For This 3 Michelin-Starred Chef, Innovation Always Beats Perfection

by Priyanka Elhence
15 Apr 2024

An exclusive interview with Chef Stefan Stiller of 3 Michelin-starred Taian Table in Shanghai, who was recently in Singapore for a 4-hands collaboration with Araya.

A chef jacket emblazoned with three Michelin stars — that’s all the introduction that Chef Stefan Stiller needs when he enters a room. Having been a stalwart of the Shanghai and Guangzhou dining scene for almost 20 years, the German-born and bred chef is the chef-owner of three Michelin-starred Taian Table in Shanghai; two Michelin-starred Taian Table in Guangzhou; and one Michelin-starred Stiller in Guangzhou. In addition to these, he also runs the more casual Stiller in Shanghai, as well as being the President of Bocuse d’Or China and Asia Pacific.

You would be right in thinking that someone with his stature would be a little short on time and patience. But he’s exactly the opposite; a rare breed that makes having six Michelin stars look like a cakewalk. In fact, Chef Stiller’s calm and hugely grounded aura immediately puts you at ease, and with excitement in his voice and a twinkle in his eye, he talks about his incredible journey so far, his innovative creations, and what he values.

Chef Stiller was in Singapore in early April for the 4-hands Taian Table x Araya collaboration with Chefs-owner Francisco Araya and Fernanda Guerrero ($498/per person, 11-course Dinner & $298/per person, 10-course Lunch).  The collaboration has been in the works for a long time, since the Chilean couple’s time at Napa Wine Bar & Kitchen in Shanghai circa 2015, where the three chefs first met and have remained good friends since.

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What drew Chef Stiller to Shanghai in the first place? “In the beginning, it was just a job heading a kitchen there in 2004. By 2008, I opened my very own project in Shanghai, Stiller's Restaurant and Cooking School (now rebranded to Stiller Shanghai). I have always been an entrepreneur, even before coming to China, so it was only natural for me to become both a restaurateur and chef.”

This set in motion the opening of Taian Table Shanghai in 2016, which earned its first Michelin star just six months after opening (the subsequent stars were awarded in 2019 and 2021); Taian Table Guangzhou in 2021 (earned both its stars in the same year); and the more casual Stiller Guangzhou with a cooking school (also awarded a Michelin star the same year). European classics with elevated Asian refinement has always been Chef’s Stiller’s calling card, an elegant style of cooking with perfect balance and restraint, each with multi-layers of flavor that come together flawlessly. 

Although every chef aspires to earn the three coveted stars, working solely to achieve them was never part of the 57-year-old chef’s plan. Having grown up in a household with parents that loved having friends and family over, he feels he’s just as much a host as he is a chef, and loves the spirit of hospitality, and making people happy with good ambience and great food. Being creative, innovative, putting out good food, and training his team was what Chef Stiller really focused on.

The stars followed naturally, a true testament to his skill and dedication.

With Shanghai and indeed the entire country having an amazing array of fresh quality produce, Chef Stiller sources as much locally as possible for each of his four restaurants. “We have our trusted network of organic farmers and vendors that we work with on the wide array of quality produce available locally across China.”

With this abundance in variety, Chef Stiller changes his menus at Taian Table every 6-8 weeks, sourcing seasonal ingredients from different parts of the country, to showcase the best of the seasonal (and micro-seasonal) bounties. “There has been amazing growth and development over the past few years with better supply chains and logistics too, so the entire country is much better connected now. A lot of different produce becomes available at different times during the year (thanks to varying climates across the country), and we are always looking forward to what we can get our hands on next.” For instance, white asparagus season started approximately two weeks ago in Shandong Province, and with its high sugar content, Chef Stiller’s team is already fermenting the vegetable for his next menu creations.

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Sea Urchin on Sourdough

That being said, the quality of meat that they can procure locally is still not the best according to Chef Stiller, so while they import meat and poultry from other countries, his menus at Taian Table tend to be more seafood-oriented, all locally sourced, especially since he has a penchant for seafood himself. “I believe you can be more creative with seafood, as the flavors are more delicate and there is more variety in terms of textures and presentations, unlike meat, which tends to have limited cooking styles,” he says.

For this collaboration, some of Chef Stiller's creations included opening snacks of Sea Urchin on Sourdough and Brown Butter; and Australian Beef Tartar (in a nori tart shell) with Tenderloin, Gochujang, Daikon, and Kimchi (the Korean-inspired flavors are a result of his Korean wife’s influence, he jokes).

The former is a smaller version of the signature Sea Urchin on Taian Table’s menu, with uni being one of Chef Stiller’s favorite ingredients. Homemade (German-style) sourdough is roasted and dipped in brown butter with soy sauce and balsamic vinegar before being topped with a thin layer of  oyster mayonnaise and thinly sliced green apples for a touch of tart and textural variety. An exquisite one-biter.

For mains, Chef Stiller’s elegant Oyster with Wakame, Kelp, and Tapioca, features different textures of oyster. Homemade oyster custard is crowned with a wakame seaweed salad marinated in Longjing tea infusion, as well as seasoned tapioca pearls, fresh raw oyster pieces, oyster leaf, and frozen oyster pearls. The pearls are added to the dish tableside to add different temperatures and textures.

Seared Foie Gras Grasplum with Beluga Lentils

What keeps Chef Stiller so motivated despite winning the highest culinary award possible? “I believe in moving forwards not backwards — how we can improve, do things better, get more layers into a dish to make them more complex and interesting. Basically, keep pushing to achieve more. I always say 'innovation beats perfection'. This really is part of our DNA. I prefer having dishes on our menu that might not be 100% perfect, but they are creative, they are innovative, and they push limits. Some chefs like to play safe, tweaking a flavor or a seasonal ingredient here and there with their signature dishes, but the core concept of their dish remains unchanged. This is not my philosophy. I have a very limited number of dishes that are available permanently as add-on dishes to Taian Table’s seasonal core menu, being our signatures and highlights from the past eight years (the restaurant started with menu #1 in 2016 and is now on menu #45)”.

When asked what the most important thing for him as a chef is, he reveals, “Looking after my chefs and grooming the next generation. A chef is only as good as his team, and the teamwork they achieve together shows.” Despite the daily pressure that the stars bring with them, Chef Stiller attributes his calm persona to his 40+ years of cooking experience and his team.

“I am blessed to be working with an incredibly amazing and loyal team of talented chefs. The only way for us to grow is by putting great talent into the right positions, giving them responsibilities, and pushing them to achieve their own personal potentials, so that together, we can maintain our quality and do better everyday”.

Mentoring and coaching the next generation of cooks has been a strong driving force in Chef Stiller’s career, and the reason that he has been President of Bocuse d’Or China and Asia Pacific since 2018. He actually started the program in China, as there was no such platform available to nurture and mentor upcoming cooks earlier. And he certainly walks the talk too. With a kitchen brigade of 23 cooks at Taian Table, trainees are always a regular part of his team. In fact, one of the dishes for the Araya collaboration, the curry powder-crusted Seared Foie Grasplum with Beluga Lentils, and Vadouvan Curry is inspired by his executive chef Christiaan Stoop, following his recent stint in New Delhi, India and his appreciation of Indian flavors and spices.

“I have brought many young chefs from China to Lyon over the past decade, and I can see how much they grow through these competitive culinary challenges, not just as chefs, but also as people. Their time management improves, as does their self organization and skill set. Looking after the next generation is extremely important and it is every chef’s responsibility.”