While appreciative diners are a necessary part of every cuisine, the role played by the gourmet in China is somewhat different. At its most rarefied levels, Chinese cuisine does more than demonstrate mastery of technique and transformation; it connects food to deeper resonance. It does not matter whether that resonance refers to the personal (like a wedding or birthday), or the intellectual (like art, nature, or philosophy)—neither can be communicated to unaware diners. Some subtlety and discernment are required. This is why great gastronomes dominate Chinese history as much as great chefs (along with the fact that they are the ones who left behind the food writing). The chef needs a gourmet. Creation and appreciation are joined. Of Chinese culinary art, it can be said that it must walk on two legs (两条 腿走路, liăng tiáo tŭi zŏu lù).
In modern times the critical chef-gourmet symbiosis has determined where the top Chinese restaurants prefer to cluster overseas, outside of China—almost always in Chinese communities. In the early 21st century, the best Chinese chefs in the United States are working in the San Gabriel Valley, not Los Angeles; in Flushing, not Manhattan. They need cognizant diners. No matter where they are in the world, the best Chinese chefs can usually be found cooking for a Chinese audience.
One of Chinese literature’s most charming commentaries on this subject is Yuan Mei’s record of his exchange with his cook. “I once asked him why, when he could easily have got a job in some affluent household, he had preferred to stay all these years with me in the Sui Garden. He said, ‘So much imagination and hard thinking go into the making of every dish that one may well say I serve up along with it my whole mind and heart. (Others) may say what a wonderful cook I am, but in the service of such people my art can only decline… You, on the contrary, continually criticize me, abuse me, fly into a rage with me, but on every such occasion make me aware of some real defect; so that I would a thousand times rather listen to your bitter admonitions than to the sweetest praise. Say no more! I mean to stay on here.”
For men of means and education such as Yuan Mei, serious appreciation of food was more than an interest, it was de rigueur—part of being cultivated and refined. Indeed, the historian F.C. Chang has said that “perhaps one of the most important qualifications of being a Chinese gentleman was his knowledge and skill pertaining to food and drink.”
For his part, Yuan Mei summed up the rigorous role of the gourmet in his immortal quip: “Before dinner arrives, send down word that tomorrow, the food must be better.”