded with bricks.
I catch up with Daphne at a small hole-in-the-wall stall, serving fresh zongzi—steamed rice and red bean cakes wrapped in banana leafs–vegan by default. In between bites of glutinous texture, strange to my carnivore’s palette, I ask Daphne what motivated her to move to Shanghai.
“Opportunity,” she answers without hesitation.
“I’ve come out here last summer to do pop-up dinners for a friend and felt that now is a good time to move.” She arrived earlier this year and is now looking at spaces in the city to host her own vegan restaurant.
Indeed, by coming to Shanghai, Daphne aims to be at the forefront of the vegan movement in the most populous country on Earth. It is difficult to estimate exact numbers, but unofficial sources put China’s vegetarians at about five percent of the total population, or fifty-million people. Vegans make up about one-fifth of that at fourteen million.
Compare that to the US market, where vegans make up one percent of the population, at about three million people, and you’ll quickly start understanding Daphne’s math.
Opportunity, though it may be, the vegan scene in Shanghai is budding at best. In a city of 24 million hungry people, a recent count produced all of 64 vegan-friendly restaurants. True vegan establishments are few and far between. Low levels of understanding add to the confusion. While many people in China are vegetarian through the religion of Buddhism, the concept of a vegan diet is foreign. Not willing to drop names, Daphne describes several occasions in which her supposedly vegan dish orders were cooked in a chicken stock—a vegan no-no.
Still, it may be easier to observe this diet in Shanghai than it is in New York. As we enter a small vegetable store, where shells are laden with more varieties of the humble lettuce than I can ever name, I start to understand why. We spend the next half hour choosing the most delectable bunches of cabbage and plumpest stalks of bamboo sprouts. Lunch will be healthy.
Later on, we swap gritty sidewalks of the Old City for elegant streets of the FCC (the Former French Concession), a neighborhood to the west of the river that’s favorite with expatriates and local, young, urban professionals. The early afternoon sun diffuses its warm glow through the rich crowns of sycamore trees tangled above our heads. As we cross a wide boulevard that could easily stand as a set of a French period film, Daphne shares with me her favorite perks of living in this megacity.
“Shanghai is a spacious city where it is easy to get to places,” she says. I nod—in five days I have barely noticed the impact of the 24 million residents sharing Shanghai’s public spaces.
“But what makes it extra special,” she continues, “is the incredibly supportive culture. Shanghai’s entrepreneurial and expat community is so small that we have to help each other.”
Pausing for a moment, Daphne adds, smiling: “It is a refreshing change from the stiff competition in the United States.”
We settle into Daphne’s cozy kitchen, a bright sun-filled space with a large wooden table. The goods from our market trip—delicate oyster mushrooms, bright orange kumquats, bamboo shoots, tofu, and lots of greens—are carefully laid out on the table. Minutes later, a sharp knife is out and Daphne is in her zone, chopping a bamboo stalk faster than I can pronounce its name, Bambusa oldhamii.
A quick stir-fry is already in the works and before long, Daphne transfers it onto our plates. A tender, and slightly sweet, roasted bamboo takes center stage. Chunks of kumquat and tofu gently round out the flavors.
While we linger over our meal, I ask Daphne what urged her to start cooking for others. Turns out, it is her biggest joy.
“I want to show the world that vegan food can be really delicious. It is not my goal to convert you, but at least I would like you to open your eyes to what vegan diet can do.”
“I became a chef so that I could help transform vegan food into a respectable cuisine. And that is why I am here in Shanghai.”
After a while, she adds, jokingly, “I want you to eat your veggies.”
The phrase has never before sounded so sexy.
To view more of Yulia Denisyuk’s photography and latest travels, visit yulia-denisyuk.com.