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Food by VICE

Simone Tong Doesn't Want Chinese Food to Be Bound by 'Rules'

“What is authenticity? We should encourage people to adapt. We look backward to learn from history so that we can move forward."

by Diana Hubbell
Sep 5 2019, 11:00am

Left image: Afra Lu; Right image: Kuo-Heng Huang.

Last April, a group of restaurateurs, chefs, and entrepreneurs gathered around a small screen in a Bank of China in Manhattan. On the display was the warm, smiling face of Cecilia Chiang, the 99-year-old godmother of Chinese-American cuisine. Critics in New York now lavish praise on restaurants serving regional specialties like incendiary Chongqing-style hot pot and Xinjiang-style da pan ji (“big tray” chicken), but when Chiang first opened The Mandarin in San Francisco in 1961, she faced a different landscape. Chinese restaurants predate the Civil War in the United States, but struggled for years against blatant racism. In 1883, an article in the New York Times posed the question “Do the Chinese eat rats?” By the 1960s, attitudes were shifting, but the larger American public still regarded Chinese food as cheap. It took a titan like Chiang to persuade diners that Cantonese cooking could be every bit as worthy of a high-end restaurant as the French food dominated pricey menus at the time. Despite countless hurdles, she won the respect of the culinary elite, including James Beard himself, and paved the way for a new generation.

Now, Chiang had recorded a message to congratulate some of the innovators leading that new generation. One by one, participants including Amelie Kang of Málà Project, and Yong Zhao, Wanting Zhang, and Ming Bai, who co-founded the fast-casual concept Junzi Kitchen, stood to introduce themselves. When it was Simone Tong’s turn, she hesitated, before issuing a disclaimer.

“When it came to me, I said, ‘I’m going to speak in English. I haven’t lived very much of my life in China and I didn’t study under a Chinese chef. Some of you might think I’m not Chinese enough to open a Chinese restaurant, but my passion for Chinese food is the same if not more than that of people who grew up in the country,’” Tong says. “All I’m trying to do is create a different conversation and paint a different color on the canvas of Chinese restaurants in this country.”

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Burrata and Chinese broccoli at Little Tong. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

As the chef-owner of Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village, Tong has done just that. When the restaurant opened in 2017, Pete Wells at The New York Times awarded it two stars for its mixian, or Yunnanese rice noodles. Since dishes from Yunnan province were a rarity in New York at that point, the review came with an explanation for readers presumed to be unfamiliar with the region. Tong, however, never intended her cooking to be representative of Yunnan. Often, she says, she finds herself driven more by the romantic ideal or memory of a place than the reality. She chose Yunnanese cuisine because of the region’s staggering beauty, because its cloud-scraping mountains and cobalt skies provided a stark contrast to the stereotypical images of smog-choked urban blocks lined with drab, Communist architecture depicted on the news.

“If you go to Yunnan, you would not find my food there. I’ve always said it’s inspired by the region, but it’s my interpretation,” Tong says. “I’ve never aimed to be authentic. Being bound to traditional recipes would prevent me from thinking creatively and making them my own.”

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Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

Being able to create on her own terms has always been essential to Tong. Now, rather than rest on her own success and keep slinging rice noodles, she’s changing the rules yet again. In addition to mixian, her East Village restaurant currently features a menu of harder to classify dishes that draw on her own varied background. The Chinese broccoli served with shaved smoked egg yolk, toasted almonds, and burrata, and the trout roe-topped scallops, which arrive in a cloud of smoke and a puddle of chile-spiked brown butter, belong to her alone. And this fall, Tong will showcase the full extent of her imagination at her forthcoming fine dining restaurant Silver Apricot. Named for the Mandarin characters for “ginkgo,” the ambitious place will showcase a contemporary interpretation of Chinese cuisine rooted in the hyperlocal, seasonal ingredients of New York.

“When Chinese people go anywhere in the world, they go to the market and they’ll make steamed dishes, stir-fries, and stews using the local ingredients. That is Chinese food,” she says. “It is also very good food. I want people here to see Chinese food differently. It doesn’t have to be cheap-cheap, $5-a-bowl noodles.”

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Soft-shelled crab. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

Tong has long been an advocate of viewing diaspora cuisine for what it is: an ever-evolving, edible clash of cultures driven by the ingenuity of chefs forced to improvise outside of their homelands. Now that the rest of the United States is starting to catch up with her point of view. We’re living in a time when one of the best-selling cookbooks of 2019 is Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family, Priya Krishna’s loving tribute to the home cooking she ate while growing up in an Indian household in Dallas, Texas, and the James Beard Award for food writing went to Buttermilk Graffiti, chef Edward Lee’s anthropological look at how immigrant communities across the United States have influenced one another's cooking. Both authors shun the dogma of authenticity, preferring instead to celebrate the way recipes mutate like language as they pass through time and space.

Chinese food is a prime example of the alchemical magic that results from a combination of resourcefulness and necessity. Even recipes that have been around long enough to become codified and canonized are often the result of migration and appropriation. Whether it’s American-Chinese chop suey, which was born in the woks of Cantonese immigrants in New York City, or Indian-Chinese dishes like gobi Manchurian, which originated within the Hakka community in Kolkata, there’s a place on the table for everything. Diners in Yunnan, one of the most ethnically diverse provinces in all of China, will notice the echoes of the cuisines of its Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Much of the region’s current food shows the influence of a wave of Han Chinese immigrants during the World War II-era Japanese occupation of China.

“What is authenticity?” Tong says with a dismissive gesture. “We should encourage people to adapt. We look backward to learn from history so that we can move forward. It applies a lot of things—science, literature, progress of almost any kind in human civilization. You can respect the past without being bound to it.”

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Everything Nice Chengdu Mixian. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

Like many immigrants, Tong has spent her whole life adapting to other cultures. Although she was born in Chengdu, one of the great centers of Sichuanese gastronomy, she spent her formative years in Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong, followed by high school in Melbourne and finally university in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Right now, she is prepping for her U.S. citizenship test and can confidently rattle off facts about assorted government branches and legislative processes.

“How many in the House of Representatives? Four-hundred and thirty-five!” she says with a triumphant laugh. “I’m telling you, man, I’m the new immigrant story. It means so much to me. I chose this country. I chose this city.”

At this point, both her identity and her personal style of cooking are a kaleidoscope of influences. Having a perpetual outsiders’ perspective has gifted her with the ability to see where rules could be bent or even broken on her long, strange journey to becoming a chef.

“In the beginning, it was just pure dreaming,” Tong says. “Real dumb dreaming.”

That impossible dream started when Tong was 29 and living in Washington D.C. At the time, she was staying up all hours playing competitive online poker and fighting off a general sense of malaise. Without a challenge to overcome, Tong grows bored quickly. So she played no limit, often for eight hours at a time, and spent her remaining waking hours reading into the psychology, economics, and mathematics of the game. One restless night, she turned on Hulu and happened across the show After Hours with Daniel Boulud, in which the chef would gather writers, journalists, actors, and, of course, other chefs, for late-night conversations at restaurants. Tong was hooked. After binging her way through much of the series, she decided to tell her parents she had found her calling.

“My parents were like, ‘Worst idea ever,’” Tong says. She ignored them, but realized she had no idea how to actually go about becoming a chef. “I sent out 20 emails to the World’s Best Restaurants, because I know nothing. I had no shame. Nobody replied but one restaurant in Singapore.”

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Liangban Smoked Scallops. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

That restaurant, FiftyThree, offered her an internship. The grueling 12-hour shifts peeling potatoes didn’t quite match her glamorous vision of chef life, but Tong dove into the work with gusto. All the while, she kept doing research, staying up late and searching for the next step.

One night, learned about WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s mad scientist molecular-gastro laboratory. While some scoffed at the restaurant’s tendency for trompe l’oeil trickery—“everything bagels” made of ice cream and foie gras torchons bleeding from their liquid beetroot hearts—Tong loved the sheer, delirious inventiveness of it all. Dufresne, as she saw it, was someone obsessed with deconstructing and reimagining culinary tropes. There was a subversive quality to his work and she knew she had to somehow be a part of it.

“I loved the shit they were doing. I thought it was crazy. Like, is it food? Is it science?” Tong says. “If chef Wylie said, ‘This is my interpretation of American food,’ nobody was going to get offended. WD-50 had an internal perspective on American food. Noma had an internal perspective on Nordic cuisine. I wanted to have an internal perspective on Chinese food.’”

After hours of searching for a way in, she found out that the Institute of Culinary Education in New York listed WD-50 as a possible place where students could intern. Competition for spaces was vicious, but Tong still saw it as a chance. Once she made it in, she found the experience tougher than anything she could have imagined.

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Stir-Fried Fiddlehead Ferns and Guoba. Photo by Kuo-Heng Huang.

“There were thousands of times when I would think ‘I want to quit,’” Tong says. “Some people did. They became lawyers or went to medical school—I guess that was easier. They would rather do that than cooking.”

She never did quit. There are days when the stress of overseeing two outposts of Little Tong Noodle Shop wears on her, but she draws strength from seeing what her small, but important project has already accomplished. Like Chiang, she is working to broaden perceptions about the food of her homeland in the United States. The cooks who pass through her kitchen speak Mandarin, English, Arabic, Spanish, and French. They are newcomers to this country and they are citizens who were born here. But they are all making Chinese food and it is very good food indeed.