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Feature: Chinese restaurateur in Rome struggles to survive pandemic

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ROME, Nov. 25 (Xinhua) — A memory that still resonates in Shu Jianguo’s mind is that of a dinner at his restaurant called Dao, which brought together dozens of Rome-based chefs in a massive gesture of solidarity during this pandemic.

Like many restaurants in Italy, Dao’s business was hit very hard by the country’s COVID-19 lockdown in March. Shu said that in those traumatic weeks, business at his restaurant plummeted 75 percent.

“I was enormously pleased by what happened that day in February,” the 50-year-old Shu told Xinhua, recalling that 70 chefs, restaurant owners and government officials showed up for dinner. “I have lived in Italy since the early 1990s, and the support of colleagues and others showed me how much I had become part of the community.”

All restaurants in Italy were ordered closed a short time later. However, this gesture of solidarity has had a lasting impact — both psychologically and in practical terms.

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Two of the Italian chefs there that day — Iside De Cesare, chef of the Michelin-starred restaurant La Parolina, and VyTA Enoteca’s Dino De Bellis, one of the deans of high cuisine in Rome — joined forces with Dao’s own celebrated chef, Zhu Guangqiang.

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The result of that collaboration is still on offer: a new “six hands” menu that combines gourmet, Roman and Chinese traditions dubbed “La Stella, l’Oste e ‘Er Cinese'” — Italian for “The Star, the Innkeeper and the Chinese” — except the reference to Zhu uses the Roman slang version of the word “the.” The logo for the menu features a traditional western fork and a pair of wooden chopsticks.

Among the menu’s innovations: Chinese-style dumplings filled with citrus fruit and local goat cheese or with stewed vegetables and tomato sauce; pork belly cooked with crunchy Annurca apples and charred Savoy cabbage; and a spring roll made with salmon and seaweed.

“What we ended up with is a revolutionary menu that could not exist anywhere else,” Shu boasted. So far, he said, the menu has been a hit among his guests.

The development of the innovative “six hands” menu distracted Shu, his wife Xia Feifei, and their sons aged 12 and 15, a little from the impact of the pandemic.

But only a little.

Shu, who said he had learned the tricks of the restaurant trade from the now-retired Chinese master chef Zhan Xiangzhong after his arrival in Rome in the 1990s, did his share of the cooking at home. For a man accustomed to act, the lockdown turned into a challenge.

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The start of the coronavirus pandemic reminded Shu of his experiences during the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, which unnerved Italian diners for months just as he was in the process of remodeling Dragone d’Oro (The Golden Dragon), his first restaurant in Rome. But the coronavirus turned out to be much worse than he expected.

“I thought it would last two months, maybe three,” Shu said. “The longer it went on the more I started worrying about the survival of the two restaurants. I’ve had moments of doubt, but I kept reminding myself to stay calm and that this will pass.

“One big advantage we now have compared to 2003 is that we have support from people who know us.”

Shu said he was eagerly looking forward to the day when the virus will be gone and he can get back to his original mission of changing the way Italians look at Chinese cuisine. Together with Zhu — his chef, who nine years ago received the China Gold Kitchen Award from the China Cuisine Association — Shu has earned Dao the reputation of one of Italy’s best high-end Chinese restaurants.

“Italy has a wonderful tradition of great food but I think Chinese cuisine is underestimated here,” Shu said. “When people who are used to simple Chinese cooking come to Dao for the first time they tell me they didn’t know Chinese food could be so sophisticated. I want to keep changing people’s perceptions.”

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