January 14, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts
One of the featured chefs for the Sips & Suppers dinners coming up next week is Peter Chang – an elusive chef known for ditching restaurant kitchens like a discardable cell phone. At last he has found in another accomplished chef, Gen Lee, the perfect partner to build an empire. The duo has already opened six successful restaurants around Virginia, with Arlington scheduled to open early February and another outpost in Rockville in March.
I’ve been a lucky duck to sample his cuisine twice in my life – once at a sumptuous banquet when he was the executive chef at DC’s Chinese Embassy in the 90’s, though I wasn’t aware he was the chef that oversaw the dozens of dishes offered at that lavish banquet. Years later on a hot tip I sought out his cooking at an obscure Chinese restaurant in a strip mall at the corner of Duke and Van Dorn in Alexandria.
Chang doesn’t dumb down his food for American palates. And it’s not for the faint of heart. As I recall the dish was the hottest, saltiest and most addictive chili pepper chicken I’d ever experienced. I have never forgotten it. By the time I planned on a return visit, he had scampered off for parts unknown leaving a trail of desperate fanatics in his wake.
Chang, who speaks no English, allows Gen Lee to act as his spokesperson. The two have cooked together for many years.
Whisk and Quill – Do you see everything in a yin/yang balance?
Gen Lee – Yes. It’s always going to be like that for us. In Sichuan Province it is very hot and wet and filled with trees. People who live there have to eat a lot of spicy food that’s why they use the Sichuan peppers.
Does Peter cook in one of the VA restaurants now?
Not on a daily basis. He cooks for parties and special events, but he also checks on every restaurant on a weekly basis. He’s very strict about that. I can’t tell you which restaurant he is cooking in at any given time, but he’s always cooking and he’s always training his cooks to get it right. We’re happy if its 90% right, because our recipes are very, very difficult. We don’t use sauce. For ten years when Peter and I worked as corporate chefs on a riverboat on the Yangtze River, we did the real, real Sichuan there.
How young was Peter when he first started cooking?
He was in high school. He always knew he wanted to cook and he went to cooking school at 18. He always watched his grandma cooking and helped her make lots of vegetarian dishes. You know, we don’t use much meat, but lots of vegetables mushrooms and such.
Does Peter listen to music when he’s cooking?
No, it’s very difficult. Everything is very quick. There are 20 different spices – different ones for different dishes – and it all happens fast.
What are some of the restaurants’ signature dishes?
The cumin lamb chops and bamboo fish, and everyone orders the dry-fried eggplant cut like steak fries.
Would you say your dishes are classic Sichuan?
Yes, it’s his specialty. But, for example, they don’t use lamb chops in China and the difference is the ingredients are better quality here.
Lately American chefs are using Asian ingredients in fusion cuisine and mixing things up. Where do you see this going?
A lot of chefs try it using French techniques. They are not using the real Chinese techniques and that worries me. These chefs are not Chinese. They are Hispanic or Korean. There are only a handful of real Chinese chefs here in America.
Chinese food has been losing favor to Thai and Korean in the past decade or so. Do you hope to bring back Chinese food to its earlier popularity?
Our dream is to bring back the real Chinese food, not just to make money. In a few years we know we can retire, but it’s not about that. Right now we have six restaurants. Already in our Richmond restaurant we are doing 500-600 a day. It’s like a war zone with like 100 people in line every day.
Will you be opening in the Northern Virginia area soon?
Yes, we will have two more restaurants – – one in Arlington and soon after in Rockville.
This interview was conducted, edited and condensed by Jordan Wright.
Dozens of prestigious local, national and world-renowned chefs will prepare the Sips & Suppers dinners on Sunday, January 25th. A separate evening of chef’s treats and cocktails takes place on Saturday, January 24th. Expect appearances by Joan Nathan, Jose Andres and Alice Waters. For further information and to purchase tickets to the fundraiser for Martha’s Table and DC Central Kitchen visit www.sips2015.eventbrite.com and www.suppers2015.eventbrite.com.