An interview with Shanghai-based chef-founder Danyi Gao. The co-founder of Shake Restaurant & Bar, Bun Cha Cha, Bun Cha Cha Grill, and Black Rock, and Chef Nic finalist talks about her origin story, the effects of Covid and lockdown, and future projects.
Shanghai’s Food and Beverage Industry Superwomen
In celebration of Women’s Day, this series is an ode to the resilient and passionate women in the food and beverage industry.
Featuring eight interviews with chefs, bartenders, owners, and entrepreneurs, these women share how they got their start, challenges they’ve faced in recent years, their achievements and dreams, and what they’re working on now.
It is my greatest honor to have interviewed these exceptional women and to be able to share a small piece of their amazing journey. Cheers to all the women moving and shaking in their industries—you do you, girl!
Danyi Gao 高丹艺, Chef-Founder
From Ningbo, China. Chef-founder of Bun Cha Cha and Bun Cha Cha Grill, co-partner at Shake and Black Rock, 2017 Chef Nic Finalist, consultant chef, TV personality.
Danyi Gao is a chef of many accolades.
She’s the co-founder and head chef of Shake Restaurant & Bar, founder of Vietnamese eateries Bun Cha Cha and Bun Cha Cha Grill, and co-founder of whisky bar Black Rock.
She was a finalist in Chef Nic, Chinese singer and actor Nicholas Tse’s travelogue and cooking show, was listed as Tatler Asia’s Top 400 Icons of 2019, and has even cooked for ManCity in 2019. She’s done multiple guest chef shifts and consulting projects, as well as appearing on TV for documentaries, interviews, and food segments. She even ran her own farm-to-table private kitchen, Fable.
Here’s the kicker: She’s self-taught, and she pivoted from her former career into the kitchen. Without any formal education about the culinary world, Danyi dropped her day job and applied for a rigorous stage at the Jing An Shangri-La hotel. Years later, she’s the head chef and co-founder of multiple Shanghai restaurants.
Can you tell me about your background and how you got your start?
Danyi: I majored in industrial design, but never actually worked any design-related job after I graduated. I worked as wedding planner and event planner, until one day I realized that’s not what I wanted to do.
I wanted to open my own restaurant.
So I dropped everything and went to Jing An Shangri-La hotel to be a commis in their restaurants. I heard they had a reputation of being a Hell’s Kitchen, and I figured that’s exactly where I needed to go.
It was 16 hours a day in three restaurants of that hotel. I couldn’t feel my legs after work everyday. At the same time I felt like a sponge and absorbed so much…and the craziest thing was, everyday after 16 hours work I still went into my home kitchen and continued cooking until 3 or 4 am.
That was the moment I told myself, “You are either crazy or you have just found your passion!”
That’s how I started my F&B career. I worked in a few other restaurants after Shangri-La, and then started a mini farm-to-table private kitchen. Eventually I found partners with Shake and started Bun Cha Cha, then opened Bun Cha Cha Grill and partnered with my Shake family to open Black Rock.
What did you parents have to say when you told them you were going to be a chef?
Danyi: When I told my parents that I’m going to be a cook at the Shangri-La, my mom was like: “We spent so much money to send you to overseas to study and that’s what you want to do? Are you out of your mind?”
My dad was calmer, he said: “OK, go. Show me what you can learn from the master chef!” Obviously it was loaded with sarcasm.
Both of them were expecting me to give up shortly after. But years later, they finally understood my passion and are being super supportive.
I know it’s been some years since Chef Nic, but what was it like competing as the only woman in the season?
Danyi: Not much difference when it comes to cooking, except that people always seem to give less faith to female chefs. I remember the TV show shooting team and directors made a bet on the final competition. I was the one who got least votes.
Hah! I made most of them lose some money. Oops! 🙂
Do you think there are a lot of women chefs coming out of China? Yes or no, and why?
Danyi: Yes, I do see more and more female chefs coming out of China.
Women are getting so much stronger. A lot of Chinese women are doing away with old-fashioned or traditional thinking, and have decided to pursue their real passions without caring too much of what people think of them.
In fact, I see that not just in our industry—it’s happening everywhere!
“Some women fear the fire, but some women simply become it.”
Who would you consider to be your biggest culinary influence?
Danyi: I would say my parents actually.
First of all, my mom is a great cook, and my dad is extremely picky about ingredients. At home [in Ningbo], we have our own vegetable garden, and raise chickens, ducks, and pigeons. We get fresh eggs from our backyard everyday, and get live seafood right from the fisherman’s boat.
My mom would use oxygen rods in the water containers for the fish to transport them home, and for other seafood, she immediately vacuum packs them and stores it in our -86 degrees Celsius fridge. And yes, we have three -86 degrees Celsius fridges at home! Rare for a traditional Chinese family. My mom would transform those ingredients into something amazing.
That’s how I was influenced as a kid.
Fable, Danyi’s farm-to-table private kitchen
In celebration of powerful women, what does the idea of “power” mean to you?
Danyi: Some women fear the fire, but some women simply become it.
What challenges did you encounter in the last three years? How did you overcome those challenges, and what learnings can you share?
Danyi: Bun Cha Cha almost had to close down when Covid first hit in 2020. A week after Bun Cha Cha Grill opened, the Shanghai Lockdown happened in March 2022.
Then in August 2022, we announced that Shake was going to close. We all thought that was the end, but magically, we were able to continue the brand with our new partners, Light & Salt Group. The stuff with Shake closing and reopening all happened in a month.
It wasn’t easy for us. We had to inject more investment, made a lot of adjustments, but thank God, after three tough years, we are still here!
Moving forward in 2023, what do you expect for the market and business? And do you have exciting plans?
Danyi: The market seems to be back about 70% compared to before [lockdown]. But I also see that consumption has gone down. I will remain on the sidelines for now. No exciting plans at the moment, unfortunately.
What would your next dream project be like?
Danyi: My next dream project is probably a “Ningbo-style tapas” concept. I will wait for the right time to bring my hometown foods to the Shanghai market, in a fun way.
Anything else you’d like to add or say?
Danyi: That’s all! I need to go back to my kitchen now. Haha!