The first time I went to a Chinese restaurant in America, I was about 13. My mom and I ordered some dishes, and I was insulted by what came out. I had never seen food like that before, and I said to her, "This isn't Chinese food. This is shitty Americanized Chinese food."
Then, they brought out the fortune cookies and I was like, "What the fuck is this?" I didn't even speak English at the time.
I was born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan. It's a very densely populated place—there's really good, cheap food everywhere. When my family came to America, I used to live near an Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, out in the boonies, and the first time I heard "click, click, click," I turned around and saw a horse and buggy outside. I ran into the house because it was so foreign to me.
My parents are college graduates and World War II refugees, but I got kicked out of college. I wondered, If they could do it, why can't I? I felt like I was disappointing them—like I had no future. My mom is my mentor, and she and my father put up the money for me to start a business. I felt like I didn't have any skills to offer, but I decided to do a Chinese restaurant because it doesn't cost a lot of money to open one. At the time, I had zero restaurant experience and no clue what to expect. After 40 years of working hard towards retirement, my parents were willing to give up that money to help me succeed in something. There was no room for failure.
My dad was raised in Szechuan province, so I was forced to eat that food growing up. My mom had never eaten Szechuan until she married my dad, either. But as a little kid, I developed an addiction to it.
"Everybody takes spice differently. A older woman once tried to call the cops on me because she thought that I was trying to fuck with her because the dish was so hot."
At that time in Philly, when I started to consider opening a restaurant, the Chinese restaurant quality was very poor, and there were very few of them. At a bad Chinese restaurant with shitty service, the servers are so miserable. They're going to wait tables dragging themselves around until they die. I developed a system that works for me: I pay attention to the customer's experience. That's the most important thing about this business: not only does the food have to be good, but the service has to be good, too.
When I opened my restaurant, Han Dynasty, I had an asshole chef who always wanted to fuck with me, so I learned how to cook so that I could fire him. I went back to China to Chengdu—the capital of Szechuan province—for culinary school. My culinary school teacher told me that because Szechuan food is so spicy and flavorful; it's not meant for everybody.
Everybody takes spice differently. When I opened my first restaurant, I got so many complaints about the level of spice. A older woman once tried to call the cops on me because she thought that I was trying to fuck with her because the dish was so hot.
So I started thinking, What can I do to solve this problem? As a Chinese restaurant in America, we have a lot of people send back dishes to the kitchen, and this is culturally the greatest offense to us. This is unheard of in China. If you don't like a particular dish, you don't eat it, and then you don't go back to that restaurant. In China, you would get your shit kicked in in the back of an alley if you sent a dish back.
I wanted to prevent that from happening, so I invented a spice scale that has a range from one to ten for people to understand the heat index. We always suggest that people go lower on the scale so that we prevent dishes from getting sent back. The old lady that called the cops on me had ordered a dish that was about a five on our scale. She was like, "Yeah, I like spice" but she probably likes as much spice as black pepper on her mashed potatoes. A level-ten dish is our spiciest dish that we have, with three different peppers and two different hot sauces.
In our hotter dishes, we use dry Thai chili peppers that we get in duffle bags. You're not supposed to eat those in the dish—they're only there for the flavor. A lot of people will eat them and then complain that they're too spicy. I'm like, "It's those fucking peppers, man. Don't eat them!" Chinese food is family-style, so a lot of people get the dish and then dump all of the rice into the entrée. How are you going to separate the peppers when it's all mixed together? You've got chopsticks to help pick out the things that you want to eat. The peppers should stay on the plate.
In addition to Thai peppers, we also add Szechuan peppercorn and star anise to add more layers of flavor in many of our dishes. When we're making our chili oil, we roast the peppers to get the full flavor. Then we grind them down into a powder, put everything into a big pot, and cook it all in very hot, fresh, and very clean vegetable oil. Once it's hit 375° or 400° degrees Fahrenheit, we dump the hot oil in a bucket with more of the roasted peppers and let it sit until it cools to room temperature. That's it—I might put some scallions in there for extra flavor.
Our Dan Dan Noodles are one of our best-selling dishes. I make them sweeter than you would in a traditional way, and our customers like it. If I'm making it for myself at home, I'm going to make it very spicy and numbing. Dan dan is a term for when you carry a wooden pole on your shoulders with something heavy on either side, using your shoulders to balance it out.
"Ma Po was the nickname of the woman who invented the dish. She was an old lady with small pox scars all over her face. She has gone down in history and will live forever. I have nothing but the greatest respect for her."
There are a lot of street vendors in China who have two barrels: one for water, one for the noodles and other ingredients, who walk around and say, "Dan dan mien?" which means, Dan dan noodles. You stop in the middle of the street, they make it for you in the middle of the street, and you eat it in the middle of the street—then you give back the bowl and they'll keep walking. They wash it, walk away, and then make it for someone else. Or they set up in a busy place, like outside of a factory, and make it for people who are just getting out of work. It's a mobile noodle house. It doesn't have to be exactly the same flavor every time. Some people put vinegar in theirs, but I don't like it in mine. It can be a lot of different things—but the main things in the dish are pork, sesame paste, and soy sauce.
The story behind another dish, Ma Po Tofu, is really inspiring to me. Ma Po was actually the nickname of the woman who invented this dish. Obviously, tofu is tofu, but this dish was invented in the 1930s in Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan, by an old lady who ran a tofu house where she made fresh tofu every day. Sometimes, she would cook this dish for people who came in to pick up the tofu. She was an old lady with smallpox scars all over her face. Ma means "smallpox" and po means "grandmother," so her nickname was essentially "smallpox grandmother." I love telling people this story because it's awesome. To me, this is the greatest chef that anyone could ever have. It doesn't matter how old she was or what she looked like—this old lady invented a dish, and her name has gone down in history and will live forever. It's the most famous tofu dish in China. I have nothing but the greatest respect for her.
Ignorance really bothers me. When I opened my first restaurant, our menu was five pages long with over 500 dishes. We had a lot of exotic stuff: pig intestines, tripe, rabbit, and frog. Some of the customers that would come in would get disgusted and make comments like, "Oh my god, you eat rabbits? They're so cute!" or "Wow, you eat intestines?" It's total ignorance when people say those kinds of comments—it really bugs me. The reason why we've been eating those things for over 5,000 years in China is because there have been so many wars and natural disasters, and starvation as a result. When people are hungry, you've got to get your hands on anything that you can eat. I wish people would stop looking down on others who eat that stuff, because there's a reason for it. And as times have gotten better, we still eat those dishes because we've perfected them and they remind us of those tough times. We cherish them and make the best of it because these things have become integral.
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES on March 26, 2015.