A Michelin Star Chef’s Quest to Make China Embrace Vegetarianism

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King’s Joy was already receiving praise for its vegetarian fine dining when Gary Yin took the helm as executive chef of his family’s restaurant in 2018. But Yin, who changed the menus and branding, has catapulted the Beijing eatery into the ranks of the world’s best.

It hasn’t been an easy path. “At the time, knowledge in terms of food was meat, caviar, lobster, abalone, shark fin—these kinds of foods were of value. And if you wanted to do something upscale, you definitely had to have those things incorporated into the menu,” Yin says. His mission isn’t just culinary, it’s environmental. China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, and livestock is estimated to account for around 15% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. If more people eat vegetarian more frequently, Yin says, “it really could change the environment as a whole.”

The 32-year-old chef, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Canada, has undoubtedly succeeded in showing that vegetarian food can be refined and upscale. Foodies have flocked to the sleek venue to try Yin’s inventive culinary creations. His favorite menu item is the hawthorn jelly and Comté mountain yam rolls, which combine a traditional Beijing berry dessert with French cheese.

Portrait of Gary Yin
Henry Shi for TIME

In 2020, King’s Joy was awarded two Michelin stars, followed by a coveted third Michelin star in 2021. That same year, the restaurant also became the first ever recipient in China of Michelin’s “Green Star,” awarded for sustainable practices. (The restaurant held on to both distinctions in 2022.) King’s Joy sources produce from local farms and minimizes plastic and food waste. At 9 p.m. each night, candles are lit and the lights are turned off to “remind people that conserving energy can be enjoyable, too,” says Yin.

Yin believes the restaurant’s location in China’s political center can help encourage vegetarianism in a country where less than 4% of the population was estimated to be vegetarian in 2019. “We can influence people who have influence and have them be ambassadors, in essence, to effect change and to promote vegetarianism,” he says.

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com