Shipu is a “sifangcai” (or private dining) restaurant, run by three women from Shaoguan in Guangdong province. Panini is Shipu’s head chef, Fifi manages the restaurant, and Jiale manages Shipu’s press and marketing.
The image conjured up by the term “sifangcai” likely is one of a private dining room inside of an exclusive club. It was a surprise then to visit Shipu, located off Zhongtan Road in Shanghai, in an unassuming residential neighborhood. Just inside the entrance is an open kitchen, with countertops filled with sauces and ingredients. The cozy space gives off a feeling of daily life, like walking into the home of someone who really loves to cook everyday. Head chef Panini laughs, saying that the space was in fact once a home – it was her apartment when she graduated from college eight years ago.
As someone who comes from the land of food lovers, Guangdong province, and also someone whose grandfather was a chef and whose father loves to cook, Panini seems to have been destined to work in the culinary arts.
When talking about how Shipu originally started, Panini says that she has always loved cooking for other people and having friends over for meals. Soon these meals turned into a popular and favorite experience for friends who could eat the authentic and hard-to-find Cantonese food that Panini likes to make. That’s when Panini thought about opening a “sifangcai” restaurant. With a smaller group of customers, the restaurant could maintain a high standard of authentic ingredients and flavors, and Panini would not be exhausted by the amount of the work. With some “instigating” from Fifi and Jiale, who also share the same passion for food, Shipu came into being.
Even after walking past the kitchen and into the living room where the food is served, one still doesn’t get the sense that Shipu is a restaurant at all. The entire experience feels just like being in a friend’s apartment. If you didn’t have to pay for your meal in the end, you might in fact mistakenly think you’ve just dined at a friend’s house.
Fifi says that this is perhaps what makes Shipu a special place. It is a “sifangcai” restaurant that really treats its guests more as friends rather than just customers. Panini jokes that describing themselves in this way is a little boastful. In reality, their work everyday is very much like entertaining their friends. Everyday the three of them make a trip to the market for fresh ingredients in the morning and choose only the best of whatever is in season, rather than having a delivery company bring the ingredients to their door. From washing the vegetables to preparing the ingredients, then cooking the meal and finally cleaning up the dishes, these three women really do it all.
We asked Panini about the possibility of Shipu growing into something bigger. Would it then become just a regular restaurant? Having said very little up to this point, Jiale speaks up and addresses this question by saying that the three of them “honestly hadn’t thought about expanding Shipu into anything bigger. The current scale of Shipu is the perfect size for the team to manage.” They can ensure a high quality of food, maintain great reviews from their guests, and more importantly stick to their original concept.
After opening in March, the team at Shipu went from serving friends, to serving friends of friends, and then the friends of those friends. Seeing total strangers eating with each other at the same table, chatting and drinking together, and finally exchanging contact details as they leave, is a rewarding feeling for the small team of three. This is a real added bonus to any praise and profit that they may get from the actual business. Speaking from her own experience of having previously opened a restaurant, Panini says that typical restaurants don’t really allow guests to leave an impression on those who work there, unless it is a regular customer who comes back again and again. At Shipu though, Panini can find a new friend in someone who comes to eat just once. “Congratulations on making a friend who is a great cook,” Panini jokingly says to her guests.
When asked about how Panini comes up with new dishes, the three of them all laugh. Fifi replied that Panini always calls up her father or her grandfather to ask for new recipes. As the head chef, Panini always has the final say on the dishes that are served. She doesn’t like fusion cuisine, because she sees that more as just merging different styles of cuisines together rather than the execution of great authentic cooking. For her, consulting with her father and grandfather is the best way to learn about traditional Cantonese cooking.
Recommended dishes from Shipu:
Fermented Red Bean Curd Pig’s Feet:
Pig’s trotters stewed in bean curd until the meat is very tender.
Soup of the Day:
Panini makes soups and stews for every season, according to traditional Cantonese methods.
Contributor: Taylor Shen
Photographer: Chan Qu