Chef Chris Cheung on Changing Chinatown, Bringing Classics Back
"It just started to become a philosophy for me with food—when you can cook from scratch that day and serve it, the product is 1000 times better."
Chef Chris Cheung—currently helming the kitchen at Cherrywood in Soho—excels in the extra steps other chefs may overlook, like buying whole raw peanuts and then shelling, blanching, roasting, smoking, and then roasting them again for his "Pickles and Peanuts" bar snack. He cooks rice to order in clay pots, makes his own bread, brings in his fish live, and gets freshly killed chicken from trusted sources in Chinatown. This precision comes from his time in kitchens with the likes of Jean-Georges as well, but also from what he's observed of the changing landscape in Chinese cuisine in New York.
We chatted with Cheung about how exactly these have come together for him in his own kitchen, and where he hopes to bring it all in the future.
You're a born and bred New Yorker? Yep, I was born in Bensonhurst before growing up in Brooklyn was cool, hence the very Italian American accent, which doesn't really exist anymore. I grew up in Chinatown too, though, because we had family on Mott Street. So food was pretty much a mishmash. My mom was a single mother working in the factories, so she pretty much had food in the rice cooker. Sometimes it would be the traditional Chinese chopped pork dish with salted eggs, and other times it would be rice and hotdogs.
Was there a time when you realized this dichotomy of food had a particular significance for you? There used to be coffee shops—now they're bakeries, but they used to be coffee shops. The Chinese coffee shop downstairs from my grandmother's house had the most amazing ha gao—shrimp wrapped in translucent wrappers that are steamed. I'd had them all my life but every time I'd go down to that coffee shop it was the best thing I'd ever had. And then when I was about 11 years old the coffee shop closed, and that's when I realized that food isn't the same everywhere, and that when some place closes you have to say goodbye knowing that you're never going to have it again.
That kept on happening. South Wing closed, and that was the best place to get pork chop rice. I'm from Toisan, which is a really country area of Canton. And while there are lots of Cantonese restaurants, Toisan restaurants used to be very popular in Chinatown. Joy Luck was right next door to my grandmother's house and we used go there once or twice a week for the best Toisan food, then that was gone. So these places started to go and all I had left was my memory of how it used to taste. I really got more of an appreciation for food, seeing that.
So you feel our realm of Chinese cuisine has shrunk? Chinese food was always intrinsically connected to authenticity and tradition, so every menu would have the same things but it was about who could do it better. Now things are changing so you have so many different types of Chinese food; suburban, traditional Chinatown, cheap takeout where you order it behind bulletproof glass in a bunch of places around the city, and guys trying to push the envelope and create something on their own, putting their different spins on things. So where Chinese food was one thing, it's now ten different things and everybody's starting to take notice of it.
How do your French training and Chinese background come together in your kitchen? I worked at Jean-Georges and in other three- and four-star restaurants, so was trained in precision—you buy it, you prep it, and you save it for the next day. And then in Shanghai I cooked banquets professionally in houses—people cook out of their houses and serve banquets to the villagers and when people come to visit from the States.
Wait, how did that happen? My wife comes from a small island off the coast of Shanghai, and since I'm a chef I offered my hand at helping to cook. At first they didn't let me do anything, but as soon as they saw me flip the wok like a professional I couldn't stop. They would show me the recipes and all of the sudden I was the only one there. And it was a ball!
I cooked food that we picked on the farm that day, chickens that we killed that day, fish that was caught that day. I cooked food with only one outside water source and no refrigeration. I started cooking dinner at 11 a.m. because there were no light fixtures so you couldn't cook when it started getting dark. I learned what temperature and refrigeration does to food—it changes it. It just started to become a philosophy for me with food—when you can cook from scratch that day and serve it, the product is 1000 times better.
Where would you like that to take you in the future? Chinese people are very secretive in their recipes. Their American dream was to open their restaurant, and then that dream got in the way. They opened their restaurant not for the tourists, but for the people that lived, ate and died there, and so they have great food. What happened? They have kids. Their kids go to college, they get old and can't run the restaurant anymore, their kids don't want to take over the restaurant, the restaurant closes, the chef retires, they retire, and all that great food and recipes are gone forever. I have some of them and would love to be able to showcase that in the middle of the non-authentic Chinese food trend right now. I'd go back and serve clay pot rice with Toisan meatballs and salted duck eggs and cool stuff like that, caramelized onion rice rolls and my grandmother's fried chicken wings. Peas and beef on rice. All the little pastries that I used to love growing up. I'd love to do that.