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It’s the same as when you play a recital,” the superstar pianist Lang Lang is telling me as he explains his approach to ordering dinner. “You have a few incredible composers and you put them together and it’s like a menu. You have Bach and Ravel, Beethoven and Prokofiev, and it’s like you are serving a four-course or five-course dinner.”
Few pianists are more passionate about the four-or-five-course dinner than the musical phenomenon who was born in 1982 in Shenyang, the largest city in northeastern China. Lang Lang admits that often the first thing he does upon arriving somewhere new is seek recommendations for the finest Chinese restaurant. “Good food always inspires me,” he says. “I think certain tastes actually make you play piano better, make it more enjoyable.”
His attitude to eating well seems to follow the principle of yin and yang, the Confucian philosophy at the heart of Chinese culture that, when applied to food, aims for balance in colours, tastes and textures. “Like in music, it’s very important to have a balanced style when you eat,” he suggests. “Meat makes people more aggressive; vegetables make you more relaxed. So variety is ideal. When I eat, I like to have a lot of different combinations, a taste of everything. It’s the same as when I play.”
He certainly seems to have digested this philosophy in his music-making. One of the most successful classical artists in history – and one of the World Economic Forum’s 250 Young Global Leaders – Lang Lang is as likely to be found performing with dubstep dancer Marquese “Nonstop” Scott or jazz titan Herbie Hancock as he is with the likes of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Watched by billions at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, he brought Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony to millions more via the soundtrack of the video game Gran Turismo 5. And, with hundreds of international engagements a year, he is constantly touching down in new places to sample the local attempts at Chinese food.
Except that talking to Lang Lang about generic “Chinese food” is likely to get you ejected from his table. China has many great culinary traditions, including Cantonese, Hunanese and Szechuanese, and they are as varied as schnitzel and empanadas, fish-and-chips and jalfrezi. “Sometimes you go to a ‘Chinese restaurant’ and everything is served in the same sauce,” he laments. “Coming from the north, I prefer food from that region, but southern food is also good. I like everything from Cantonese dim sum to spicy Szechuan, but everything needs to have its typical flavour, like a really marinated beef or a steamed meat-and-seafood dumpling.”
The life of the international concert pianist is famously nomadic, even isolated, and I wonder if Lang Lang’s instinct to gather people around a table loaded with plates redolent of home is a way of rooting himself? “Growing up, it was a ritual to have a big family dinner every night, and I try to recreate that on tour,” he says. “All my teams, we always eat together after a performance, my record company, my management, my foundation, my friends. With Chinese food, you must. It’s a gathering, you know, you must have a group to celebrate. This is very important when you’re having a good meal: you must have your right person to be with. If the food is really great but the people next to you, you don’t know them, it would be really difficult to eat that food. And you can’t eat a Chinese meal on your own; it would be so boring.”
It is not surprising, then, to discover that he never journeys alone. “It would be horrible!” he exclaims. “I wouldn’t like to travel by myself – it would be so lonely. I always have a group of at least two or three really good friends there. And my mum comes with me all the time.”
His mother, he tells me, is a “really good cook”, and from the sound of it there may be a few top Chinese chefs around the globe who have found themselves sharing their wok with Zhou Xiulan when the Lang Lang post-concert entourage descends. “We have certain restaurants we go to that are like really good friends, and my mum will know the chef,” he says. “So she will go and talk to him in the kitchen, maybe make a suggestion about what we want to have.”
The exchange seems to work harmoniously: while there are no doubt plenty of culinary abominations masquerading as Chinese cuisine, Lang Lang speaks enthusiastically about some of the eateries he has discovered. “London has many very beautiful Chinese restaurants. Also in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, New York, LA, San Francisco I have found really excellent Chinese food.” He tells me the best Chinese meal he has ever eaten abroad is at China Tang, Sir David Tang’s outpost at the Dorchester Hotel. In Berlin he likes Peking Ente; in New York, Tang Pavilion; and in Vienna, Sternzeichen.
It seems unlikely that the boy with the quicksilver fingers ever suffers from nerves, but I wonder whether there’s a particular comfort food he seeks out when – if – he ever gets anxious? “Noodle soups,” he answers, without missing a beat. “That gives me comfort.” He laughs. “And chocolate gives me energy and happiness. Ice cream gives me the satisfaction.”
So it’s not always Chinese food on the menu? “I can’t go without Chinese food for more than two or three days,” he concedes, “but in between I can eat French, Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern food … I was in Venezuela recently and we had the most incredible South American barbecue.”
But his gastronomic heart lies in his homeland, and in particular in the steamed meat dumplings with a sauce of suan cai, a salted, cold-fermented green cabbage, similar to sauerkraut, that his mother makes. Forget the fancy international restaurants in Mayfair or Midtown, then: his last supper would indubitably be his mum’s pickled cabbage dumplings.
“It’s always about home food,” he says. “Like from my mum, my uncle, my auntie, when they make food with very close friends during the Chinese New Year, that meal is the best. For me, even a great meal in a restaurant can’t ever compete with being at home with all your friends, your family. You eat, you talk your heart out with the most delicious home cooked food possible, and you just think: wow. You are the most happy person in the world, at that moment.”
‘Prokofiev 3 Bartok 2’ by Lang Lang, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is released by Sony Classical on October 7
I’ve always found it exciting to look at a menu; I suppose that excitement has slightly dimmed over the years but I really enjoy a good dinner at a restaurant, just as I enjoy a good hotel room. I’m travelling about eight months of the year, and I tend to go to the same places again and again; it’s a little bit of home.
New York is just full of good food, and London is getting better. There’s only one terrible drawback for me going to the Far East: I love the food there but, much to everyone’s amusement, I can’t use chopsticks. People say, “Oh, it’s much easier than handling a cello bow,” but it isn’t for me. John Eliot Gardiner taught me how to do it one evening, but I’d lost it by the next day.
The places I remember often aren’t great restaurants, they’re just places where I like to sit. My Australian friends are appalled but I like City Extra in Sydney; it’s open 24 hours a day, and it’s just a nice place to be. When I’m alone I go to a restaurant where there’s good light and read a book; I’m always reading a novel, it’s an important part of my life, next to music. In Washington once a waiter brought me a special light to my table, which I really appreciated. You’re feeling very vulnerable when you go to these places, it makes a big difference if they’re friendly.
I eat out all the time in London and it’s shockingly expensive, but there you are. My friend Thomas Adès, the composer, says “I don’t work hard all year and travel to eat beans at home.” He’s got a point.
I know a lot of singers who are gluten free, no alcohol or on low acidic diets. I may be just lucky but I generally keep a normal diet, and one of my favourite things about travel is sampling the cuisine. If it’s a really decadent restaurant I’ll wait till the end of the trip, that’s one of my diet strategies. There’s an amazing ice cream place in Milan that I just pretend doesn’t exist until the last few days I’m there. They only do white chocolate gelato, with melted chocolate poured into the bottom of the cone. It’s insane.
I’m usually very high after a show, and I need time to come down; I won’t eat a full meal, but I love a glass of beer, it’s so refreshing after physical exertion – and then I’ll have a light meal. Tapas is really good. Sometimes by the time we get through the stage door it’s very late. When I was in London for the Proms we ended up in a fabulous gay bar in Soho – it was one of the only places still serving food.
I wouldn’t say I’m knowledgeable but I love wine; especially pairing it with food. The concert master from the Metropolitan Orchestra, David Chan, is a huge food and wine lover, and came up with the idea of a wine and music festival, Musique et Vin au Clos Vougeot, in conjunction with the wineries in the Burgundy region. I sang there last summer but the singing was superfluous for us; we had a private tour of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and some amazing dinners. The winemakers love music, the music-makers love wine, it’s a wonderful marriage.
If you’re going to perform, everything in the day is geared towards the evening, so meals play a big part in that. I’ve started to eat slow-burning foods, things like porridge. When you’re singing on a full stomach it’s pretty unpleasant.
Some people get panicked about what’s passing down your oesophagus, as it can promote saliva, but I’ve never been someone to rule things out. I’ve got completely addicted to coffee in the past few years; I can bore for Britain about it. I seek coffee bars out – I go to Workshop opposite the Wigmore Hall, and in New York the espresso at Irving Farm Roasters is so good, it’s like drinking Pedro Ximenez sherry; it’s thick and black and fruity.
If you’re going to do a concert and be there for a few days, it’s less sociable than doing an opera, where you rehearse together and finish at the same time. I was in Chicago [performing in Handel’s Rinaldo] for a few months and I think I went out for dinner every other day. You look at the scales and think “Oh my god, what’s happened?” But it’s a nice way to unwind and gossip.
One of my great memories of food was working in Bordeaux; I would go back to work there purely because of it. In the city I go to Le Michel’s and in St Emilion there’s a brilliant restaurant on the top of the hill, L’Envers du Décor, which is one of those ones which you discover by accident. The guy who runs it used to be a sommelier and now makes his own organic wine. Even the Café Regent near the opera house has the best croque-monsieur – it’s just cheese on toast but it’s so good.
I always appreciate it when I come across an amazing meal but I’m working a lot and my schedule isn’t co-ordinated with traditional meal times. I often don’t have time to go out, and I try to get my food wherever I can.
When I was younger I got into the habit of going to grocery stores when I’m travelling, it’s a little cultural window. In France, for example, you see people shopping at the speciality stores; I like going to discount vegetable stores, too, to see what they have. I pick up hummus, goat’s cheese, stuff that I can eat quickly, and I fill in my protein with the hotel breakfast. It’s a bit like foraging. Sometimes I travel with a little soup maker and I have it percolating backstage; and I always have my salt and pepper grinders with me. Six years ago I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, so that makes things trickier.
Since I was a little kid I’ve always liked a range of food – we used to go to Thai restaurants a lot and I trained myself to like spicy food. I like Korean barbecue, it’s a good social experience, and in Copenhagen with friends I go to Mielcke & Hurtigkarl in Frederiksberg – it’s beautiful and very refined cooking.
Musicians I know on the road really value food because to be able to look forward to a meal and enjoy it is not as easy when you’re always on the go; when you do get the chance you seize it. I’ve gone far north to the Arctic Circle, to Europe, South America, Asia, and trying new things is always fun.