Most of these chefs have never been to China and have no Chinese culinary training, so they are learning as they go, synthesizing the values of the kitchens they know with Chinese elements they do not.
One was working as an accredited CPA. Another had just completed the requirements for a pre-med degree at the University of Chicago. Yet another, a junior employee at Morgan Stanley, walked down 75 flights in the World Trade Center’s South Tower and back into the family food business on Sept. 11, 2001.
Thomas Chen, Jonathan Wu and Wilson Tang are among a few dozen Chinese-Americans who have recently surfaced as influential chefs, determined to begin a new culinary conversation with the food of their ancestors. Independently, they arrived at the same goal: to invent a kind of Chinese-American food that is modern, creative and delicious instead of sweet, sticky and bland.
But they took similar routes to get there. Despite their advanced academic degrees, these chefs started over as culinary students — usually against their families’ wishes.
“No Chinese parent sends their child off to college hoping they’ll work in a kitchen,” said Chen, 31, whose parents owned a restaurant in Mount Vernon, N.Y., while he was growing up. “That’s what you go to college to escape from.”
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They worked their way up in high-end global kitchens in New York like Noma, Guy Savoy, Eleven Madison Park and Jean-Georges. And then, having defied their parents, they defied their culinary training as well. They left the luxurious places where they had mastered foie gras and morels to open storefront restaurants where they can mess around with pork belly and pomelo, steamed eggs and sawtooth herb.
In addition to exploring a vast pantry of new ingredients (osmanthus, pandan, celtuce and wood ginger), they are facing a daunting new arsenal of Chinese cooking techniques, entirely different from the skills they’ve been schooled in.
“It’s not just recipes that are different,” Chen said. “It’s basics like how to hold a knife, how to trim an onion, how to boil vegetables.”
The phenomenon is certainly not confined to New York City, although several of its exemplary restaurants are clustered in Lower Manhattan: Wu’s Fung Tu, Chen’s Tuome, and Yunnan BBQ from Doron Wong, 39, and Erika Chou, 31.
It is also not new. Pioneers like Susanna Foo and Ming Tsai long ago opened ambitious, creative Chinese restaurants that paved the way. More recently Anita Lo, of Annisa in the West Village of New York, has been the spirit guide for many young chefs; her stubborn conviction that Chinese food can flow seamlessly into Western fine dining smoothed the path for this next generation.
They include Justin Yu and Karen Man at Oxheart in Houston; Shirley Chung at Twenty Eight in Irvine, Calif.; Brandon Jew of the eagerly awaited Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco; and Sheridan Su of Fat Choy in Las Vegas.
There is also a junior class of specialists, like Debbie Mullin of Wei Kitchen in Seattle, who makes small-batch shallot and chili oils; Hannah and Marian Cheng of Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings in the East Village of New York, where the dumplings are made from sustainable meat and served with farm-to-table vegetable sides from their Taiwanese mother’s recipes; and the Boba Guys, who use organic milk and house-made syrup in their bubble tea.
Su is a refugee from fine-dining kitchens on the Las Vegas Strip who started a solo career making bao in a corner of a strip-mall hair salon. His newest venture, Flock & Fowl, is devoted to the classic southern Chinese dish called Hainanese chicken rice, but with upgraded ingredients and innovations like congee topped with fried (free-range) chicken, a poached (organic) egg and (house-made) pickles.
Most of these chefs have never been to China and have no Chinese culinary training, so they are learning as they go, synthesizing the values of the kitchens they know (organic, seasonal, soigné) with Chinese elements they do not.
“No one would give me even the lowest kitchen job in Beijing,” said Cara Stadler, 28, who grew up in Massachusetts and moved to China with substantial experience in the kitchens of the chefs Guy Savoy and Gordon Ramsay. Instead, she started the city’s first underground supper club.
“Going to the markets every day forced me to really learn about Chinese produce,” she said.
Stadler is now the chef and owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick, Maine, where the shellfish are plentiful and exquisite. Next week, for the Lunar New Year, she will be making plump scallop wontons — and then drying the bivalves’ side muscles to simmer into a homemade XO sauce, a fiery, funky, hugely popular condiment from Hong Kong.
Chinese ingredients by themselves are a vast field of study — dried mushrooms, cured meats, salted fish and bean pastes are only the beginning. Most of these chefs grew up without them: Instead, they ate a combination of American snacks, global fast food and the kind of meals a Chinese mother living in Dayton, Ohio, or Avon, Conn., might produce on a Tuesday night in the 1980s: beef stir-fried with romaine lettuce (in the absence of gai lan or bok choy) or fried rice studded with pepperoni instead of sweet lap cheong.
“Every Chinese family I knew had Dinty Moore beef stew in the pantry,” said Tang, 37, whose family owned real estate and Chinese bakeries in New York City, including the classic Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which he now runs. “You throw that in the wok with some soy sauce and chili bean paste, fresh rice from the rice cooker, it’s not bad.”
That kind of crude fusion does not satisfy them anymore. From cookbooks and childhood memories, and through trial and error, they are feeling their way into one of the world’s most complex, ancient and demanding culinary traditions. So they are making their own five-spice powder, hand-cutting noodles and home-brewing basics like pickled mustard greens, chili bean paste and fermented black beans.
And they are hoping to find “essentiality” — the important modern idea of making fine, fresh ingredients taste like themselves.
“Honestly, I thought that was a Japanese thing,” said Wu, of Fung Tu, who spent years working in the kitchen at Per Se. “I didn’t realize that Chinese food had that, only because I’d never had that kind of Chinese food.”
Doron Wong, 39, the chef at Yunnan BBQ, who grew up near Boston and trained in Hong Kong, where his family emigrated from, said: “Most Americans, including me at some point, have just never had Chinese food. When I went there and saw things like cornmeal wrapped in a banana leaf, or wood-roasted chicken wings, I thought, ‘Am I really that ignorant about my own food?’”
The answer was probably yes. Chinese-American food — mostly Cantonese banquet dishes adjusted for long-outgrown American tastes — is so ingrained here that even Chinese Americans have come to believe that it is closely related to “real” Chinese food, when in truth it is a very, very distant cousin.
But that is starting to change as different cuisines and cooks arrive here from China, as more Americans travel to China, and as haute cuisine there bounces back from a long dormancy. Traditional (and modern) Chinese restaurants are thriving as the growing middle class and the new availability of ingredients from around the world have generated new demand.
Kian Lam Kho, 62, a software engineer turned chef who grew up in Singapore and lives in New York’s Harlem, is one of the few people equally at home in the American and Chinese culinary worlds. He returns to Asia frequently, snapping up old and new Chinese-language culinary textbooks as they come back into print. (Restaurants, culinary schools and cookbooks have been common in China since the Song dynasty, about A.D. 1000.)
He used these texts to research his magisterial new book, “Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees,” which details not only the recipes and regions but also the underlying concepts that have been the building blocks of Chinese cooking — and of much East Asian cooking — for thousands of years.
He said the book was partly designed to teach English-speaking people of Chinese heritage like these chefs, who may have lost the language of China but not their loyalty to its food.
“Unless they understand the original dishes, what they cook will never have a real relationship with Chinese food,” he said. When they braise the classic red-cooked pork in the oven instead of in a wok, he said, or if they sear the meat first, the way they are taught in Western cooking schools, it changes the flavor, the mouthfeel and how everything works together.
Using clam chowder as a reference point, he said, “Anyone can take clams, potatoes, salt pork and milk, and make some kind of dish.” But if the pork fat is not rendered, if the potatoes are left whole, if the cooking is too fast, it will not be chowder.
This new effort to synthesize Chinese and American cuisines takes more study and skill than squirting a few drizzles of soy and hoisin onto Western dishes like grilled steak or mashed potatoes. Those thoughtless mashups are why these Chinese-American chefs now shudder at the term “Asian fusion” and go to great lengths to define what they are doing differently. (They are definitely not tinkering with sushi or dabbling in pad thai.)
The term “Chinese-American food” has even worse connotations: heavy, sticky, deep-fried.
“We definitely need to figure out what to call it,” said Tang, who is a partner in Fung Tu.
Modern American Chinese? Chef-driven Chinese American? “Elevated or upscale sounds too snooty, especially when we’re basically serving ribs and noodles and chicken wings,” he said.
Another challenge, Tang said, is to decide whether the cooks supporting them in the kitchen should be graduates of restaurants like Hakkasan, who would have the Chinese skills, or like Gramercy Tavern, who have the fine-dining finesse.
“What we need is ABCs” — American-born Chinese — “who speak Chinese but also speak farm-to-table,” he said. “ And so far, there aren’t too many of us.”
SPICY CHINESE MUSTARD CHICKEN WINGS
Makes 4 to 6 servings
For the wings:
4 pounds wings, separated into wingettes and drumettes (see note)
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
½-inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced but not peeled
4 scallions, white and light green parts
2 cloves garlic
Potato starch or all-purpose flour, for frying
Peanut, canola or another neutral oil, for frying
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon minced scallions
1 cup yellow Dijon mustard (not whole grain)
½ cup lager beer
½ cup brown sugar, more to taste
1/3 cup ketchup
¼ cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard, more to taste
1 teaspoon cayenne, more to taste
2 teaspoons black pepper
1. Up to 1 day before cooking, bring about 1½ quarts water to a boil in a saucepan. Add salt, sugar, ginger, scallions and garlic. Stir to dissolve salt and sugar and set aside to cool to room temperature. Place wings in a container or a thick, sealable plastic bag. Add brine, seal and refrigerate for at least eight hours or up to 24.
2. Make the sauce: In a saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. When it ripples, add ginger, garlic and scallions and cook until soft but not brown, one to two minutes.
3. Add remaining sauce ingredients and simmer about 30 minutes, until thick but still a bit runny. Turn off heat and let cool slightly. Taste and adjust the seasonings if you need more mustard powder, brown sugar and cayenne. Set aside or refrigerate for up to three days.
4. Pour off brine, rinse chicken in cold water and drain well on paper towels. Spread a cup or so of starch in a shallow bowl. Heat the oven to 250 degrees and place a sheet pan inside.
5. In a heavy, deep pot or wok, heat three to four inches oil to 350 degrees. Warm mustard sauce and transfer half to a large metal bowl.
6. Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, dredge wings in starch and shake off any excess. Gently drop into hot oil and fry until golden, crispy and floating in the oil, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes. The skin will blister and crisp but will not get very brown.
7. When done, lift out wings with a slotted spoon, shaking to remove excess oil, and drop into sauce. Toss and shake until wings are well coated. Lift out and transfer to sheet pan in oven to keep warm. Repeat with remaining wings and sauce, adding more starch to the bowl as needed. Serve immediately.
Tip: You should be able to purchase wings separated, but if not, take a whole wing and use your fingers to feel for the joint between the two sections, then use kitchen shears to cut through it. Use your fingers to feel for where the tip meets the flat of each wing, then cut off the tip. Discard tips or save for stock.