Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On Chinese Restaurants in America

Being a wealthy nation of immigrants, U.S. has a wide range of choices of food, ranging from authentic ethnic ones from all over the world to industrialized original fast food like McDonald hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chickens. For someone like me who enjoys food and varieties, it is simply great. However, just like mother tongue, it is hard for me to forget or not to have Chinese food for any sustained period of time.

Luckily, I have never lived too far from major communities of Chinese Americans where stores and markets are stocked with supplies including unique Chinese vegetables. It is now also fairly easy to find Chinese restaurants. Indeed, Chinese food in U.S. has become so popular and achieved practically the status of comfort food for many. One indication is you would see scenes in TV series and movies where actors and actress gobbled up unrecognizable pieces from small wax paper takeout boxes using chopsticks (it is so American that my nephew when visiting us from Taiwan requested it as a "must do"). To give you a sense, there are an estimated 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America, compared to about 70,000 pizzerias and 14,000 McDonalds. At one end of the spectrum, there are many serving fast food like for mostly takeouts in stripped malls with excellent value, speed, and amazingly similar flavors. At the other end of the spectrum, you can find elegant dining in places like midtown Manhattan at prices approaching some French restaurants.

30 years ago when we moved to central Jersey from San Francisco area, it was a significant adjustment when it comes down to convenience and provisions of Chinese food. One often ended up driving an hour to NYC Chinatown to get serious supplies. To eat out or takeout, the only Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood was an Americanized Cantonese restaurant serving unfamiliar dishes including the famous Chop Suey 雜碎. While one might find curious about the history and different stories of its origin (one story credited it to Li HungZhang 李鴻章, a controversial statesman and diplomat in late Qing dynasty as his chef’s desperate act when Li visited U.S. in 1896), the dish is simply uninteresting, unimaginative, and tastes, to be honest, downright awful. Of course, at the end, one would still get rewarded with fortune cookie, another uniquely American invention that are supposedly more connected with Japanese than Chinese. Well, I guess as long as the words inside sooth you and the numbers win you lottery. Who cares if it is non-Chinese!

If you turn the clock back another 20 years, you can imagine what it might be like even in streets of San Francisco Chinatown. That is the era Cecilia Chiang 江孫芸 found when she first landed in San Francisco in 1961 to visit her sister.

At age 88, Cecilia Chiang is a legend who is well-known probably more in American culinary and high society circles than among Chinese Americans. Her Mandarin Restaurant (1961-1991) 福祿壽 of San Francisco has certainly influenced and changed forever the perception of Chinese restaurants in America. Interweaved with 75 recipes of hers, Cecilia Chiang’s fascinating autobiography The Seventh Daughter: My Culinary Journey from Beijing to San Francisco was published in 2007 and detailed her life stories in a creative arrangement that is only fitting with such a famous accidental restauranteur.

There are always many contributing factors in one’s success. There is no exception in Cecilia Chiang’s story. Born into a wealthy family of Wu-Xi (a city near Shanghai) and grew up in Beijing with a privileged life in a house of 52 rooms and six bathrooms with 2 chefs - one specialized in northern and one in Shanghai style food, she had the opportunity to experience major styles and tastes of traditional Chinese cuisines. However without her curiosity, interest and discerning palate like her mom, she would probably never got deep into food ventures.

From the book, you can tell that she is a confident, determined, and risk taking as she and one of her sisters traveled several months mostly by foot during WWII from Japan occupied Beijing to Free China territory in HeNan河南 province. Granted she had a higher probability of success with the financial resource and people connections of the family, it did take a lot of nerve and perseverance to make such a journey without protection. One of the rewards that contributed to her career later as she made it to ChongQing重慶 was the wonderful Szechuan cuisines. That completed the development and exposure of her taste buds in premiere Chinese regional foods. Only one missing was Cantonese that is abundantly available and accessible in America especially in places like San Francisco since early immigrants were mostly from that region. As she landed in San Francisco almost 50 years ago, Cecilia Chiang’s first impression was there wasn’t any authentic Chinese food in San Francisco beyond Cantonese food. That is a sufficient motivation and opening for an entrepreneur and pioneer in any business.

Another critical factor shaped and defined Cecilia Chiang’s career was that, I would guess, she must be very active, outgoing with excellent social and interpersonal skills. To her, there is more than just good food when eating. She obviously appreciates and enjoys the services and company. That is what high end and more sophisticated culinary culture and experience demands: ambience and service are as important as food. Her instinct and guts eventually transformed her vision into a grand hot spot in the famous Ghiradelli Square near Fisherman Wharf in June 1968. For 20+ years, it was the place of choice of high society dining for Chinese food in SF! I actually did dine there once in 80s’. Frankly, I don’t recall I was that impressed by the food and only vaguely remember the deco and view was beautiful. Of course, I value food and price of a meal a lot more than ambience and service.

Some have compared Cecilia Chiang’s contribution to Chinese cuisines in America as Julia Child’s with French cuisines. Perhaps sometime in the future, we will see her kitchen side-by-side with Julia Child’s in the Museum of American History in Washington D.C.?

You may or may not know there is a connection between Cecilia Chiang and the popular upscale casual dining Chinese chain restaurant called P.F. Chang's founded in 1993. P.F. stands for Paul Fleming, a mega restauranteur who is a friend of Cecilia and founded the chain with the help of her son Philip Chiang. The Chang in the name, according to a story, is modified from Chiang by dropping the “i” under a number of marketing considerations. If you go to the website of now publically traded holding company P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Inc, you will see that its 2008 revenues was close to 1.2 billion dollars with close to 200 bistros and another chain of over 150 Pei Wei Asian Diners across U.S. What you will not find is any Chinese names among their corporate top executives or board or exec chef.

That is how successful a Chinese restaurant business can be. Now you and I can own a piece of a Chinese restaurant in U.S. without even knowing what Chinese food tastes like! I suspect Cecilia Chiang would have never thought of her accidental venture would lead to something like it. On the other hand, if you want to impress your family and friends, you can actually prepare a home cooked meal using Cecilia’s recipes in her book without too much effort. Skipping those time-consuming ones, you can make a delicious 4-6 person feast served with steamed rice with a menu like:

Tofu and spinach soup

Bon-Bon Chicken

Lion’s Head

Eggplants in Garlic sauce

Steamed Black Bass with Ginger and Green Onions

And if you are daring and got sweet tooth, add Glaceed Bananas for desert.

Um… writing this blog makes me really hungry. Time to eat dinner prepared by my personal chef… Talk to you soon!

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