Photography by Jude Tan
It’s official! Lotus Blue is now open. Four months of researching and developing the menu, plus hiring and training of the kitchen staff finally culminated in our grand opening last Tuesday, February 21st. New York’s first restaurant serving a full menu of authentic and modern dishes from Yunnan province of China is now open… and I am having the thrill of a lifetime.
What happens when the cooking of China collides with that of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam? The result is a fresh cuisine full of bold and explosive flavors. This is precisely what you’ll find in the cooking of Yunnan province of southwestern China. I’ve been researching and developing recipes from this region during the last three months. Indeed I took a trip to Yunnan in November last year to get a better understanding of the region’s foodways. Why the sudden interest in this cuisine? I’m glad you asked. I have great news to tell you about my involvement in the imminent opening of a Yunnan restaurant in Tribeca.
This January whisked by at a breakneck pace without my realizing that it is over. During the month I taught cooking classes, consulted restaurant entrepreneurs, advised market researchers on Chinese sauces, and cooked a guest chef dinner at a restaurant. I am quite baffled by how cooking has turned into such a central role in my life. Yet for many years this is what I aspired to do. Three years ago this month I wrote my first post on Red Cook coaxed by my neighbor, Kim of The Yummy Mommy and Charcutepalooza fame. It has become a way for me to share my passion for Chinese cooking with others as well as to discover opportunities to work as a culinary professional. Thanks to my many enthusiastic supporters I am starting to do what I truly love.
Two weeks ago I went to a Dongbei (or Northeastern China) restaurant in Flushing for lunch with a group of Chinese food enthusiasts. I glanced through the menu, but like many seasoned Chinese diners I asked the owner if they had any special seasonal dishes from the kitchen. As it turned out they had young tender garlic scapes, which are the stalks of garlic blossom, and she suggested we ordered them stir-fried with pork slices. I was thrilled to know they’re still available during this late in the season.
In the heart of the Chinatown area of Singapore was an old faded hotel and restaurant known as the Majestic. I remember the building being one of those relics from the 1930’s unkempt but with lots of potential. Our family used to go to the restaurant for good inexpensive Chinese food but certainly not a gourmet experience by any measure. In 2006 the hotel underwent a complete transformation into an incredibly stylish establishment with an equally modern restaurant. Decorated with custom designed furniture, chandeliers from the Mooi Weer Collection and sculpture by Cai Zhi Song, the restaurant is a modern Chinese art collector’s dream. The food at the restaurant reflects this environment and was created by the modern Chinese master chef Yong Bing Ngen whom I had the opportunity to chat with last week. The restaurant has received numerous accolades since its opening in January 2006. In conjunction with the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event I’ve arranged a dinner at the Majestic Restaurant.
Unhappy and failing in high school Yong Bing Ngen (楊彬源) decided he was ready to set out and explore his future on his own. He announced his intention to his schoolmates one day and left school the next to work at his brother-in-law’s restaurant as a dishwasher. Without a definite plan his mother was concerned for his prospects, and advised him to learn a trade. He pondered her counsel while doing dishes and took a peek at the cooks in the kitchen. It was a “kopi tiam” or a family-run restaurant serving local Chinese food. He was intrigued by the activities in the kitchen and decided cooking was going to be his trade. From this humble beginning Chef Yong went on to become one of Singapore’s most innovative Chinese chefs, and chef owner of the Majestic Restaurant and Jing.
Like many immigrants to America I constantly search for food of my homeland. This search continues even now after more than thirty years. When I first arrived in the U.S. during the 1970’s the most common Chinese food was still chop suey. I remember being horrified when I was served chop suey as Chinese food at my college dormitory. Not only was it unrecognizable, but also tasted positively vile. I wondered how Chinese food had turned into this mess. Chop Suey: a Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, a new book by Andrew Coe, helps answer this question.
Several days ago I conducted an email interview with Jennifer 8. Lee. Having recently read her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, I had lots of questions I wanted to ask her. Yesterday, I shared with you how Jenny’s book resonates with me as I explore my own food roots. Today I’d like you to see Jenny’s complete interview.
Last Saturday Fred Ferretti wrote in a New York Times editorial about the poor state of Chinese food in America. Similarly last June Tim and Nina Zagat wrote an editorial, also in the New York Times, regarding the sorry state of Chinese restaurant food in America. These editorials highlight my biggest Chinese cooking complaints in America: 1) American public does not have good understanding of authentic Chinese food. 2) American food writers are not familiar enough with Chinese ingredients and techniques to write about them. 3) We always end up with writings about Chinese cooking with a fusion twist. How can you appreciate the play on fusion cooking if you do not even understand the bases?