Peter Chang: An Interview With Richmond’s Most Mysterious Chef 

click to enlarge Peter Chang’s bamboo fish isn’t a traditional dish of either Sichuan or Hubei — the provinces that had the most influence on his food. It’s a dish full of Chinese flavors rearranged and reinterpreted by a master chef.

Ash Daniel

Peter Chang’s bamboo fish isn’t a traditional dish of either Sichuan or Hubei — the provinces that had the most influence on his food. It’s a dish full of Chinese flavors rearranged and reinterpreted by a master chef.

The fish arrives under a latticework of bamboo. Ordinary tilapia has been quickly fried and transformed into an impossibly light, greaseless burst of tender fish. Chef Peter Chang, a slight man with a ready smile who looks younger than his 53 years, urges me to pick up the green onions and cilantro dusted with cumin along with each piece.

Fish fried this way isn’t traditionally Chinese, he says, comparing it to British fish and chips. Nor is it commonplace to scoop up and eat all of the ingredients together — stacking, he calls it — to create one powerful bite. It’s a dish that employs Chinese flavors but rearranges them in new and surprising ways.

The James Beard Award-nominated chef is simply doing what all great chefs do — creating something memorable that’s all his own.

The difficulty Chang faces is that because he cooks Asian food, most people expect it to at least loosely conform to the Americanized dishes that they’re used to — General Tso’s chicken, mu-shu pork, lo mein. And even if Chang did serve the traditional dishes of the Hubei and Sichuan provinces at his restaurant — the regions that most influence his food — few people would recognize them. To stretch beyond that is incomprehensible to the average diner.

Once you take a bite, though, his food transcends expectations. Thick-cut eggplant is crispy and meltingly soft in the middle. Like a rock band, it sings with ma la — the hot, numbing sensation created by a drizzle of oil steeped in Sichuan peppercorns, both dried and vinegary pickled chilies, and sliced jalapeños — backed up by a generous sprinkle of cilantro and green onions. Add cumin to the trinity and you have Chang’s signature flavor bomb — it’s emphatically nontraditional and you won’t find it anywhere else.

And fortunately for Richmond, even more diners will be able to taste for themselves when Chang’s downtown restaurant opens near Boulevard and West Broad Street in the Hofheimer Building, which once housed the old Adams Camera shop.

The new spot, scheduled to open this summer, won’t resemble his Short Pump strip-mall location. Chang plans to pair smaller dishes with wine and other alcoholic drinks.

“This restaurant is an experimental store,” he says with the assistance of interpreter Sharon Meng, brought along by Style. “Traditional Chinese restaurants in the U.S. don’t focus on the bar. It’s not that they don’t want to, but that they have no way of doing so.”

click to enlarge The design of the new restaurant will be radically different from Chang’s other places. A sophisticated modern style will meet traditional Chinese elements, with the building’s industrial beginnings as a backdrop. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The design of the new restaurant will be radically different from Chang’s other places. A sophisticated modern style will meet traditional Chinese elements, with the building’s industrial beginnings as a backdrop.

Instead of the utilitarian interior that you see in most mom-and-pop Asian spots, you’ll find a modern space full of taupe, bursts of red, hanging iron fixtures and the industrial brick walls of the rug factory for which the structure originally was built.

There was a little confusion about those walls. In January, designer Yan Xu had finished the plan for the restaurant. It included a long dragon — symbolizing prosperity and abundance — against red background stretching down one wall. That was to be opposite delicate wooden screens made from long, narrow strips of pale bamboo to divide the bar and dining areas. But in April, the landlord informed Chang and Yan that nothing could be attached to the walls.

“The [real estate] agent never told us about this,” Yan says. There was a month to go before the planned opening, and she had to radically alter her plan.

Tall, lovely and slender, Xu, Meng says, looks like a model from Shanghai. But she’s a focused young woman who designs commercial projects both here and in China. Although Yan wasn’t happy about the new constraints, she made the changes quickly. “[Now] it connects the industrial culture of America with traditional Chinese culture,” she says.

When the new restaurant is on its feet, he plans to renovate his other locations to match this one. Branding — a quintessentially American preoccupation — is at the forefront of his mind, but ultimately for Chang, the food comes first.

“I need to step out and start somewhere and find an entryway into American society,” he says. “I need to be able to connect with them through my food and drinks.”

Back at Short Pump, in what might be a large kitchen in another restaurant, it’s so packed with people that it’s hard to wedge into a corner to stay out of the way. I’m overwhelmed by the smell of sizzling Sichuan peppers, the controlled hustle of the staff and the unexpected din — loud in contrast to the dining room beyond the door.

Five people are busy prepping around a large table, and at one point I count eight behind the stoves flipping woks or carefully plating. Chang throws a handful of peppers in a wok and simultaneously deep-fries a leg of lamb while, in a steady stream of Mandarin, he volleys detailed instructions about constructing his dish at the chef of the Short Pump restaurant.

When Chang brings the lamb to the table, the wait staff gathers round to learn how it should be properly sliced and served. Throughout the lesson, he turns and explains the finer points of presentation to the chef. After much nodding, the platter is passed around to try.

The new kitchen on Broad Street is even larger, and Chang’s hands-on approach to training will be just as intense.

click to enlarge In his busy Short Pump kitchen, Chang demonstrates for his staff exactly how his dishes should be prepared. With eight locations and two more about to open, Chang must train all of the chefs to duplicate the way that he cooks. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • In his busy Short Pump kitchen, Chang demonstrates for his staff exactly how his dishes should be prepared. With eight locations and two more about to open, Chang must train all of the chefs to duplicate the way that he cooks.

From Rockville, Maryland, to Virginia Beach, Chang puts a lot of miles on his shiny black SUV, unexpectedly showing up at a different one of his restaurants to cook for an evening and then leaving. In a way, it mirrors, in a weekly microcosm, his career hopping up and down the East Coast from one small Chinese restaurant to another until 2011, when he settled in Charlottesville.

Chang’s series of disappearances in the mid-2000s and the cult following he engendered captured the imagination of prominent national food writers. When he started cooking at one restaurant — first at Arlington’s China Star — fans would overrun the place and Chang would disappear, only to surface in Georgia or perhaps Tennessee.

He spoke no English and provided no answers to questions about what he was doing. All diners could do was speculate, wonder and create online message boards to track his movements from place to place. They wanted more information, the whole story, and Chang wouldn’t give it to them.

The first article to appear — and the person who first wrote about Chang’s food in the small strip-mall restaurant in Arlington — was author and food writer Todd Kliman, for the Washington City Paper. After the glowing review came out, Chang disappeared.

Kliman described his obsession with the chef in an essay for the Oxford American: “When I wasn’t eating Chef Chang’s food, I was thinking about it, and talking about it, recreating those singular tastes in words and images.”

The writer stoked the slow blaze of the Changian fire that had begun to burn in the food world, and a month later, Calvin Trillin wrote in the New Yorker about the phenomenon that the chef had become, and the heat turned up.

“Among contributors to food blogs and forums, it is common to dream of wandering into some dreary-looking chow-mein joint called Bamboo Gardens or Golden Dragon,” Trillin wrote, “ordering a couple of items you hadn’t expected to see on the menu, and discovering that the kitchen harbors a chef of spectacular ability.”

Chang has a simple explanation: Most Chinese chefs held back when seasoning their food to please the American palate. He didn’t.

“I seasoned the way I wanted to — the usual way I always had,” he says. Some diners who visited China Star didn’t like it, but a few were entranced with the unexpectedly numbing heat.

“I felt like a drug dealer when I sprinkled on the Sichuan peppercorns,” he says. “They were so blissed-out when they were done.” This small group of acolytes spoke loudly to the world on the Web and in print about this remarkable chef.

click to enlarge Peter Chang’s wife, Lisa, is a pastry chef. They were both well-known, award-winning chefs in China, where Chang was the youngest master chef of Hubei province. The two met while working on a cruise ship. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Peter Chang’s wife, Lisa, is a pastry chef. They were both well-known, award-winning chefs in China, where Chang was the youngest master chef of Hubei province. The two met while working on a cruise ship.

Before Chang began moving from place to place, before he finally settled down, before he came to the United States, before he was, in fact, the Americanized “Peter Chang,” Pengliang Zhang was a celebrated chef in his native China.

He was born in 1963 in the rural village of Dabie Shan in Hubei province. His father practiced traditional Chinese medicine while his mother ran their small farm with the help of the children. The Chinese notion that food also functions as medicine still inspires him, Chang says.

Under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese were allowed more mobility than they had in the past. But it still wasn’t easy.

“At the time,” says Chang’s wife, Lisa, who is an award-winning pastry chef, “only through achieving high test scores could a villager jump through the dragon’s gate.”

In other words, a high grade on an all-important exam given at the end of high school was the only way for someone from the country to move to the city. Chang wanted out of his village, but he never wanted to go to culinary school.

“If I had chosen a teaching university,” he says, “I would have gone on to college. But because my father really disliked the teaching career, I didn’t choose that.”

Teachers were poorly paid in China. So Chang opted for business school instead. But when he didn’t get in, he was forced to attend a technical secondary school. “When we applied to schools,” he says, “we had to check the box that asks whether we will obey whatever decision the higher-ups decide for us, and of course, we [all] checked yes.”

Chang calls his decision to try for business school, his “first misstep.”

“In Chinese culture, chefs are considered one of the nine lowest professions,” he says. “After studying for so many years, I was very unwilling to become a chef.”

When he started in the program, he ignored his teachers and barely completed his work. During the winter break at home, though, his dying grandmother underscored the importance of gaining a practical skill so that he could support himself in the city.

At this point in the story, Chang gets a little choked up. The memory is vivid and clearly still painful. “Because my father was away and my brother was little — and I was away, too — my younger sister who just finished elementary school had to drop out and help my mother on the land,” he says. “I was the oldest son, but had to depend on my mother and little sister to support the family.”

He went back to culinary school determined to make a success of it. He practiced his knife skills on rolled-up newspapers and learned to flip a wok with sand, because outside of the school’s kitchen, he didn’t have access to extra food.

Chang graduated at the top of his class. In 1992, he became the youngest master chef in Hubei and soon began to work on a luxury cruise ship that sailed up the Chang River, formerly translated as the Yangtze, from Wuhan to Chongqing, catering primarily to foreign tourists. It was here he met his wife.

When Chang wasn’t working, he traveled throughout China’s different regions and worked with other chefs. “This time had a great influence on my work later on,” he says.

He also began writing, and published more than 70 articles in five different culinary publications. He wanted to become a new kind of chef, he says — one who both cooks and reflects upon what he does.

click to enlarge cover19_peter_chang_no_headlines.jpg

It’s obvious that Chang is proud of the awards he won in China, and he recites them in detail: He won gold and silver in the National Cooking Competition in 1993, and he became a model laborer of Hubei province — one of the highest honors a Chinese citizen can earn, he says. After a stint at a hotel in Beijing, he took a difficult, four-hour foreign affairs examination and in June 2001, he was sent to the embassy in Washington — a coveted appointment.

Chang won’t talk about why he left the embassy. His daughter, Lydia, who’d spent much of her childhood growing up in China living with her grandmother, was a teenager and had come to the United States to live with her parents. She says they told her three or four months before they left that they were going to walk away — that the family wouldn’t have the luxuries they had before. In order not to arouse suspicion, they could take very little with them.

“The day was more significant in their minds than mine,” she says. “I was just walking away from the place that I knew was a temporary house.”

Chang will say that when the family left the embassy, the Chinese government kept their passports, and he had to start his career from scratch at the tiny China Star.

“I struggled internally quite a bit working at that small restaurant,” he says. When he talks about the owner, his anger is barely restrained. “People from Fuzhou are not professional chefs and I really didn’t want to work for him. But I had to take care of three people in my family, so I became a very ordinary chef.”

Chang couldn’t leave the United States, and at the same time, he couldn’t work here legally. When asked about the family’s frequent moves, he emphatically states that it was because he was unable to find a partner who understood his vision of what he wanted the business to be.

“It was not because I wanted to leave,” he says, shaking his head. But fame brought plenty of attention his way, and it’s not difficult to imagine that avoiding immigration authorities was a pressing concern as well.

It also explains why, in 2010, he finally stopped moving. That’s when he received his work visa. He no longer had to hide behind a restaurant owner who might take advantage of him or dissolve a verbal partnership at will. In 2011, he opened the first Peter Chang restaurant in Charlottesville with partner Gen Lee.

“Gen Lee had been in America for many years and knew my worth,” he says.

Lee is mostly retired now and splits his time between Las Vegas and China. When the two began opening restaurants together, he also functioned as Chang’s translator and spokesman. Now that Lee’s stepped back from the business, it’s apparent that the man that the public saw as some sort of shy genius, an exceptionally talented enigma who wanted to stay in the kitchen and let others take care of the details, was much more complex.

click to enlarge Peter Chang, Lisa Zhang, Wenqiang Huang, Sammi Li and Winnie Chen check on progress at the Hofheimer Building, an Arabian revival landmark on West Broad Street. It’s been a tricky project for Chang. Stumbling blocks arose while adhering to historic-tax-credit guidelines.
  • Peter Chang, Lisa Zhang, Wenqiang Huang, Sammi Li and Winnie Chen check on progress at the Hofheimer Building, an Arabian revival landmark on West Broad Street. It’s been a tricky project for Chang. Stumbling blocks arose while adhering to historic-tax-credit guidelines.

The Chang that I meet over a five-hour lunch is a businessman focused firmly on the future. “My goal is to introduce China’s culinary culture to the American mainstream,” he says. Chang isn’t content to cater only to food writers, food-obsessives and Chinese transplants. He wants to do more than just feed people — he wants to educate the average American diner.

After the downtown restaurant opens, he’s planning another for Bethesda, Maryland — which will make 10 in all.

He’s also going to open a noodle and dumpling spot in August a few doors down from his Short Pump location. The long bar in the space now will become a demonstration area so that diners can watch while the staff folds and crimps dumplings and pulls fresh noodles.

Chang also wants to start classes for parents and children to learn how to make these dumplings. “Not just for Americans who want to learn how,” he says, “but for the Chinese that have come here. Their children are growing up not knowing how to do this.”

This is the first in a series of smaller restaurants that will focus on only one or two dishes — noodles, dumplings, steamed buns — so that several shops could open on the same block. He wants to franchise the concept, he says, but he can’t do it alone: “I won’t do this unless I have good, experienced people who can manage it and understand marketing.”

Perhaps Chang always had this grand vision for himself — or maybe it started with the first newspaper article. It certainly was reinforced when he finally was able to own his own restaurants without having to depend on other, less trustworthy business partners. I ask the man who first wrote about him, Kliman, how he’s seen Chang change through the years.

“The dishes are not as exciting, because often he was there [in the restaurant] in the past,” he says. “His chefs now have to become him — it’s an inevitable corporatizing.”

With multiple properties, Chang can’t be everywhere at once. “The question used to be, ‘Is he going to stay?’” Kliman says. “Now, the question is, ‘Where is he?’”

One way that you’ll find the answer is with a phone app the chef has launched. It will soon track his movements so that diners will know where he’s cooking that night. But the true answer may point to Bethesda. Chang plans to make it his flagship restaurant — and finally stay put. “The main purpose for my restaurants before Bethesda was to make money,” he says. Once the new place is built, he’ll stay behind its stove, focused on creating new dishes.

“He’s had a taste of what’s here and is experimenting,” Kliman says. When I ask Chang if this means that some of his most beloved dishes will disappear from his restaurant’s menus, he reassures: “The flavor and the heart of the dishes will not change.” S

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