Chef Dave Critchley returned to Liverpool after two years away to head up brand new restaurant Lu Ban. We caught up with Dave to discuss the journey to opening Lu Ban, his time spent in Tianjin, mastering the technical and challenging cuisine and where he would eat in Liverpool,
Congratulations on the opening of Lu Ban in Cains Brewery Village, Liverpool. After months of hard work, what is it like to have your restaurant open finally?
Amazing, truly amazing to see everything finally come together, it’s one thing looking at the blueprints and artists impressions and having scribbled menus and costings literally everywhere in your house. But, when you’re looking through the pass into a heaving Saturday night in Lu Ban and hearing the buzz out on the floor - that’s special.
Taking the role of Executive Head Chef at Lu Ban has brought you back to Liverpool after a spell away. What is it like being back in your native City?
Again amazing, to be back after a couple of years even though I wasn't far away, it certainly felt like it. Liverpool's unlike any other city I’ve known, it’s a massively different vibe. As a local lad, I’m really enjoying being back amongst the action with familiar faces and a very familiar scene. I learnt to know what works here, what’s popular, what people specifically don't like or what people will take time to understand or appreciate. I think that it’s massively important to know and understand your guests as much as you can.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career to date?
Tough question…. I’ve never really been much of a fanboy of celeb chefs, especially in the early days of my career. While I was washing dishes, it was just a job for extra money, to pay my way through school. Before I knew it, I was cooking to pay my way through College and eventually running kitchens part-time to pay for University.
Art and illustration was my passion at that time. The top chefs of that generation didn’t really bother me and so wouldn't inspire me until later in my career. I suppose I got my work ethic from my parents, from those first days working I wanted to be the best at whatever I was given to do, work harder than those around me, learn more than everyone else, and take on as much as I could physically handle.
The chefs around me in those first five years probably became some of my biggest influences, they set me on the way definitely! Helping me to fall in love with food, the kitchen, the buzz of service and the banter, enough to switch my career path and take cooking seriously. My subsequent head chefs and execs would mould me and show me everything I could take in to lead to my first head chefs role all those years ago. Of course, now I’m a learner all over again with a new teacher, and I get the feeling that he will have a large part to play in my future career!
Lu Ban is a brand new restaurant, how was it being part of a restaurant created from scratch? What were the highlights and challenges?
Being part of a brand new set up is always incredibly exciting. Lu Ban is a whole different ball game though. It’s been a fantastic journey so far, heading out to China to spend time with the Master Chefs of Tianjin and take in the culture of the city and its people has been life-changing.
Bringing that culture back to Liverpool and being a significant part of setting up this incredible restaurant and training facility has been really rewarding too. Of course, there have been challenges also, the building work fell behind, time frames were missed, research, development and training time was cut shorter than we would've liked, but I’m incredibly happy and proud of what we have achieved so far.
The philosophy at Lu Ban is that every diner should leave having learnt something about Tianjin; their food culture, their sense of community and their traditions.
Prior to creating the menus, you spent some time in Tianjin, the region of China that inspires Lu Ban Restaurant. How was that experience and what were the key moments?
Like I said, China was life-changing, what a fantastic place Tianjin is! The people, the culture, the food. Everything I saw changed my perspective and blew away what I thought I knew about China. Spending time with some incredibly passionate and skilled people was huge in preparing me for this challenge. To truly understand the food and culture that Lu Ban wants to teach and showcase you have to experience it - I’ll never forget it!
As well as the main dining room, a wine room, and a Chef’s Table, you have also launched the Food Lab. Where did this idea come from?
The Food Lab was an idea or a vision from one of the directors initially, which has developed and continuously evolved. Currently out of service hours it is a fantastic work and learning space, where students can be shown butchery, chocolate work, noodle making, dumplings etc. And for service it becomes an all-encompassing food experience involving, audio, video, smoke machines, molecular gastronomy and guest interaction – it’s great fun!
Your menus are extensive and technical, what has been the most challenge dish for you to create?
The hardest part I think has been keeping these dishes authentic and true to Tianjin and the Master Chefs who taught me, while still cooking the style of food I love to do. There are however several techniques on the menu that take years of practise in China before they are considered worthy.
The Gaobuli Baozi, for example, is a pork dumpling with 23 pleats that takes a chef in China a minimum of three months to learn and three years to master! My team have had a matter of weeks but have already shown great results and are really doing themselves proud, improving with every batch. Hand-pulled noodles will take us a bit longer to master, I’m sure, but we are getting there. We are truly dedicated to making it happen!
If we could only eat five plates from the menu, which ones should we order?
Ahh now that’s really tough! Every dish on the menu tells a story from my trip to Tianjin, there are dishes I was taught while I was there, some that I ate while in China and there are dishes that I created based upon a feeling or an experience, so I love them all!
But I’d have to say…
MASTER YU’S 5 FLAVOUR CUCUMBER
The first dish I was shown out in Tianjin, its simplicity is everything that I feel Chinese cuisine is all about.
CAFE YUN OYSTERS
Really different. These oysters are converting non-believers to oyster lovers!
MASTER ZHANGS BEIJING DUCK WITH PLUM HOI SIN AND PANCAKES
Crispy Aromatic skin, juicy meat. The way duck and pancakes should be! A homage to one of China’s top chefs.
Crispy battered prawns and chilli bean sauce originating from a dish at Tianjin's top restaurant and a big favourite at Lu Ban.
The dumpling I mentioned earlier. For those that love Dim Sum, a dumpling / steamed bun hybrid, the Baozi is Tianjin's most famous food.
Yes, I know this is the 6th dish, but this is a dessert so doesn't count. Our signature dessert, ruby chocolate, dark chocolate, cherry, blossom leaves and a bit of cherry-infused theatre… you can’t visit Lu Ban and not finish your meal with cherry blossom.
The food scene in Liverpool is growing, when not in the kitchen, where is your favourite place to eat?
I have very little opportunity unfortunately at the moment, but a lot is going on in Liverpool right now, with so many places I could mention! Some really cool, relaxed dining restaurants opening recently too, which are probably more my scene at the moment, especially with my little lad in tow.
I have to mention Roski, love what Anton is doing there, Etsu is fantastic for authentic Japanese food, Pilgrim at Duke Street market looks excellent and I’m hoping to get to as soon as I get the chance! And Moor Hall is on my list for February!
Many know you as a Chef, but initially, you wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. Apart from us hoping that you illustrate your first cookbook very soon, do you feel this creative flair has helped you in the kitchen, or do you feel it was very much a past life?
Very much so. I’m very visually led with a lot of my dishes, I’ll change the plating up several times before I’m happy and use colour in garnishes wherever I can to enhance the appearance of a dish if I think it isn’t visually enticing enough. I think learning how to compose an image and what colours work well together has been a real bonus when designing a dish. Chinese cuisine has taught me simplicity though and sometimes just letting the natural colours of the ingredients do the talking can be the best option.
A Quick Chat
Your favourite restaurant? Can’t say I have a favourite! I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at so many top restaurants, Can I say mine as I’m here so much 😂 … I love to try new ones as much as I can, though! Sexy Fish London stick out for me, Fraiche I always enjoy, and I recently ate at Roots in York, which was very good too!
Food Hero? I don’t have heroes as such. .. But at the moment I’m looking at some of the things the top guys in Asian cuisine are doing… Dan Hong, Neil Perry, Andrew Wong for example!
Favourite Ingredient? Always struggle with this question! I love seafood.. Can I say seafood or is that cheating as it's not specific enough?… I’m really enjoying experimenting with some of the dried spices in Chinese culinary arts though.
What will be the next food trend? I genuinely don't think vegan is going away any time soon, I’m gonna say healthy plant-based ‘junk’ food. Beware the Rise of the Jackfruit!!!
Worst food trend? Salt and pepper on absolutely everything, worst still with raw chillies and spring onions thrown on the top to make it ‘Asian’ ahhhhh!
Guilty Food Pleasure? Full English breakfast with absolutely everything and a huge mug of coffee, I even have a specific order I have to eat it in. So bad!
About Dave Critchley
Dave Critchley returned to work in Liverpool last year after a two-year spell with Manchester-based Living Venture Group and their flagship Australasia brand, where he held the position of executive chef.
Critchley, who spent four years as executive head chef at the prestigious London Carriage Works at Hope Street Hotel, and had senior roles at Portico in Albert Dock, Gallery in Formby, Noble House, Alma de Cuba, 52 Lark Lane and Neighbourhood Cafe Childwall.