Gen Lee and Peter Chang brainstorm at their Short Pump location.
Peter Chang greets the media during the opening of his Charlottesville restaurant in March 2011.
It seems like only yesterday when we met with Peter Chang at a local Starbucks, adrift as he was with no restaurant, and talked with him about his plans to open a restaurant in Charlottesville. At the time, there were skeptics. Chang, move here? No way. The elusive chef had just been celebrated in the New Yorker and crowds would swarm Taste of China in Albemarle Square during his brief interlude there. He could go anywhere. D.C., New York, LA.
Well, he did open a restaurant in Charlottesville, and in Richmond, and in Atlanta. Now, it appears that two more Chang restaurants are planned for Virginia, one in Williamsburg and a second location in Richmond.
Perhaps most impressive, Bon Appétit nominated Chang's restaurant in the Richmond-area village of Short Pump, Peter Chang Café, as one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country for 2012.
As for the planned place in Williamsburg, a former 8,000-square foot Chinese buffet, this will be the biggest restaurant that Chang and business partner, Gen Lee (whose own rise from Lil' Dino's owner to high-flying restaurateur is pretty amazing itself), have opened.
But they are primed for it. Between the Charlottesville and Short Pump restaurants, Lee says the cash has been rolling in, and they've been burning through so much eggplant (used for one of Chang's most popular dishes) that they have to order it by the truckload.
The Williamsburg location is set to open on October 1. Lee and Chang also have tentative plans to open another Richmond area location, ideally downtown.
In fact, on the heels of the Bon Appétit nod, Lee says that Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones has been actively encouraging the duo to open a downtown location.
"That would be a real dream come true for us," says Lee. "This will be very upscale, with a formal dining room. We hope it goes through."
So how is Chef Chang keeping up with all this? Well, he's recruited a number of master chefs from China and positioning them at the various locations. As Chang told us during that Starbucks interview, their plan is to change the way Americans view Chinese food. Out with General Tso's chicken; in with bubble pancakes and spicy fried eggplant.
As previously reported, they may be getting a little help from Hollywood. Lee says they have been working closely with Eric Steel, who produced the popular foodie film Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as famous cook/author Julia Child, on an upcoming film of Chang's life. Lee says Steel is currently working on another film but plans to begin focusing more heavily on the Chang film in October.
"It's crazy," Lee sighs.