Chinese restaurants abroad go chic

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/14 19:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT





The dinner table was decorated with shining silverware, glistening wine glasses and customized name plates for the guests. Before the dishes were served, each guest was given a juice box with a tiny alcohol bottle slanted on its head upside down. This is a signature beverage of Junzi Kitchen, a restaurant near the campus of Columbia University in Upper Manhattan. The guests mix their own cocktails by simply sipping from the juice box and watching the alcohol bottle gradually empty into it.

The alcohol worked. The five of us, all young professionals who had never met until we were seated that night in early December by the hostess, an architect who graduated from Yale University named Nicky Chang, started to chat about everything from American politics to investment opportunities. But what triggered most of the conversations was the food.

The five courses served were specially designed together by the chef Lucas, a fresh Yale graduate from Hong Kong, and a Shanghai-born cartoonist named Tango, and each was a combination of cuisine and visual art. Cabbage stuffed with minced pork and chestnuts, for example, was matched with a runaway piglet drawn by the artist and attached on the edge of the plate. And a deep fried fish joined a school of cartoon fish on a paper scroll.

This is not the regular menu of the restaurant, but a newly launched monthly event called "special dinner table," in which a selected artist and the chef work together to design special dishes for guests who are lucky enough to obtain a much wanted invitation. But even without this fancy bonus, the restaurant is quite unique in many ways.

The regular menu features northern-style Chinese chunbing (spring pancakes) and noodles. But the people preparing food behind the counter are not the usual cohort of less-adventurous middle-aged Chinese immigrants, but energetic young people with different racial backgrounds. The name of the restaurant, Junzi, is the pinyin of a Chinese phrase referring to noblemen who tolerate differences among people.

The interior design, a work by a Cornell university graduate who became an architect, Xuhui Zhang, reveals no Chinese characters until you look at it more abstractly. The founders are all Yale graduates from China who met one another on campus. The first Junzi was opened in 2015 at their alma mater, and the third and the fourth restaurants are scheduled to open next year in Lower and Mid-Manhattan.

This may not be what a Chinese restaurant in the US normally looks like, at least not what we've seen in the past. But it is all but certain that this is what the future will look like.

Chinese restaurants have been in the US for close to 200 years. The total number has been growing, but the formula has remained pretty much the same. Typically, the restaurant would have a fortune cat waving to the customers behind the window, a dining hall decorated by a shrine of Buddha, a fish tank, and some ink paintings. The owners, the chefs and the waiters are all Chinese immigrants who work on minimal wages to provide low-priced food. The food, more often than not, is covered in layers of sweet and sour sauce. And the meals usually end with free fortune cookies.

Despite the debate on authenticity, this model has worked well, until recent years when an ebbing of the smuggling of Chinese workers into the US left Chinese restaurants in the US with an unprecedented labor shortage.

More and more restaurants have to shut down when their chefs leave. This is especially so for traditional Chinese restaurants whose reputation relies greatly on the skills of individuals, and thus changing chefs often means losing customers, particularly when the pool of chefs is getting smaller.

This has sent more and more young Chinese restaurateurs to look at following in the footsteps of McDonald's to build central kitchens and standardize recipes, so that the quality of food is sustainable no matter who makes it and the store can be replicated. None of these are yet as big as Panda Express, which was created by the Cherng family in the 1980s and was the sole Chinese restaurant chain in the US for a long period.

But the goal of the young generation doesn't seem to be about becoming the next Panda Express, but rather, how not to become it. Unlike Panda Express which sells Americanized Chinese fast food at low prices, this new generation of Chinese restaurant chains are keen to sell healthy food in trendy restaurant layouts. Junzi, in particular, went even further by avoiding using any Chinese symbols. Yong Zhao, a co-founder who, until two years ago, was a PhD candidate in environmental science at Yale, told me: "You can call us a Chinese restaurant. But we don't play the ethnic card, and we won't cater to Americans' expectations for Chinese food."

This is truly a new era.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: VIEWPOINT,RONG XIAOQING

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