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Your love affair with Chinese cuisine:


Fat Guy
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Hi Ed.

So, I wouldn't consider it too terribly unusual in the year 2002 for a nice American boy to become interested in Chinese cuisine. But to become obsessed with it in 1973? Now that's unusual. What happened? What flipped the switch in your head that made you into the Chinese-food guy?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Steven

In the late 60's as an 18 year old I decided I wanted to have a James Beard/ Craig Claiborne like career.

When I told my dad that after 15 years of serious academic private school education and a year of college that I wanted to 'drop-out' and study cooking in Switzerland he acted like I was crazy and like he wanted to break a chair over my head. At the time, a rather famous Chinese cooking teacher, Grace Zia Chu, was living and teaching in NYC. I started studying with her. She was a great teacher, but not a great cook - she had been an ambassador's wife and always had professional help. In those days, I frequently ate at The Shun Lee Dynasty which was rated 4 stars and was one of the top restaurants in town. Their cooking was terrific, heads and tales better than Grace's, and I decided that I needed a different sort of education. So as a hobby I started setting up Chinese banquets. Often I would have more than one per week, and when I found a particularly good chef I would return to him often, hoping that he would delve deep into his repetoire showcasing his skill and art. I came across one chef in particular who was especially skilled and became his student/protege. It turns out that Uncle Lou, my teacher, was one of the greatest Chinese chefs of the 20th century, though I didn't realize it at the time. He was a family chef, not a restaurant chef. Uncle Lou had spent many years cooking for the preminent 20th century Chinese artist, Chang Ta-Chien. (have you ever ordered Ta-Chien Chicken in a Szechuan restaurant? - Uncle Lou invented it). I was exposed to a level of cuisine that most top professional chefs weren't able to produce, and the standards and flavors that I encountered gave me an incomparable education. Soon afte that I went to work with a restaurateur named David Keh. A high liver, David was very important in the history of the Chinese restaurant industry in this country. He opened what is arguably the the first Szechuan restaurant in North America in the late 60's and in 1973, as his assitant, we opened a Hunan style restaurant called Uncle Tai's at 1059 Third Ave, NYC. It got a 4 star rating and I found myself as its host/maitre'd. From that date on, for a period of 10 years, I was associated with a series of top NYC Chinese restaurants including Shun Lee Palace, Shun Lee West, Pig Heaven and Auntie Yuan. I have been cooking seriously, virtually everyday since then (for fun), and chasing great food: Chinese as well as many other kinds.

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Dear Ed,

When I read that your were the student of Chang Ta-Chien's personel chef , who actually invented the Tai-Chen Chicken, I could not hold my breath.

You know the fine art of Chinese cuisine much better than the most chinese today.

Could you tell us more about Uncle Lou, eg. his style of cooking? his favourite dish?

Also how would you view the mordern chinese cuisine in HK, Taipei and CHina (Bejing & Shangshai)?

Ann

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Mark- with regard to my father:

It took a while for my dad (and mom) to come around and it was a gradual process.

My first job in the industry was at this restaurant called Uncle Tai's in NYC. It was the 2nd Hunan style restaurant in North America. That was January 1973, almost 30 years ago!. I was a captain/maitre'd threre, but I had spent the 4-5 months prior to opening helping to set up the restaurant as the owner's assistant. Less than a month after opening we were reviewed by the Times, Ray Sokolov was the critic, and we received their highest 4-star rating. Virtually overnight we were the hottest restaurant in the industry and stayed that way for a long time. This helped validate my career path.

Some years later, after I had been self supporting for a long while, and the subject of many media articles, someone asked my dad that question. His answer was that he felt 'relieved'. There's nothing like going into the Chinese restaurant business after paying all those years of private school tuition!

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My family were regulars at Shun Lee Palace in the early seventies. Many is the time we had the pleasure of allowing Ed Schoenfeld to order for us. I can remember Michael Tong saying, "Oh, Mr. Schonfeld, Mr. Schoenfeld will take care of you." And he did.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Ann - About my teacher: Lo, Huey Yen ("Uncle Lou") and the early days of the Szechuan restaurant business in the US

I first heard about Uncle Lou as a teenager while reading a NY Times review of a new financial district restaurant called The Four Seas. My guess is that the year may have been '66 or '67. The jist of the piece was that this restaurant offered a type of special and authentic cooking that had rarely or never been available in NYC. The article inferred that influential persons went there to enjoy formal Chinese banquets, for which the chef was apparently famous. For me, that was the start of a different type of awareness regarding Chinese cuisine.

I came to learn (some years later) that Uncle Lou did not stay at The Four Seas very long but had quickly moved on to a new Chinatown restaurant where he partnered with a former co-worker. The restaurant was named, Szechuan, and it was located in Chatham Square. To my mind this was the first Szechuan restaurant in North America.

By 1968/'69, one of the partners, David Keh, had gone uptown and opened a second Szechuan restaurant on the SE corner of Broadway and 95th St. Uncle Lou stayed downtown for the moment and another important Szechuan chef, 'Shorty' Tang, became chef on 95th St. Within a year's time (1969/'70) Mr. Keh sold off the original Chinatown location to partner Robert Chow, and opened a third store called Szechuan East at 2nd Ave. and 80th St. Uncle Lou was its chef.

It was during this period that I started setting up Chinese banquets as a serious hobby, and as a result, my relationships with various chefs and restaurateurs developed. My education with Uncle Lou began in earnest. I regularly went to Chinatown to pick up unusual ingredients which Uncle Lou would prepare for me, often for a banquet that I had arranged. Uncle Lou never explicity showed me how to cook a particular item. Instead he let me observe, like a master and a student. I learned by watching, tasting and eventually trying to put my knowledge into action. Since I was primarily a customer not a staff member, I was able to patronize his restaurant and eat his cooking quite frequently. While Uncle Lou specialized in banquet cooking, he had a background in classical Szechuan dishes.

I'm not certain, but I believe Uncle Lou grew up in Chungking (Szechuan's capitol). Working backwards, it seems to me that he must have been born around 1920 or perhaps a couple of years before. In any event, by the late 1940's he had become an extremely skilled and well known chef. When the Communists took over China in 1949, he ended up working for the preminent Chinese painter of that era, Chang Ta-Chien. As was the case with so many of the moneyed upper class, they fled China. Many went to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek, but Chang Ta-Chien fled to Hong Kong and then India for a short period, finally settling in Sao Paolo, Brazil where he lived for about 15 years. He built a home there that apparently was elaborately decorated and landscaped in traditional Chinese style, and he brought Uncle Lou with him. By this time Uncle Lou was quite a famous chef. Wealthy Chinese who traveled around the world would make a pilgrimage to Brazil to visit the great artist and, perhaps just as importantly, to taste the cooking of his renowned chef. The significance of this is that Uncle Lou was not primarily a restaurant chef. He specialized in cooking dinner for 8 or 10 persons. When he came to NYC from Brazil he was not particularly skilled at running a commercial kitchen. You wanted this guy to cook your dinner, and frankly that was all. When he cooked well, the food could be astounding.

What dishes do I remember most 30 years later?

Well, first of all, most classical Chinese banquets start off with a cold appetizer platter. Chinese 'cold cut chefs' learned the art of vegetable carving, often slicing and arranging food to look like a Dragon and Phoenix or a Panda. This is painstaking work that would take years to learn and hours if not days to execute. Each dish would have hundreds if not thousands of pieces. Uncle Lou bucked this tradition. He almost always served hot appetizers - a quirky thing to do for a classically trained chef, but he did it with great style, humor and deliciousness. I recollect one meal where he made shrimp toast that were decorated to look like goldfish, while on the other side of the same plate he had pieces of fried fish that looked like shrimp. I fell in love with his 'Chrysanthemum' hot appetizers: chicken gizzards that were braised, scored and fried crispy to resemble flowers. Since no one had ever prepared a chicken gizzard that I enjoyed, these were a revelation. Subsequently, whenever Uncle Lou cooked, I invariably begged him to prepare chicken gizzards, and unfortunately, have never had one since that I craved eating.

Smoked Duck is one of the great pleasures of the Szechuan kitchen and Uncle Lou turned out a classic and masterful version. If you left it up to him, however, he would prefer to make a variation: Smoked Chicken.

Speaking of chicken, one on my favorite things he made was the eponymous Ta-Chien Chicken. Properly made, this dish is composed of chunks of chicken still on the bone that is red cooked with dried shitake mushrooms, winter bamboo shoots and scortched dried red chiles. It is virtually impossible to find this preparation today, though thousands of restauarants have a dish called Ta-Chien Chicken on their menus it is virtually never the 'real' thing. Luckily I do dine on this dish regularly: I prepare it myself.

In my own cooking I also prepare the classic Szechuan item, Wontons with Red Oil. I serve Uncle Lou's version which is topped with three distinct sauces, one layered over the other. The main sauce is a peanut butter emulsion. Delicious!

Carp with Szechuan Hot Bean Sauce, Snow White Chicken (shredded white chicken with cleaned beansprouts in a pure white sauce) and dry sauteed dishes are all items I remember cooking with Uncle Lou. He knew the 'old' ways of doing things and I often think of the day when I saw him make a flour and water dough and proceed to 'work' it underneath running cold water. It seemed that he was washing the dough away, but in fact he was washing away the starch so that just the gluten would be left. He broke the remaining dough in pieces and then added some baking powder, fried the dough, and when done, removed the browned 'kofu' and then braised it. He had prepared homemade gluten. It felt like a little bit of a miracle.

Someplace deep in the depths of my records I have my 'Uncle Lou notebooks' containing the menus of banquets I enjoyed. Perhaps I can locate them and find some more dishes to describe at some other time.

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Dear Ed

Thank you so much for your generous reply. I have read a few articles on the wonder of Chang Tai-Chien¡¦s famous family banquette. The detail and time-consuming process of every single dish makes my eye wide opened. My grandmother is also Szechuan origin, and when she was young, she used to cook a lot of wonderful dishes for her beloved grandchildren. I still remember the delicate taste now can only be found in top restaurant, e.g. handmade fish ball, which took her whole day from buying the fresh fish, and bone it, carefully chop the flesh and mold it. The fish ball turn out to be as soft as tofu but with wonderful fish taste. With the little touch of white pepper powder and proper made chicken stock, it was the most wonderful fish ball soup I ever taste it. It is fist time I realized that Szechuan cuisine is not merely the hot and spicy, and the fine Chinese cuisine is beyond my imagination. As a result, I start to read as many articles on fine Chinese cuisine as I can. But you are the one who is in it and you are not even Chinese! I really envy you because at least you can make yourself an authentic Wanton with hot chili oil anytime you want! Once more I thank you again and I wish you could share some other interesting stories from time to time with us.

Ann

Ps: Would you mind to tell me the recipe of three sauces for Wanton and chili oil? :laugh:

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Ed - I have to say that your answers are riveting. Not only are they informative, missing pieces about the NYC restaurant scene over the last 30 years are buried within. Maybe Suvir will be inspired to convince you to organize a Chinese banquet for the eGullet crew at Ping's one day. Which you will attend of course.

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Dear Ed

Thank you so much for your generous reply. I have read a few articles on the wonder of Chang Tai-Chien¡|s famous family banquette. The detail and time-consuming process of every single dish makes my eye wide opened. My grandmother is also Szechuan origin, and when she was young, she used to cook a lot of wonderful dishes for her beloved grandchildren. I still remember the delicate taste now can only be found in top restaurant, e.g. handmade fish ball, which took her whole day from buying the fresh fish, and bone it, carefully chop the flesh and mold it. The fish ball turn out to be as soft as tofu but with wonderful fish taste. With the little touch of white pepper powder and proper made chicken stock, it was the most wonderful fish ball soup I ever taste it. It is fist time I realized that Szechuan cuisine is not merely the hot and spicy, and the fine Chinese cuisine is beyond my imagination. As a result, I start to read as many articles on fine Chinese cuisine as I can. But you are the one who is in it and you are not even Chinese! I really envy you because at least you can make yourself an authentic Wanton with hot chili oil anytime you want! Once more I thank you again and I wish you could share some other interesting stories from time to time with us.

Ann

Ps: Would you mind to tell me the recipe of three sauces for Wanton and chili oil? :laugh:

Dear Ann

I would be happy to share this wonton recipe with you. I thought I had a copy of it on my computer but I couldn't locate it. Sometime during the next week or two when I have some extra time I'll write it down and forward to you. If you don't get it, drop me a reminder

Best Regards, Ed

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Maybe Suvir will be inspired to convince you to organize a Chinese banquet for the eGullet crew at Ping's one day. Which you will attend of course.

Steve

Thanks for the note - and yes I'd be happy to arrange a dinner with Ping or with someone else. There are many big fish in the sea.

Ed

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Dear Ed

Thank you so much for your generous reply. I have read a few articles on the wonder of Chang Tai-Chien¡|s famous family banquette.

Ann

I'm intrigued that you have read about Chang Ta-Chien and his eating habits. Have you encountered some stories/information that would add to my body of knowledge? I'd be interested in hearing.

Thanks, Ed

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Okay let's get Suvir involved in this. Is there a limit to how many people can attend? Or can you throw it open to everyone on the board? And if it makes a difference to the quality of the food, say so.

Banquets are usually cooked for a 'table' - typically 10 persons, though any number from 8-12 persons is workable. The food is best when a chef cooks for just one or perhaps two tables. At Pings, for example, you could order a $350 table, but could easily spend much more - $1000/table or more. The food quality doesn't vary in relation to how much you spend once you pass about $40/50 person. What changes are the luxury and esoteric qualities of the items. For instance an individiual serving of whole braised dried abalone might cost as much as $100/person.

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This banquet is going to be oversubscribed in a minute. Before I get left out let me say I'm in for two people. :biggrin:

Seriously, I don't know how we're going to handle it. My guess would be fifty applicants assuming no one finds it important enough to come to NY just for the meal. I'm just getting back up to eGullet speed after an exhausting weekend of out of town visitors. Let me join the others in welcoming Ed. This is indeed proving to be a riveting Q&A and I feel we've barely touched the surface. Chinese food is one of the great cuisines and one I've long been interested in, although most of my experience has been in very low cost restaurants with little ambience. I suspect this Q&A has found a void in eGullet. Great discussions of Chinese food have been few and far between.

This thread has become a catch all and as such possibly detrimental to the structure of the Q&A, but before I go on and start some new threads, I'd like to ask Ed if inquiring about his opinion on specific restaurants would be proper or embarrassing here in the Q&A.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I'd like to ask Ed if inquiring about his opinion on specific restaurants would be proper or embarrassing here in the Q&A.

Bux

I'm happy to go any place and talk about anything. If it ends up being inappropriate I'll just let you know. As far as restaurants go I haven't eaten in all of them, so my opinions will be limited to what I have experienced. Go for it!

Ed

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Gee I'm interested in a top quality banquet. Maybe a way to keep different groups of people happy is to organize a different level of banquet for varuous tables all at the same time?

Most retaurants have just one or two really good wok chefs. You wnat them to mbe concentrating on YOUR dinner. If there lots of people best to have different banquets on different days.

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Gee I'm interested in a top quality banquet. Maybe a way to keep different groups of people happy is to organize a different level of banquet for varuous tables all at the same time?

eGullet the Movie.

Episode II, "The Class Wars" :cool:

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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Dear Ed

There is one article saying how Chang Tai Chien invents Tai Chien chicken. I will forward the original article to you; however, I will try my best to translate it for you here.

As you know, Chang Tai Chien had stayed in Dunhuang cave *North West part of China) for few years. He wanted to create a dish to commemorate all those days. While in Dunhuang cave, the local dish he like most is called Hand Picked Young Lamb because of its wonderful aroma, crispy and tender taste. However, the local lamb in that areas already possess the quality of aromatic and tender. To let the meat being crispy requires great skill in handling the heat. However, by that time, Chang Tai Chien was living in south, and there is no good lamb available, there he chose the chicken instead. The chicken has to be a young male chick who just able to make a sound. But this young chick is not good for stewing, therefore, Chang Tai Chien opt for steaming method. Because he was from Szechuan, he has great fond of Szechuan preserved cabbage. Therefore, he chopped the red and green chili pepper, which are the common ingredient in Szechuan preserved cabbage, to go with the chicken, which was first steam and then stir-fry. And because the Hand Picked Young Lamb only use salt as seasoning, therefore, Tai Chien chicken also only use salt. This dish should taste light and tender, and should full with the aroma of preserved cabbage. It is not only tasty, it also shows his fond feeling to Dunhuang Cave and Szechuan, therefore, Chang willing to lend his name to this dish. Chang Tai-Chien himself never orders this dish in the restaurant because he thinks the restaurant version is too far from his original version.

There are some other articles on his banquette and I need more time to do the proper interpretation.

Ann :laugh:

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      with a little salt, and then drowned in the "tea" brewing in the wok.
       
      This is  油茶 (yóu chá) or Oil Tea. The tea is made from Tea Seed Oil which is made from the seeds of the camellia bush. This dish is used as a welcoming offering to guests in homes and restaurants. Proper etiquette suggests that three cups is a minimum, but they will keep refilling your cup until you stop drinking. First time I had it I really didn't like it, but I persevered and now look forward to it.
       

      L-R: Director of the Foreign Affairs Dept of Liuzhou government, consuls-general of Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos.
       
      Having partaken of the oil tea, finally we are allowed to enter the dining room, where two tables have been laid out for our use.
       

       
      Let the eating, finally, begin.
       
      In no particular order:
       

      Steamed corn, taro and sweet potato
       

      Bamboo Shoots
       

      Duck
       

      Banana leaf stuffed with sticky rice and mixed vegetables and steamed.
       

      Egg pancake with unidentified greenery
       

      Stir fried pork and beans
       

      Stir fried Chinese banana (Ensete lasiocarpum)
       

      Pig Ears
       

       
      This may not look like much, but was the star of the trip. Rice paddy fish, deep fried in camellia tree seed oil with wild mountain herbs. We ate this at every meal, cooked with slight variations, but never tired of it.
       

      Stir fried Greens
       
      Our meal was accompanied by the wait staff singing to us and serving home-made rice wine (sweetish and made from the local sticky rice).
       
       
       
       
      Everything we ate was grown or reared within half a kilometre of the restaurant and was all free-range, organic. And utterly delicious.
       
      Roll on dinner time.
       
      On the trip I was designated the unofficial official photographer and ended up taking 1227 photographs. I just got back last night and was busy today, so I will try to post the rest of the first day (and dinner) as soon as I can.
    • By Fast996
      I have looked for years for a black steel wok with a flat bottom it had to be thick steel to stop it from warping on the induction cooktop 3500W Burner. Well I found it made by the French company Mauviel it is 12.5" diameterwith 3mm thick steel the flat bottom is 4 1/2 inches, although it has a flat inside too it cooks wonderfully. The weight is 5lbs heavy but manageable .The cost is $100 considering there is no alternative it's cheap.Here is my review. I know there are people looking for a good wok for induction so I hope some find this post good information.I do have a JWright cast iron wok that I've used for 5 years and it too is great but it's discontinued. This M Steel Wok is much better. Posted some images of the seasoned wok so you can see it . This is after oven season @500 Degrees.Turning black already non stick .Happy !
       
      Mauviel M'Steel Black Steel Wok, 11.8", Steel
       
      If you have any ?? please post i'll do my best to answer.
       


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