Bugs, books and rising stars: Inside Brian Tan’s Gourmet Library
Newly opened Gourmet Library in Shanghai offers a revolutionary take on communal dining and food education. Consultant and chef, and well-travelled expatriate, Brian Tan is the man behind the unique concept, which seeks to change the way people in China — and beyond — approach their kitchens.
Upstairs from an experimental clothing retail space and directly across from legendary local bookstore The Mix Place, Gourmet Library is currently in its soft launch.
Stepping into the space should feel like walking into someone’s kitchen, Tan explains as he offers a tour. He points out details such as the venue’s centrepiece: a large open kitchen, the repurposed wooden floorboards and on the outdoor balcony, a wall of herbs — which are struggling in Shanghai’s currently cooler climate.
Gourmet Library, which mixes together bookshop, event space, restaurant and cafe is a carefully considered recipe.
“A few things can bring people together: one is religion, one is politics, one is music, one is sport and one is food,” Tan says.
“But as humans, we need to have food first, to survive… So how can I create a way where people are more connected?
“My whole motto is ‘food connects people’.”
Tan is excited about the possibilities the space lends, hopping out of his seat when he starts discussing ideas which grab him as particularly powerful. From guest speakers, chef residencies to ceramists, writers and artists, as long as food is at the heart of the event, anyone is welcome to host, he says.
Bugs are one topic Tan’s particularly keen to explore. He was recently invited by the Danish ministry of environment and food to attend Bite Copenhagen as one of the specially-selected delegates meeting to consider food sustainability. Insects were one of the items on the menu for discussion.
“We’re going to do a bugs dinner here just to raise awareness,” Tan says, conceding that the ingredient is still a slightly controversial one, albeit one that has scientific backing.
“Let’s think 100 years back, no one ate lobster… 100 years ago, no one ate sea urchin, now it’s become a delicacy. The same thing about abalone and seaweed.
“It’s just perceptions that are blocking you.”
“In the south or north of China, people eat bugs because of the high protein, especially close to the border. To them, this isn’t cheap food…”
Partly inspired by Books for Cooks in London, Gourmet Library has grown from many different roots. When Airbnb first launched, Tan asked himself why no one was opening up their kitchens.
“It gave me inspiration; why does no one do social kitchens? Sharing kitchens? At the time, [when] I worked in hotels, it was like ‘this is my territory, that’s your territory, you come to my kitchen’. The chef has all [the] ego. I think I need to break that all apart.
“Food should be able to have a community, and that’s why this whole place is about books; it’s community.”
Tan, who owns multiple businesses and has worked at hotels in Singapore, the UK, the Caribbean and Australia before making his way to Shanghai in 2001, has always been eager to expand his palate.
After graduating from hotel management in Malaysia, he moved to London for six months with the goal of learning English and gaining an understanding of Western produce.
“When you live in Asia, you prepare Western food. Of course, London is a big change for me, and it’s painful for me — seeing mashed potato so many times,” he laughs.
“Fish and chips and pies…”
Australia offered further food awakenings, and while Tan overflowed with ideas, it took him 15 years before he was in a financial position to start his first business. Now, through Gourmet Library, Tan wants to offer young chefs the opportunity to share their skills in a way that isn’t financially risky.
He refers to these young talented people as “rising stars, not quite Michelin star”, explaining that the business offers a split with the chefs in order to cover operational costs while also offering these guests promotion and a profit.
“It’s like a young incubator kind of thing for young talented chefs who have the skills already and want to express themselves with food, but they don’t have enough finances to open their own restaurant.
“Every chef has a dream: ‘one day I’ll have a cafe or a restaurant’, but when? They don’t know.
“We are the platform that welcomes people like this, and promotes them.
“It’s OK to fail — we’ll both fail together and both succeed together.”
With plenty of new ideas in the works, including make-your-own brunch mornings and bar nights, the goal of Gourmet Library is to create an environment where people can get a taste for creating their own food, while expanding their knowledge and mindset.
Despite the concept’s infancy, a second Gourmet Library is already in progress, Tan says, and he already has plans for its schedule. After all, Tan is used to pioneering new concepts and pursuing gut instincts.
He was the man behind the widely celebrated chocolate and cocktail bar HoF, the first space of its kind in Asia. He also introduced new durian flavours to China when he created the very first durian dessert concept restaurant, Tang Pin.
“The market went wild,” Tan says, noting queues were a regular fixture at the restaurant for three years. Now people in China know about different varieties of the exotic fruit, and the trend of durian-speciality desserts has spread. Proof that all it takes to change the way food is consumed is good execution, education and plenty of creativity.
“Come on bugs dinner,” he smiles.
“Let’s set a trend.”