From Chop Suey to Fine Dining
Wealthy Chinese are pushing to overturn their national cuisine’s image as fast and cheap.
Relations between the United States and China may have deteriorated badly in the past year, but you wouldn’t think it from counting the number of new Chinese restaurants across American cities.
These aren’t the traditionally gritty outlets serving chop suey and General Tso’s chicken but trendy new establishments offering a variety of dishes from across China’s regions. They aren’t run by poor immigrants smuggled into the United States illegally, as was often the case in the 1980s and 1990s, but by young Chinese who attended university in the United States and have plenty of funds from their families back home to expand quickly. And in another break with the past, rather than fitting Chinese cuisine in with established American tastes, they want to redefine it.
The goal was best summarized by Yong Zhao, the 35-year-old co-founder and CEO of the fast-casual restaurant chain Junzi Kitchen, who spoke in February in Manhattan, New York. “Let’s work together,” he told a roomful of aspiring Chinese restaurateurs his age or younger, “to build a new image for Chinese cuisine in the U.S. in the next five years, to win more mainstream awards, and to grab back the right to tell the stories of Chinese cuisine.”
Since Canton Restaurant, the first known Chinese restaurant in North America, hosted a banquet in 1849 in San Francisco for 300 Chinese migrants who were lured to the United States by the gold rush, Chinese restaurants have come a long way. Now, Chinese food remains in the top three most popular ethnic foods in the United States. Today, based on a manual count, the number of Chinese restaurants in the country is comparable to the number of McDonald’s, KFCs, and Burger Kings combined.
But not all is well for Chinese restaurants. According to Yelp, the number dropped to 43,638 in 2018 from 46,757 in 2014. The American Chinese Culinary Federation (ACCF) puts the figure even lower, at 37,000, based on its own survey in 2014 and its estimation of the decline since. “A few years ago, when Chinese restaurant owners wanted to wrap up, they were able to sell their businesses to others,” Man Wong, the president of the ACCF, told me in June. “Now it’s hard to find buyers.”
There are still some optimists, of course. In a report from September 2018, Menusifu, a restaurant technology company, estimated that there were 70,000 Chinese restaurants around the country. “Think about how many new restaurants are opening around us,” said Fan Yu, the company’s strategy director. “Doesn’t our number better reflect what we all see?”
Wong’s and Yu’s vastly different observations may be two sides of the same coin. “The kinds of Chinese American restaurants serving chow mein and moo goo gai pan and all those other classic dishes are closing down,” said Andrew Coe, the author of the 2009 book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. “A young, hip Chinese immigrant generation in places like New York or Los Angeles is driving what’s happening on the ground.” In other words, many entrepreneurs are opening restaurants that aren’t coded as Chinese, whether because they are seen as high-end fusion or are based on regional cuisines that Americans generally haven’t ever heard of.
The shift is associated with demographic changes. When Wong moved to the United States from Hong Kong in the early 1980s, tens of thousands of laborers from rural Fujian province were being smuggled into the country. But when Yu came to study in 2015, the most prominent component of the Chinese population was the 330,000 students in the country. They had money and were more discerning in their demands.
They, like previous generations, were shocked about what passed as Chinese food in the United States. But they were in a better position to do something about it.
Chinese have long wanted to redefine how their cuisine is seen in the United States.
“I said, ‘What’s that? How come this is called Chinese food?’” Cecilia Chiang, a legendary restaurateur, now aged 100, recalled when we talked in April. Chiang, who grew up in Beijing in an affluent family with private chefs and had lived in Japan with her diplomat husband, was first taken to a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco by a sister she came to visit in 1960.
When Chiang opened the Mandarin, a high-end Chinese restaurant, in San Francisco in 1961, she vowed to herself: “If there is one thing I want to achieve in my life, it is to upgrade Chinese food in the U.S.” The Mandarin, which she sold in 1991 and which closed in 2006, was a success. It introduced authentic Chinese dishes such as potstickers (fried dumplings) and smoked tea duck to American customers. But the goal of changing the whole Chinese food ecosystem was beyond Chiang’s grasp. Despite its popularity, Chinese cuisine is still thought of as convenient, cheap, and somewhat low-end.
“I feel really sad,” Chiang said. “But you cannot do it alone.” She explained that in her time, most people who ran Chinese restaurants were blue-collar laborers from Canton in southern China who didn’t know much about fine dining and that producing inexpensive, simple food in cramped and far from luxurious premises was the best they could do. But that business model’s time is coming to an end.
Take Johnny Cheung, for example. An immigrant from Fujian, he opened his first takeout restaurant in Orange, Connecticut, in 1987 and owned 12 at one point. “We served General Tso’s chicken, broccoli beef, that kind of thing,” Cheung said. “I copied the menu from other Fujianese takeouts. They copied it from the Cantonese. We all served the few things that Americans were familiar with.”
That was a time when thousands of immigrants were arriving on U.S. shores from China. Many of them found work in restaurants, one of the few workplaces open to laborers with neither skills nor work permits, even if the pay was very low. But in 2016, when Cheung sold his last restaurant in Fairfield, Connecticut, the winds had turned. The smuggling waves from Fujian had died down thanks to improved living conditions in China. The wages for cooks at Chinese takeout restaurants had jumped from $1,500 per month in the 1980s to close to $4,000 and even higher for restaurants with seating. Meanwhile, Cheung’s two American-born children, both professionals, had no interest in the business.
He sold the restaurant for more than $400,000 and thinks he was lucky. “If I had to sell it now, I won’t be able to get half of that price.”
Zhao of Junzi has always dreamed big. As a child, he liked reading stories about heroism. In high school, he fixed his eyes on Peking University, one of the top schools in China. After graduating from the university in 2006, he came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. at Yale University and planned to solve China’s environmental problems.
That year, the Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle held a phenomenal initial public offering and saw the price of its shares doubling on day one. That might have been a sign for Zhao, but running a restaurant had never really ranked among his wildest dreams. That changed in 2010, when he was elected president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale. As he went to seek sponsors for events, Zhao got to know many Chinese restaurant owners and learned about their predicament. “It’s hard to find workers,” Zhao said. “And they were close to the retirement age, but their children didn’t want to take over the business.”
Zhao’s research led him deep into the history of Chinese immigrants and ethnic cuisines. In his piles of books and documents, he soon discovered something telling: When Japan’s economy was on the rise in the 1980s, its passion for promoting its culture on the international stage spiked, and the status of Japanese cuisine in the United States rose.
China’s per capita GDP had jumped from one-eightieth of the United States’ in 1990 to one-eighth in 2012 and growing. But Chinese food lagged behind. “I saw a huge opportunity in the market that I couldn’t resist,” Zhao said.
In 2014, Zhao presented a plan to build a “Chinese Chipotle”—emphasizing fresh, seasonal vegetables in a modern setting and nationwide branding—to the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and won a summer fellowship. The next year, Zhao; his wife, Wanting Zhang (who also attended Peking University and Yale); and Ming Bai, a graphic designer who had been at Yale, launched their first Junzi Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut, where they sold Chinese noodles and chun bing, wraps from northern China that are similar to burritos, in a setting more like a Chipotle than a Chinatown noodle shop.
Zhao had discovered a big hole in the market, but he wasn’t alone. “Many students from China stayed after graduation,” said Betty Xie, the editor of the San Francisco-based Chinese Restaurant News. “There are newer restaurants and innovative and upgraded menus. We call them the new generation.”
Thomas Kung, a partner with Jia Law Group’s New York office, which provides legal services for restaurants in the city, said that since 2015, he has seen these new restaurants growing quickly—often with funding from their owners’ families in China. One of them is Hunan Slurp, a new $40-ish-per-head concept restaurant in the East Village launched by the 30-year-old oil painting artist-turned-chef Chao Wang. In July, I went there for a dinner party dubbed “South Summer Dinner” that served 13 courses specially designed by Wang based on the inspiration of foods popular in southern China. All of them had curiously fancy names, such as “Naked Manhattan” (cold spring roll salad with shrimp or roasted duck wrapped together with fresh fruits and vegetables) and “Feeling It” (cold noodles with sesame, bean sprouts, cucumber, and minced pork).
The 100 or so guests were a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese young people who clearly didn’t mind the price of the tickets for the party: $48 to $68, depending on the time you purchased. “This shows that you can charge a decent price for Chinese food and make people think it’s worth it,” said Minh Ngueyen, a bio researcher.
Even if general customers are still not used to Chinese cuisine priced similarly to Japanese and French options, deep-pocketed young Chinese living in the United States are able to hold up the market alone. The 360,000 Chinese students studying in the United States contributed $13 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2017-2018 school year. Asian Americans’ purchasing power topped $1 trillion in 2018, driven by the spending of young people, according to a Nielsen report.
That also helps these consumers and restaurants avoid feeling too much pressure to adjust themselves to fit into mainstream tastes. Take MaLa Project, an endeavor of Amelie Kang, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Its specialty—a stir-fried dish of assorted meat and vegetables of customers’ choice in numbing spicy seasonings called dry pot—was Kang’s favorite during her high school time in Beijing. The concept is easy to grasp, and it has secured many loyal customers since the restaurant opened in New York’s East Village four years ago. But not all customers understand the Chinese characters stenciled on the wall, the old Shanghai-style white table lamp in a quiet corner, or the soothing voice of the late pop singer Teresa Teng in the background. No pandas or dragons here. “This setting is what I can associate with,” Kang said.
It isn’t just new restaurants that are opening; modern infrastructure is also developing. In upstate New York, the Culinary Institute of America found that new enrollments from China jumped from four in the 2013-2014 school year to 32 in 2017-2018, making China its biggest source of international students for the first time.
Menusifu, founded several years ago by William Wang, an investor who migrated from China, now has 8,000 clients and has become the biggest restaurant technology company for the Asian cuisine market in North America. There is also Chihuo, an online Chinese restaurant review network founded by the University of Southern California graduate Amy Duan in Los Angeles. Duan created the service after she got frustrated with the “mainstream taste” of Yelp ratings, which she initially used as a guide when she came to the United States as a student in 2010. Chihuo received its first $1 million in venture capital investment in 2018, and now the company has more than 30 employees, a hundred freelance writers across the United States, and some 650,000 followers on WeChat, a social media platform popular among Chinese. Even Jonathan Gold, the food critic for the Los Angeles Times, had been following Chihuo via Google Translate and nudging Duan for recommendations before he died last summer.
Meanwhile, public relations and consulting companies run by young Chinese to help the new generation of Chinese restaurants are springing up around the United States. In 2016, DJ Liu, a fresh graduate from Syracuse University, joined Knights Genesis Group, a New York-based investment company, to start its brand management division. Liu’s family in China is in real estate, and they count many top-flight restaurants as tenants. His goal is to help bring these brands and the upper-middle-class Chinese lifestyle they represent to the United States. “Five or six years ago, you started to see students from super-rich Chinese families coming to the U.S. to study, and their parents also come with their businesses and unlimited money,” Liu told me in August.
Meanwhile, Junzi CEO Zhao and his partners have been watching the tide rise. With three more restaurants in Manhattan, celebrity investors like Cecilia Chiang and the law professor and “tiger mom” Amy Chua, and a goal of “going to everywhere where there is a McDonald’s,” their ambition is no longer limited by the initial dream of becoming a Chinese Chipotle.
“We want to consolidate resources and build a platform to invest and cultivate Chinese restaurants, bring more Chinese dishes to the U.S., promote high-quality Chinese brands and food products, and draw a full picture for Americans who now only have a fragmented impression of Chinese cuisine,” Zhao said. “If we can achieve this, our contribution to China and the world may not be less than me solving the environmental problems.”
For all of these endeavors, a lot of the energy is coming from China itself.
Since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the revenue for restaurants in China has jumped from basically zero to 4.27 trillion yuan (about $628 billion) in 2018. China is on its way to surpass the United States in 2023 and become the world’s biggest restaurant market.
A saturated market prompts entrepreneurs to dig up underrepresented regional cuisines and ancient recipes. Astronomically priced meals no longer cause jaws to drop. The Michelin Guide, the bible for foodies, started to issue its signature stars to restaurants in mainland China in 2016.
The Chinese government also offers food a prominent spot in its strategy of promoting soft-power exports. In 2015, China launched an annual program called “traveling New Year banquet,” through which it sends delegations of top chefs to foreign countries during the Lunar New Year to demonstrate Chinese cooking skills.
In June, I followed a four-person team from Junzi, led by Zhao, on a trip through China to various restaurant chains and food products companies interested in developing an American presence.
One night, we had dinner at a restaurant called Zhiguan Xiaoguan in central Beijing. At the table were some of Zhao’s friends in China, including an investor in the Kathedral Cakery, a newly founded sculpture cake brand, which sells a 6-inch, single-layer cake for about $70. There was also a man who had just sold his spicy fish hot pot chain to an investment company for about $142 million.
The food was Liaojin cuisine made from ingredients from the areas around the Liao River. Lucas Sin, Junzi’s chief chef and a Yale graduate, liked the food so much that he insisted that the venue should have been on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Since 2002, the U.K.-based William Reed Business Media has produced the list every year based on a poll of international chefs, gourmands, and critics. Only one restaurant in mainland China has hit the list—one that was opened by a French chef in Shanghai.
When asked about the bias in the culinary world, Sin, who studied philosophy in college, gave it some thought. He said Westerners who may not know much about Chinese cuisine are still controlling restaurant industry rankings. But China is not a no-fault victim.
“If it were not for the Cultural Revolution, we would all be catching up with the Chinese,” Sin said. “The Chinese took the part in stopping the export of that culture, and the West took its part in restricting them with bias.”
Cultural exports have now resumed, and they’re advancing, according to a 27-year-old woman named Jinyu Zhong, who works from dawn to dusk in a kitchen in Wuhan in central China. Zhong’s parents own 20 restaurants of various sizes in Wuhan. Zhong grew up in her family’s restaurants and has loved cooking since she was a child. After college, she studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in the kitchens of the high-end New York restaurants Jean-Georges and Eleven Madison Park. She came back to her hometown in the summer to try out her dishes at her family’s restaurants and to prepare for the opening of her own in New York by the end of this year. It will be a high-end Chinese restaurant providing a 10-course tasting menu for $150 to $200 per head.
Zhong thinks that her family’s restaurants, from the dishes to the management, are all comparable to the world-famous kitchens. But when it came time to name her new venue, she ditched her family brand “Li” (meaning “beautiful”) and chose “Jadeite” instead. It was not only because her name means “jade” but also because, according to Zhong, “Chinese cuisine is like a jade wrapped in stone that the world hasn’t fully discovered.”
Despite the rise of fancier Chinese restaurants in the United States, no one will be able to pronounce the death of General Tso’s chicken anytime soon.
“Chinese takeouts offer more selections than American fast food. They still have a big market in the suburban areas. But in the next two to three years, you’ll see big changes with them. Automation and central kitchens will take over,” said Wong, the ACCF president, who also went to China in the summer to study the central kitchen and restaurant automation systems there.
Zhao of Junzi agreed. Chinese takeout restaurants “will be consolidated under new brands that can keep their prices low via automation.” But there will be big changes in perception, he said. “In the future, you’ll see Chinese food more diverse, and the story of Chinese cuisine will no longer be just some broken words but a complete one.”
Of course, all of this is happening under a bit of a cloud. Unlike in 1972, when footage of a chopstick-wielding President Richard Nixon chewing Peking duck at a banquet in Beijing helped boost the market for Chinese food at home, the White House is now under the control of a president whose slogan is “America First” and whose taste may lean more to American hamburgers.
But the young generation of Chinese entrepreneurs is optimistic. “Cuisine is the least sensitive part in the U.S.-China relationship,” Zhao said. Thinking big again, he added: “It is possible that one day, when the two countries would like to cool things down, President Trump and President Xi Jinping can have a talk at Junzi. We sell Chinese food, and we hire American employees. Why not?
This story was made possible by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
Rong Xiaoqing is an award-winning reporter for the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily in New York. She also contributes to various English-language publications in the United States and China.