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I Want to Make American Chinese Food Relevant Again

That thick batter coating your sweet and sour pork, the greasiness, the excessive sweetness—that is not the Chinese food that I grew up eating as a first-generation Chinese-American.
November 7, 2015, 12:00am
Photo via Flickr user Simon D

I want to put integrity back into Chinese food.

That thick batter coating your sweet and sour pork, the greasiness, the excessive sweetness—that is not the Chinese food that I grew up eating as a first-generation Chinese-American. The stuff that I grew up on, mostly cooked by my grandmother, made you feel good after eating it, and this kind of feel-good, super-tasty Chinese food is what I will be focusing on when I open my Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown next year.

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Being a former fat kid who loves to eat, I understand that it will not be easy to change the old perception of quantity over quality—cheap and greasy Chinese food. You know, the kind where you will always have leftovers after your meal, no matter how much food you eat? I am just hoping that the community will embrace my deeper approach to Chinese cooking since it will be a little different than a lot of the stuff that the other old-school restaurants around me are doing.

San Francisco's Chinatown is the birthplace of iconic Chinese-American dishes as egg foo yung and chop suey, after all.

What's happening in San Francisco's Chinatown is that a lot of Chinese traditions are dying because of the scarce restaurant real estate here. There are simply not that many places here that can occupy large parties for traditional celebrations like Chinese red egg parties (a food-based celebration of your child when they turn two years old, because that's the age when you knew your kid wasn't going to die anymore), or even huge Chinese wedding banquets. I grew up going to these and am hoping to keep these traditions alive since I was lucky enough to lease a spacious two-story building.

I'm still going to have some classic dishes. San Francisco's Chinatown is the birthplace of iconic Chinese-American dishes like egg foo yung and chop suey, after all. I'm just going to be a little more honest about them. Take, for example, sweet and sour pork: instead of using a premade, cloyingly sweet sauce thickened with cornstarch and other artificial thickeners—which were probably made popular around The Great Depression to make Chinese food as dirt cheap and voluminous as possible—I will be pureeing fruit, using organic ginger, and will try to get a nice balance of sweet and sour flavors with raw vinegar.

Or Peking duck, for example. That is such a beautiful dish, if you think about the technique behind it. I mean, who the hell thought it would be a good idea to blow air into a duck before you roast it to have such amazing, crispy skin like that? I love this dish so much but it always leaves me wanting more because the meat inside is always well-done and usually dry. I love crispy skin but I love meat, too, so I will be cooking my Peking duck to a more medium doneness in order to have juicy meat and crispy skin.

Chinese food needs an update; it needs to be relevant again. Case in point is Mission Chinese and everything that Danny Bowien has done. That was a wake-up call for a lot of people as to what Chinese food can be. Chinese food was in a state of stale repetition, and he shook it up and made it his own. I'm coming from a different point of view on Chinese food as well.

We are living in a generation when chefs have the opportunity to express ourselves in a more individualistic way, so I'm excited to see how this affects the advancement of progressive Chinese food in the world.

As told to Javier Cabral