High-End Asian: The Pipe Dream Coming to Main Street (ASIAN 258)
Like you, I wonder about the summer. I think about the first thing I will do when I can leave my house. I also imagine various futures. Like most people in middle age, I dream about alternative careers. Should I have been a lawyer, a campaign manager, or a restaurateur?
Say I woke up one morning and decided to sell high-end Asian?
This is admittedly a weird thought. Anyone who has read the news knows better. It's a terrible time to be in food services. Restaurant workers make up a disproportionate number of the unemployed, and the crisis has exposed their vulnerability. Many of our favorite eateries moreover have closed. Especially Chinese. Experts estimate one half of them are gone because of the crisis -- and resurgent xenophobia.
But let’s imagine we are now on the other side. Pretend the U.S. economy is in recovery, consumer confidence is high, and people have money for niceties. All big if’s, but still...
The scenario was inspired by an actual assignment (Fall 2017). A few years ago, a group of Ross students decided to apply what they learned in class and cook up a business plan. Their stated mission:
Set up a high-end dim sum parlor in downtown Ann Arbor. Charge top dollar and figure out what to do about the clientele and their ideas about authenticity. Locate niche. Exploit and become a celebrity.
These questions go straight to the heart of this week's reading. The author, Professor Krishnendu Ray at NYU, captures two challenges facing anyone seeking to break into Asian haute cuisine.
The first is no shortage of competition. To quote Jennifer 8. Lee (2008), “There are some forty thousand Chinese restaurants in the United States—more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined.”
The second is market expectations. Chinese food is cheap. Really cheap.
In one of the chapters you did not read, Ray analyzed the average price of a Chinese meal in New York City based on Zagat guides. He found that Chinese restaurants sat near the bottom, trailing Vietnamese, Mexican, and Indian. Those businesses did manage to squeak ahead of Thai (though not by much). Meanwhile, Japanese restaurants soared to the top of the pack, followed by French and American.
The implications are clear. Americans associate Chinese food with cheap eats. Popularity does not translate into prestige.
Now do your own soul searching. When was the last time you were willing to shell out thirty bucks for a plate of chow mein? Can you justify spending a few hundred dollars on a meal of General Tso or Kung Pao chicken? What about sweet-and-sour pork?
Still, there must be a way of making my dream a reality.
At this point, there are successful high-end “ethnic restaurants.” In the San Francisco of my dad’s youth, Cecilia Chiang (P.F. Chang’s mommy) started a revolution. Nowadays, food critics rave about Brandon Jew, of Mister Jiu’s with one Michelin star. You have already heard me wax poetic about Charles Phan of the Slanted Door.
The East Coast also has its picks. There is Momofuku’s David Chang and Eddie Huang of Baohaus fame (yes, this is the same foul-mouthed guy from Fresh off the Boat). There are also South Asian superstar chefs, too, including one from Junoon.
Things are also changing. Prior to COVID-19, classic Chinese American diners were already closing. Why? The next generation rarely stays in the restaurant business. They become doctors, engineers, business people, lawyers, and professors -- in other words, professionals.
New Chinese immigrants moreover don’t need to operate restaurants. They already have money, education, and status.
But this is not the only reason why I am optimistic. Ray points out American perceptions of Chinese people are shifting. Over time, "Chinese" will no longer signal poor immigrants in the USA. When Americans hear Chinese, they'll imagine people with power, money, and class. Chinese food will one day be like Japanese. High-class cuisine for professionals.
Picture it: thirty bucks for a plate of orange chicken.
Not so much.
More likely, fine Yunnan goat cheese sauteed in truffle or cured ham.
So what, then, is the secret path to celebrity?
A lot depends on your profile. If you are an immigrant, you must fit in with the white establishment and distance yourself from poor newcomers.
Look to Cecilia Chiang, who recently celebrated her hundredth birthday. Sixty years ago, she pulled off a miracle. In a time when Chinese was synonymous with poor Cantonese folks, she opened a high-end Chinese restaurant in a nice neighborhood. She wasn’t even a chef. But that didn’t stop her from winning over key food critics or celebrities. It also didn't hurt that she knew how to pair fine French wines with Chinese food. Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, became a devoted friend.
Chiang also knew the power of messaging. Some key takeaways: Take a hard look at the Chinatown menus, and rule out anything on them. In Chiang’s day, this meant excluding the chop suey. These days, the sweet and sour pork would have to go. (Never mind that you can get it at Michelin-starred restaurants in Hong Kong.)
Presentation. Your restaurant decor must be clean and elegant, not kitschy. While I would not recommend appearing in your restaurant decked out in furs and diamonds, appearances do matter. All the better, of course, if you are tall, well spoken, and good looking (Chiang was all of these things).
You’ll also need to convey a sense of glamorous China. Not the China of my Cantonese grandfather (peasant, coolie, Maoist). Get over your woke scruples and invoke rarefied privilege! In Chiang’s day, that was the China of the Nationalist Party. The same corrupt party that was sent packing to Taiwan after the Civil War (1927-1949).
Fortunately, your point of reference today is different: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore. Just make sure it's the China of rich and elegant people. Not the nouveau riche. People who speak in soft tones and eat only refined, light fare. People whose diets almost fit with Gwyneth Paltrow's philosophy of what is right. The name of your restaurant should remind people of that China.
Incidentally, Chiang baptized her restaurant "The Mandarin."
So far, we have pondered the choices for immigrants. Admittedly slim pickings. But what about us American-born or raised types? How do we become great?
Our path is different. The fluency in English is an asset. But what's more important is ease with bougie talk and people. Especially if you are like me: the beneficiary of a prestigious liberal arts education.
You have also taken ASIAN 258. You can discourse authoritatively about the finer points of not only Asian, but global food history. I have plied you not only with the secrets of making gluten-free dumplings, but many, many hours of cocktail talk.
You know how to eat your sushi and offer a Chinese toast. You now have an arsenal of safe topics of disputation: the history of tempura. It’s connection to fish and chips, and the Inquisition. Roman prejudices against oatmeal and beer. The origins of ketchup and bubble tea.
You'll connect with clients over dinner and find common ground with strangers. You’ll eventually forget my name, but my face will haunt you as you look into your soup bowl.
Fitting in is one thing. Making it big is another.
Asian American chefs face a double-edged challenge. On the one hand, they are pigeon-holed, “representatives of their culture.” On the other hand, suspicion dogs them. People wonder if they are disingenuous agents. Like non-Asian cooks, charges will fly of inauthenticity (though not appropriation). Chiang even chided one well-known chef for being “so ABC.”
Take Eddie Huang's beef with David Chang. Huang attacks the older man for not being “Asian enough.” This is Chang, the child of Korean immigrants, the same man who has ascended into the culinary pantheon. People call him an outsider because of his race -- even though he went to a culinary academy and mastered French cuisine.
School wasn’t optional. Chang badly needed the cultural capital to be a chef rather than a poor immigrant cook. He then ate his way through Japan, “refining” his palate. This set him up for getting the right (powerful white) backers at all of the right times. Note to self: you must seek permission from the culinary establishment to make excellent Asian food. Who cares if they only know French?
Huang's not impressed, though. Can you believe that Chang roasts his pork belly? Asians have no use for ovens. Or that he doesn’t know when to use the bun or the pancake. Thank god there is Eddie. He crushed Chang with his steamed buns and proved to the world that the best bao in New York was going to be made by a “Taiwanese kid.” “The way it was supposed to be.” His words, not mine.
In case you are wondering, Huang’s hitting below the belt. Chang's parents were Korean. The insinuation is that Chang doesn’t have the right genes to pull off the dish. You should be getting flashbacks of the sushi police.
Don’t be fooled by Huang's in-your-face tone. It actually hides defensiveness, the need to seek permission. Unlike Chang, Huang’s not a chef-- and what is more, he’s like me. He acts and sounds American. A host of put-downs awaits. If he isn't careful, his food will be dismissed as "bastardized" Asian.
So Huang gets ahead of the story. He calls everyone else out, pounds his chests and shouts. “I’m more Asian than you!”
My path to greatness must be different. Unlike Huang, my face is a liability. Besides, I can't stomach calling anyone “fake” Chinese, or fake anything. "Mongrel" is a not just a slur; it's also analytically unhelpful (remember: it's local adaptation, dummy).
For inspiration, I’d look instead to Belinda Leong. A West Coaster who has no time for stunts.
Of course, Leong doesn’t pretend to offer the best bao in San Francisco, or even sell Chinese food. She’s a pastry chef and has the credentials, having lived and worked in the right places. This chef also exhibits no shortage of talent and ingenuity. I love her art voraciously (take that, Tartine!).
Leong's also independent. She’s largely resisted the pressure to be a ethnic chef. But then I find myself doing what Ray describes -- I want her pastries to reflect her Cantonese background. I feel bad, but I still get excited when she pays homage to our shared roots. She prepares Asian-accented pastries during the Lunar New Year. She also bakes birthday cakes for Cecilia Chiang and tops them off with monkeys, and teams up with Yang Sing, a well-regarded San Francisco dim sum spot, to do celebrations.
I was ready to fly home when I read, “Yank Sing will offer Leong's black sesame kouign amann, white sesame opera cake and a coconut and taro verrine; stop by her shop for a larger selection of treats like a mango coconut gateau, milk tea macarons and more.”
Of course, Leong's not promoting the (underappreciated) world of Asian sweets. She’s injecting Cantonese touches into a canonical tradition of French pastry making. The Chinese accents distinguish her from others. But they do not threaten conventional understandings of taste.
But I would go farther than Leong. After all, I have to live with myself (even in fantasy land).
As I fattened up my customers, I would initiate them into a new world of desserts. Unfamiliar flavors and textures, novel ways of coordinating tooth and tongue. Mango pudding, molten custard bun with salted duck egg yolk, sticky rice dumpling, shaved ice with taro and tapioca.
Before long, customers would crave my curry beef triangles, pork floss buns filled with pastry cream, snow skin mooncakes, gelatinous frog ovums, white fungus soups, and then mooncakes.
Yes, the mooncakes Americans sometimes call “an acquired taste.” This is also the mythical pastry that helped eject the Mongols from China. Supposedly. A symbol of Han nationalism, but also an artifact of the Silk Road.
My goal would not be to force a reckoning with the “real” thing. The story lies in the pastries themselves. Each of them are like me: unapologetic mutts. They're distinctive, of course. But they also testify to the capacity of people to share, copy, and riff off each other.
With each bite, your grasp of Asian and authentic becomes shakier. Over time, you'll wonder what ethnic means. You'll also become convinced that food shouldn't lead to stereotypes. There are, in fact, ovens in Asia. And adversaries shape each other's world of taste. But absolutely no, no culinary essences.
By then, I would have achieved my objective.
We should never have been eating "ethnic" in the first place.
Freedman, Paul. Ten Restaurants that Changed America (Liveright, 2016).
Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. (Grand Central Publishing, 2008).
Ray, Krishnendu. The Ethnic Restaurateur (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015).
____"Cultural Politics of Taste." Powerpoint Presentation. (February 2020)
Wang, Wayne. Soul of a Banquet (2004). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3459090/