Monday, February 04, 2008

The Future of Chinese Food continued

Chinese food panel
On January 23rd the San Francisco Professional Food Society presented an insightful panel discussion on the future of Chinese cuisine in the US, along with The Asia Society and the Chinese Cultural Center. The panelists were (seated from left to right) Martin Yan, TV host and master chef author of 26 cookbooks, Alex Ong, Betelnut partner and executive chef, Albert Cheng, former three-term president of the Chinese Culture Center; Nicole Mones, author of the novels Lost in Translation, A Cup of Light, and The Last Chinese Chef, and moderator Olivia Wu, currently chef at Google and a former writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the hurdles to great Chinese food in the US has been immigration policies. In a discussion about Chinese immigration to the US, it was mentioned that opening a Chinese restaurant was often the only opportunity for Chinese immigrants. Often those restaurateurs were not professional chefs, and as a result did not have the same passion for the cuisine as you might expect. According to Yan, immigrants who open Chinese restaurants rarely have been trained as chefs and usually don't want their children following in their footsteps. Ong agreed, saying his parents were terribly disappointed when he told them he was becoming a chef.

Wu also pointed out that Chinese chefs are often unable to communicate with their customers so they stay in the kitchen. They don't understand branding, marketing and promotion and this holds their restaurants back.

Most of the panel spoke wistfully about the diversity of the cuisine in China and Mones complained about the sauce-driven style of cooking here that relies on heavy sauces as opposed to the subtle flavors one finds in China, where there are estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 different dishes. In China, she explained, there is barely enough sauce to cover the dish. Here long menus often obscure the fact that only a handful of sauces are being used.

Ong questioned the American taste level and waxed poetic about the joy of eating "the bones" something echoed by most of the panel. He complained about his customers only wanting the velveted style of chicken breast meat.

Favorite dishes among the panelists that they rarely find in the US included Beggar's chicken, red braised pork belly and broad beans with toon leaves.

A question arose as to whether we as diners are willing to pay for great Chinese food, since we have come to regard it almost as "exotic fast food" that is always cheap. On the flip side, Ong complained most Chinese restaurants choose to compete only on price disregarding elements such as service, decor and having a bar.

So what advice did the panel have for American eaters?
• Keep trying new places
• Always try one or two dishes you are unfamiliar with, when you eat out
• Ask about the specialties of the house

To read the first part of this story posted last week, click here