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food / travel

Dim Sum Search: The Obsessively Innovative, All-You-Can-Eat Google China Cafeteria

The Chinese have a saying: ordinary folk regard food as important as heaven itself. The tech world's motto is "Innovate Or Die." At Google's Beijing headquarters, one can taste what happens when these two philosophies m

Get your hands dirty at Google China HQ (bfishshadow)
Get your hands dirty at Google China HQ (bfishshadow)
Zhang Yan

BEIJING - If you are invited by a Google staff member to eat in the canteen of the company's Beijing office, do not turn down the opportunity. By now, the American search giant's cafeteria has achieved a fame to match the firm itself. And like the corporate "Innovate or Die" culture, Google's chefs come up with new ideas every day.

At 11:30 each morning, as the sun streams in through the bay window of Google's canteen, an aroma starts to make its presence felt. It's time for those hoodie-and-jeans sporting IT workers to march in with their identity card hanging round their necks – ready for a good meal. They are calm and in a good mood: they know what awaits them. For those of us who do not get to enjoy this as our daily fare, we can feel reasonably envious.

You are wrong if you think these workers are taking a break -- they have simply embarked upon a fresh project. Their first mission is to choose between Chinese or Western food. Then comes the multi-choice exam of selecting the buffet, the salad bar, or ordering something to be cooked.

Among the dozen or so cooked Chinese dishes, steaming hot and ready are: braised duck wings, fried kidneys with squid, lamb chops, and Mandarin fish. If that doesn't get your digestive juices flowing, consider what is available from the West: slow-stewed shoulder of beef with mango salsa, grape-braised clams and homemade pizza.

When you have managed to pick out a main course, six highly original desserts are lying in wait. Everything is free and you can eat as much as you want. At this point, if you work somewhere else, try not to think about your own office cafeteria.

Xue Rongsheng, Google China's head chef, with nearly 20 years of experience in five-star hotels, told me that they use the world's best equipment in the kitchen. When the canteen was opened in 2007, Beijing had only two sets of the kind of ovens they use. In addition, he is told not to worry about the purchasing budget for his ingredients.

The only mission for Xue and his assistants is: "to submerge ourselves in the ocean of cuisine." They are a team of two-dozen people. There are more than 500 in-house diners daily, but they provide enough quantity for up to 800, because the staff loves bringing in their friends and family for the occasional meal -- and they often pick up take-away when they plan to work late into the night.

Social fooding

So how passionate are the Google's chefs about their work? One answer is that between 2007 and 2010, the team created more than 3000 different kinds of dessert. As for the main courses, they gave up counting. One can't help thinking that there are some people who would pay to work at Google.

Once a week, there's a Research-and-Development menu. Every chef has to come up with a new invention on this day. After trying it out, some of the new dishes are offered in the following week's menu. Google's workers, totally spoiled, know they will see at least one or two new dishes each day. Workers say they don't expect any repetition on the menu for at least 20 days, but Xue raised his eyebrows. "It's far beyond this," he boasts. "Sometimes you have to wait three to five months before you see the same dish. We exhaust all our energy in researching new dishes."

Xue uses a weekly videoconference to report on his work to Google's US headquarters, as well as the firm's Asia-Pacific chief executive officers. Every day the secretary to the team of chefs uploads the menu in advance on "Foodback," the staffs' internal website that lets every staff member at Google log on to Google+ social network to comment on each dish.

"Traditional style restaurants are slow in responding to the clients' reactions to their food, unless the diners demonstrate a strong demand," Xue said. But as an Internet giant, Google relies on electronic communication to respond to the needs of diners in a timely manner.

And more than that, "We use our imagination to develop the Google staff palate," he explains. "For instance, we have Western and Chinese bakers working together to invent new desserts, combining Beijing's traditional bean cake with tiramisu filling, or our snail roll using millet flour pancakes from Shandong, and our steamed Cantonese pork roll matched with Japanese tempura. They are all very popular with the workers."

So with all this top-end (gratis) gastronomy, is Google's staff stuffing themselves too much? Not necessarily. The menus are carefully designed to meet the requirements of a balanced diet. Most cooking methods involve stewing and boiling, with much less frying than one might find in other Beijing restaurants.

There's a chart called "The pyramid of health" stuck at the most obvious place in the canteen. It's a diagram, developed by Google and Harvard University, where foods are divided into three color-coded groups: Green means "Eat as much as you fancy," yellow means "with modesty," and red means "just occasionally."

There are only two universal rules for Google's canteens throughout the world. One is no Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG). The other is the vigorous control of oil used. "The amount of oil used in a normal restaurant would be enough for us to fry 30 dishes," Xue says. "Besides, we encourage the staff to eat whole rice. We let the rice soak 20 for hours first. The amino acid content is thus multiplied, guaranteeing both the taste and the healthiness."

One of the characteristics of an engineer is their attachment to using data to analyze an issue. Even such a concern as the proper amount of salt added to a dish can be collected through Internet feedback. "Don't ever imagine that engineers are somehow a shy bunch," says Xue. "Their expressed desires would surprise you."

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - bfishshadow

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