In her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee states that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings and Wendys combined. So why are there no outstanding Chinese restaurants in America?
Chinese American food is consistent, reliable, familiar and extremely boring. It has served the American public well and most Americans consider it comfort food. But when I yearn for good authentic Chinese food I usually end up at a small family-operated restaurant tucked away in Chinatown where the service is almost non-existent and the level of cleanliness leaves much to be desired.
Sure there are some high-end restaurants. They charge two and three times the going rate in Chinatown and often the food is no better. It seems you’re often paying only for the fancy linen and the Westernized service, which tries to be sophisticated but ends up being simply impractical.
I asked Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, in my email interview with him on their upcoming Gala Dinner and Auction, if he shared my feeling that Chinese restaurants in America have always had an image of being inexpensive and rather standard and boring. And if so, what would it take to elevate the cuisine to a higher level? He says, “I agree. We are hoping that our event will help tip the scale in the other direction. There are so many social issues wrapped up in this phenomenon, from income disparity to racism that I think it will take a lot of work to shift the balance. There are gastronomic issues, too, of the sort that some of the prized ingredients and dishes (abalone, shark’s fin) are not as highly valued by western palates. This means that when Chinese chefs want to up the ante in America, they have to fall back on other things that tend toward the inauthentic… But I think we have a long way to go before the average American diner is willing to pay a lot for a Chinese dining experience. Still, I think if it will happen any time, it might be now.”
Separately, in my interview with Jennifer 8. Lee she pointed out that there are countries such as Turkey and the Czech Republic where Chinese restaurants are more upscale. She correlates this to a lack of significant numbers of Chinese immigrants in those countries. She suggests that as long as there are large numbers of new immigrants entering America to compete with already established Chinese restaurateurs, there will be too much pressure to maintain the current low-end Chinese restaurant pattern.
As a Chinese food enthusiast, I think there are two factors that might encourage Chinese restaurants to serve more refined and authentic food. First is the availability of exotic ingredients from Asia now that there is more trade between America and China. There are many more Chinese culinary ingredients available than in only a decade ago and recent immigrants are providing a strong market for them.
The second factor is that many more Americans are visiting China for work or pleasure. They are returning to America and craving the wonderful Chinese food they experienced there. Hopefully, this demand will drive the market to offer the American public more authentic and refined Chinese cooking.
What is needed now is for Chinese restaurant operators to be more adventurous, and bring their Asian operation expertise and talented chefs across the Pacific to create the real Chinese dining experience in America.