'Now that you've put on the clothes I can see straight away you’re not a chef,' Jing Yaa Tang
’s head chef Li Dong tells me when I reemerge in chef’s whites. Regardless, he leads me into the kitchen where 30 actual chefs are busy prepping for lunch.
The ducks arrive, naked, white and each tagged with QR codes so you can trace their origin. They’ve been killed that morning and have already been blown, where air is forced in through an opening in the neck to separate the skin from the flesh, to help with skin crispiness and water content.
'None of the ducks are Beijing ducks anymore – they’ve been crossbred with European and American ducks to be bigger,' says Chef Dong as his duck prep team wash the ducks. Since when? ‘Let’s say since before 1949.'
The ducks have had an opening cut in their flanks and I’m shown how to insert a specially cut 10cm bamboo prop (yacheng 鸭撑), which we then need to rotate inside the chest cavity to open the duck up to let the air circulate. It’s the hardest part of the whole process, along with the next step – pushing a hook through the neck. You’ve got to get in through the vertebrae then back up and out. After a few attempts on different carcasses, one of the team says 'you’ve got it!' before taking the duck off me and redoing it properly: 'It’s got to be secure, otherwise when you’re roasting it there’ll be trouble'.
Next we get a wok of water boiling, submerge a duck belly then rotate it to ladle the upturned belly eight times with water. No one knows why eight times, but it treats the skin and ‘makes the whole duck a better shape'.
Bath time again. This time ladling a malt sugar solution over the ducks from bottom to top, but only four or five times, mind, as otherwise you’re going to affect the water content. This step gives the ducks that golden-red glaze. We hook them back on the cart and let them hang for 20 minutes before rolling them into cold storage. We leap ahead to ducks that are ready for roasting and need their bums plugged with a bamboo duck stopper (yadu 鸭堵). I’m not allowed to do any roasting, but I cheer up when I discover no one but Chef Shi is allowed to dangle a carcass on the three-metre pole and lean through a ring of date-wood fire into the 200-plus degree oven to hook a duck about two metres away on an almost invisible bar.
Somehow, Chef Shi can see how roasted each duck is and rotates them around the oven before whipping a duck out – with a dramatic flick over the flames. We take out the butt plug to let out the water that has gathered during the hour of roasting. The final step is to wipe the body down with cloths to remove any soot, then I wave it off: it doesn’t appear any customers want to see me learning how to slice up their duck by the table. Anyway, as I saw with the preparation and roasting, that’s an entirely different job.