Chef Jin Zhao draws inspiration from a variety of cooking styles. Photo by Isaac Harrell
Chris Tsui grew up in a family of Chinese restaurant owners, so opening the Fat Dragon Chinese Kitchen and Bar marks a return to those roots, though with his own modern spin.
And who better to assist him in this venture than chef Jin Zhao? Born in Guangzhou, China, Zhao helped Tsui open Osaka on River Road and has worked most of the last 20 years at Peking Pavilion, owned by Tsui's uncle, Michael Kuo, in Manalapan, N.J.
"It's something I've wanted to do for quite a while," says Tsui, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States at age 4. His first restaurant job was as a busboy and dishwasher at the former Peking on Grove Avenue, co-founded by his uncle and co-owned at one point by his father. As president of EAT Restaurant Partners, Tsui is also the visionary behind The Blue Goat, Wild Ginger and two Osaka locations.
"I started looking harder this year," he continues. "It happened that this is the Year of the Dragon." Tsui says that Chinese people see dragons as a symbol of good fortune. "When there's a dragon year, everyone wants to have a baby. So this is kind of like my baby." He describes Fat Dragon's menu as "urban Chinese," with Cantonese, Sichuan and Hunan flavors used in both traditional and innovative ways.
Zhao, 49, moved to the United States at age 22 after working in Chinese kitchens for what he says was the equivalent of $2 or $3 per month. Speaking in Mandarin as Tsui translates, Zhao says he learned to cook by watching other chefs, tasting new foods and experimenting. And those are things he still does, drawing inspiration from other cuisines and re-creating them in his own way, using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible.
"He might make a meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs" but incorporate Asian flavors, Tsui says. The chef makes his own pasta and dough, grinding the meat for his dumplings by hand. Customers can expect to see Sichuan-spiced chicken wings, another of Zhao's adaptations, on the menu. Ren Mefford, director of operations for EAT Restaurant Partners, says one of his favorite creations by Zhao is duck smoked with green tea and coffee in a gas-fired wok. He adds that Zhao's dishes are free of monosodium glutamate, with gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options.
At Fat Dragon (1200 N. Boulevard), which was on the verge of opening in early November, Zhao and Tsui also plan to serve a few off-menu dishes for those who want to try the kind of authentic food that can be found in New York's Chinatown.
"Chinese cooking uses a very nose-to-tail philosophy," Tsui says, including parts such as tendons, ears, tongue and feet.
With a 100-watt smile, Zhao urges his listener to come try his food.
"As long as you like to eat it," he says, "I'm happy."