Chef Peter Chang (right) works with an assistant in the kitchen; Photo by James Dickinson
Duck, crispy and melting underneath a layer of cilantro, green onion and a blast of different varieties of hot peppers, announced chef Peter Chang's arrival in Richmond. Inside the food world, that arrival is stupendous, even astounding news, but to most people, Chang and his food are unfamiliar.
He's a revered cult figure who's opened restaurants in Fairfax, Alexandria, Atlanta, Knoxville and Charlottesville. Fans have traded clues about his whereabouts on the Web, and he's been tracked from restaurant to restaurant by The Washingtonian's Todd Kliman, who wrote about his own obsession with Chang's food in the March 2010 issue of the Oxford American. That same month, Calvin Trillin wrote a profile of Chang for the New Yorker.
In February, the week before his restaurant opened, Chang was at the James Beard House in New York City, cooking his superb Sichuan cuisine for a sold-out crowd. The next Monday, his new restaurant in Short Pump, Peter Chang Café, opened quietly at 11424 W. Broad St. near Walmart. I spoke to Chang and his business partner, Gen Lee — or more accurately, I spoke to Gen Lee. Chang doesn't speak English, and Lee translated for him that afternoon over a banquet of duck, cumin lamb and exceptional fried eggplant (among other dishes).
Chang is a small, youthful-looking man with a wide smile. His partner Lee, older and grayer, and Lee's wife, Mary, are warm and welcoming, and they provide a polite but firm buffer between Chang and his ardent fans. The first incarnation of Chang's restaurant in Charlottesville descended into chaos as customers overwhelmed the place, and fans "accidentally" walked into the kitchen where Chang was working.
The new partnership with Lee changed all that, and, as with the now-reinvented restaurant in Charlottesville, it's doubtful that situation will arise again.
The solution to the mystery of Chang's abrupt disappearances seemed obvious to me once I met him in person. He's quiet, self-effacing — even shy.
His food, although based on traditional Sichuan methods and ingredients, is absolutely his own. It's neither fusion nor traditional, but suffused with the clear, confident originality of a master chef. The obsessive attention he's received is palpably unwanted. He's a chef who wants to cook and run a successful business, not to become a star.
He told me that he grew up in the countryside of Hubei province in China, in "the smallest of the small" places and "the poorest of the poor." Before he became a chef, his first priority was simply to have enough food to eat. Later, at cooking school, he would roll up newspapers to practice his knife skills. "There was no extra [food] for practice," Lee explains.
Perhaps that explains his preference for smaller cities. Although Chang went on to win awards in China, cook for China's President Hu Jintao and was later appointed chef at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, given his temperament and upbringing, it's not a stretch to imagine that a small restaurant, and a city of about 200,000 like Richmond, may be a better fit than someplace larger. And like many first-generation immigrants, both Lee and Chang seem reluctant to go out on a financial limb to start a flashier, larger business based on the foundation of celebrity.
In addition, authentic regional Chinese cuisine has rarely made it onto the plate of the average U.S. customer. While Americanized dishes like General Tso's chicken will still be available at Chang's restaurant, better and more exciting choices, things like thin slices of fish with sour cabbage in a deep broth crackling with spice and scallion bubble pancakes — thin, translucent and as round as balls — will be the restaurant's focus. To educate the palate of America, Lee quoted Mao Zedong (founder of the People's Republic of China), saying, "First we need to take the country[side] to take the city."
Not all of Chang's food is hot; he alternates the mild with the fiery, and although he pushes diners to the outer limits of what they might be able to tolerate, he never quite crosses into lunacy. That's not to say that his food doesn't fully exploit the potential of ma la — a combination of Sichuan peppercorns and other chili peppers meant to produce both heat and a numbing sensation on the front of the tongue.
"We served Peter's lamb chops [smothered in hot peppers] at the Beard House, and people were screaming," says Lee.
Both Chang and Lee say that Chang is here to stay. "A chef needs to cook, to let his imagination go," says Lee. Another restaurant, perhaps more (as franchises) are planned for the future, and Chang will train the chefs at the Short Pump location. "This is Peter Chang's home," says Lee, "his home base, 100 percent."