For the past few weeks, Xumin Liu has thrilled San Francisco diners by filling teacups from his sword-length copper kettle at Z & Y Restaurant and Chili House. The performance shines in the age of Instagram, but it’s actually an ancient practice known as gongfu cha or “kung fu tea,” a thousand-year-old art.
Liu, a 35-year-old master practitioner, spins his kettle and pours hot tea with the precision, seriousness, and panache of “Salt Bae” — the chef and restaurateur Nusret Gökçe whose graceful salt sprinkling brought him viral internet attention. But as one commenter points out on a video of Liu (taken by none other than Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters) the tea master might make Salt Bae look a little bit lazy. Plus, he’s playing with even hotter stuff.
Of course Liu, like Gökçe, who just opened his first New York restaurant, is much more than a pretty face and impressive gesture. For one thing, Liu’s got several poses, all of which he learned studying under a Sichuanese tea master. And for another, gongfu cha isn’t the only trick Liu has up his sleeve. He’s also a master of the art of bian lian, or “face swapping,” a dance that involves switching traditional masks at lightning-quick speed.
Z & Y and Chili House owner LIjun Han brought Liu to San Francisco, where he’ll continue to perform for the next two weeks. On Mondays and Fridays during lunch and dinner he’s at Z & Y Restaurant, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he’ll be at Chili House. Liu will also perform kung fu tea at 7 p.m. on Sundays at Z & Y before switching hats — or faces, as it were — to perform his face swapping routine afterward.