The Chang effect: Wooing palates, breaking hearts--- and why he left
Last fall, word that a famous Szechuan chef had quietly set up in Charlottesville had foodies salivating. There was a small newspaper mention and online chatter from groupies who track his every move, but after a March 1 story in the New Yorker, diners went into a feeding frenzy.
“We were surprised that it became so popular so fast,”says restaurant co-owner John Rong during a lunch time interview last week. “We noticed business going up after the story in the Hook, too, but when that story in the New Yorker come out..."
Indeed, sophisticated palates from Richmond and D.C. began making pilgrimages to Taste of China, where–- even on cold winter evenings–- lines could be seen snaking out onto the sidewalk of the north wing of Albemarle Square Shopping Center.
What was happening? Ever since the New York Times discovered the C&O back in 1976, Charlottesville restaurants have been making headlines. But this crossed some lines. For weeks, “Have you eaten at Taste of China yet?” was a popular refrain.
“I’ve been there at least 12 times since December,”says lawyer Ellen Teplitzky. “One week, I went there three times. And I’m not alone.”
Rong smiles and shakes his head, free to relax late on a Wednesday afternoon when just four or five tables are occupied.
In recent weeks, long waits have been typical, and on several nights the restaurant has actually run out of food. On another recent visit, the Hook saw Rong’s busy wife, Jenny, who serves as hostess, handing out little hand-written numbered tickets–- and then handing off the telephone to customers to handle the volume of incoming inquiries.
The Chang effect
As foodies waxed about Chang online, local gourmands, fearing the famed chef with a reputation for sudden departures might not last long, obediently lined up to wait over an hour for a table at the small and unremarkably decorated Chinese restaurant just off U.S. 29. Many were not first-time visitors.
Even before its official publication date of March 1, Calvin Trillin’s “Annals of Gastronomy”article in the New Yorker began making the rounds and further mythologizing Chang by taking the point of view of his groupies, whom Trillin calls “Changians,” and who introduced him to the chef. One of the most devoted Changians is Washingtonian food critic Todd Kliman, who penned a piece for the Oxford American, none-too-subtly titled "The Perfect Chef," a 6,755-word love letter.
The two stories made much of the chef’s “mysterious” migrations from one Chinese restaurant to the next, and the lengths to which his fans would go to find him. Attempting to understand Chang's nomadic tendencies, the writers tossed out such theories as his fear of success, his dissatisfaction with working conditions, and possible immigration troubles.
Kliman admitted traveling 600 miles to eat Chang’s food, and–- by devoting nearly 7,000 words to analyzing the man, his own obsession with his food–- but like a fan frozen in the presence of his idol, he couldn’t bring himself to speak to Chang.
(Co-owner Rong believes he spotted Kliman ordering multiple dishes at a corner table, scribbling in a notebook, and lingering in the hallway with a cell phone camera near the kitchen entrance.)
When the chef emerged from the kitchen last week for an interview, Rong, two waiters, and our translator surrounded him like attaches to a foreign dignitary.
“He is best cook in China,” whispers waiter Jimmy Chang (no relation), who says he moved down here from New York City for the job. “It is a very important job the waiter has," he says, "to educate people about his food.” When Peter Chang’s wife, Hong Ying Zhang, joins the group, Jimmy is equally reverential. “She," he says, "is very famous pastry chef in China."
As the translator relates, 47-year-old Chang was born in the centrally located HuBei province of China and has won gold and silver medals in China’s “Olympics" of cooking, a national competition held every fours years.
Chang says he heard about Charlottesville from a professor friend at UVA, who told him that people here are open-minded enough to try authentic Szechuan cuisine. Chang says he is “overwhelmed” by the attention he has received in Charlottesville, especially after the two national articles appeared. The same thing tends to happen everywhere he goes, he says. Just never this quickly.
In 2001, Chang became head chef at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and after his two-year contract expired, he began wowing DC food writers at a place called China Star in Fairfax. From there, he moved to China Gourmet in Fairfax, to TemptAsian in Alexandria, to Tasty China in Marietta, Georgia, and then to Hong Kong House in Knoxville, Tennessee–- a vexatious journey to devotees like Kliman and Trillin’s dining mate, a North Carolina resident named John Binkley,who began eating at China Star in 2005 while working in DC, and whom Chang described as an “old friend.”
But Chang debunks the elaborate theories propounded by the national food writers. His jobs were simply consulting work, he tells a reporter. He says he would make each place a success, teach the cooks, and then leave. His goal was to be an “ambassador” of authentic Chinese cooking. Chang makes a similar claim in the Trillin piece, but then Trillin quotes his friend as saying it “sounded like spin.”
Chang, however, insists that his “dream” is to change American perceptions of Chinese food, and he plans to use Charlottesville as his “home base” to spread his cooking knowledge to other restaurants.
In the beginning, Chang says, it was hard to spread his knowledge, which was why he moved around to different places. Now that more people know him, he believes that spreading the word will become easier.
A Taste of Chang
A word about the translator. He is Gen Lee, who, with his wife, Mary, owns Li'l Dino Subs next door, and was himself a sought-after chef. He says he and Chang are old friends from their days in Northern Virginia.
Lee explains that the mountainous Szechuan region of China is cold, wet, and foggy, and that the spicy food for which the region is known has historically served a medicinal purpose–- to raise the body temperature amid the chill. In particular, Lee mentions a special Szechuan peppercorn that Chang uses, noting that when mixed with chili peppers and other spices, it produces a flavoring known as ma la, which has a numbing effect on the mouth.
While Chang leaves to prepare a few dishes, waiter Jimmy Chang deciphers the menu, circling the authentic Peter Changs.
For example, the roast fish with green onion and the crispy beef with green onions Szechuan-style are unique Chang creations, as are the fish with cilantro rolls and the scallion bubble pancakes, the ma po bean curd, and the braised beef fillets with chili sauce.
However, the way the menu is arranged–- without any demarcation of the gems–- one could order an egg roll, fried dumplings, or sweet and sour pork and walk away wondering what all the hype was about.
Jimmy says he sometimes steers customers away from certain Chang dishes, like the braised fish fillet with hot bean sauce, which is very bony. And because the dish is so spicy as well, he often issues a warning, or as was the case recently with an elderly couple, simply refuses to serve it.
“Only brown sauce and white sauce used in American Chinese cooking,”says Jimmy, shaking his head, “They don’t make it spicy. A good chef knows how to control the heat.”
Indeed, when Chang’s food arrives at a reporter's table, there's a noticeable absence of heavy sauces. Gently fried pieces of flounder nestle on a bed of greens over a small latticed tray with an awning propped up with a chopstick. Crunched lightly in the mouth, they release the singular flavor of the fish.
The eggplant in one dish has remarkable bluish-purple skin, gleaming like the inside of an oyster shell, and surrounded by blood-red chili peppers. Biting into it is a completely foreign experience, as a soft interior and slightly crunchy exterior break the American eggplant mold, which usually involves deep frying–- or being baked or sauteed into submission.
A thin coat of oil, slightly bitter at first, begins to spread a film of heat across the tongue that keeps slipping to the back of the throat, while more direct spices are ignited on the lips. Very small, thin slices of potato appear in the mix, along with scallions, other greens, and the unique-looking husks of those Szechuan peppercorns. Hours after the meal, the dish lingers in the mind, the mouth having sent never-before-heard messages to the brain.
“There’s something addictive about the unusual nature of the food, of his use of spices,”says Teplitzky. “Everything is so different from any Chinese food I’ve ever had.”
Moving on, a row of finger-width cilantro fish rolls (the fish is minced into very tiny pieces) maintain a crispness and perfumic flavor so subtle that it becomes hard to think of a comparison–- maybe phyllo dough without the sweetness, but a little bit stiffer and less oily? A hot pot burns under a saut©ed shrimp dish laced with jalape±os, by far the spiciest selection, just long enough to keep it steaming throughout the meal. And until we ripped into them, the beautiful scallion bubble pancakes seemed to be defying gravity, puffed up like two golden blowfish.
We begin to understand what Kliman took so many words to say, that truly exceptional cuisine can haunt. And to think Chang is planning to make Charlottesville his home base. It sounds just too good to be true.
Later, next door at Li'l Dino Subs, Gen Lee shows us certificates and letters from Chin Chin in Santa Monica, Caesar’s Palace, and the Trump Plaza that verify his own past as a successful Chinese chef before retirement made him seek something less demanding than working as a professional chef.
“People ask why I’m doing this,”laughs Lee. “This place is easy, and the sandwiches are good.”
“Peter [Chang] comes here for lunch, and we talk about cooking,” says Lee. “Once you are a cooking manager or a chef, you can’t stop. We talk until one in the morning about food, always talking about making adjustments, always making adjustments.”
Four days later, Chang left Taste of China.
Chang changes his mind
When we arrive for dinner at Taste of China on Sunday night, March 21, there is a note taped to the door saying the restaurant is closed. Another group arrives at the same time saying they’ve driven all the way from Richmond, only to get the bad news.
By Monday, March 22, Rong has re-opened and explained that Chang had left “temporarily” and will be back in three or four months, but that in the meantime the chefs that Chang has trained will still be cooking “the Peter Chang way.”
But when we manage to track down Chang and his wife through Gen Lee, the chef–- over coffee at the Starbucks across from Fashion Square Mall–- tells a different story. There has been a falling out with the Rongs, Chang says, and he won't be returning.
Still speaking through translator Lee, Chang says the small business had become so overwhelmed by the attention that the quality of the food and the service began to suffer, and it was becoming “embarrassing” to him. Chang wanted to scale back and slow down, or perhaps find a larger space, but the Rongs didn’t agree. They wanted to keep a good thing going, Chang says, and believed they could run the restaurant without him.
“For a chef like Chang, when he’s cooking for many people, it’s like fighting a war,” says Lee. “He did not want to risk damaging his reputation.”
Glancing at the chef’s hands, a reporter notices that they are covered with cuts and small burns, wounds from having served so many frenzied foodies for the last six months.
“This is a disaster,” declares Teplitzsky, who says she had planned on meeting friends there Tuesday night. “My heart sank when I found out. I felt robbed, betrayed. Why did he have to leave?”
Chang now says he wants to create a concept restaurant with some investors he’s lined up, so he can “do it right” and finally stop his wandering ways. In fact, Chang says, he wants to create a chain of Chang-concept restaurants, with distinct Chang-style menus, where he can control the quality and service.
Clearly, Chang is aware of his growing name recognition, but does he still plan to stay in Charlottesville?
“He would like to, but he doesn’t know,” says Lee, adding that he is now Chang’s informal partner. “But he is hoping to open another place in Virginia in about three or four months.”
"This is so difficult," said Teplitzsky when she hears the details. "Do we go in and try the new guys, or follow Chang and suffer?"