Chinese cuisine in America has long been lumped with so-called “ethnic” cuisines, like Mexican or Thai, which are expected to be cheap.
Forget General Tso’s – Chinese food in the US goes high end
Now, chefs are pushing back.
In New York, restaurants such as Guan Fu Sichuan – the second favorite restaurant of New York Times critic Pete Wells in 2017 – Hao Noodle and Tea by Madam Zhu’s Kitchen from successful restaurateur Zhu Rong, and Peking duck purveyor DaDong have opened to great fanfare.
But no one is pushing quite as hard as George Chen.
His new restaurant, Eight Tables, is fine dining with a call to arms.
An intimate yet opulent space up a nondescript alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Eight Tables offers only a tasting menu, which starts at $225.
Game-changing it might be, but a restaurant like Eight Tables makes sense in San Francisco with its large, lively and long-established Chinese community, and – according to San Francisco Chronicle food critic, Michael Bauer – “more high-end fixed price Western menus than any other city in the country.”
Thanks, Silicon Valley.
Chen thought up the idea for Eight Tables after 15 years in China, where he enjoyed many dinners at private kitchens.
“Private kitchens are not of any particular ethnic or regional area. It’s about going to a very gifted chef and letting him do the creative things that he does. Chefs from Shanghai bring a little more Shanghainese influence, chefs from Hong Kong more Cantonese,” says Chen. “And for me it was the same thing: I was born in San Francisco and this is my cuisine.”
Chen was inspired by the intimacy of the higher-end private kitchens that have gained popularity during China’s ongoing crackdown on corruption and conspicuous consumption.
Wealthy Chinese diners want a place where privacy is paramount – a preference shared by the Bay Area’s tech billionaire class.
“There’s a lot of money here,” says Chen, laughing, “and you’re not going to see Zuckerberg out dining at Chipotle (a fast-food chain).”
Chen combines Chinese flavors and techniques with ingredients sourced in part from his farm north of the city in Petaluma.
He has a fondness for modern, haute cuisine that will be new to most US Chinese food lovers. “We’re not afraid to go molecular,” Chen says.
Still, don’t call his cuisine “Chinese-American” food. “It’s Chinese food,” Chen insists.
“It’s taking inspiration from all the areas, and it has a San Francisco interpretation to it, but it’s definitely not Western looking East. It’s Chinese with respect for some Western techniques.”
Where Chen’s food looks to China through the lens of a Californian, his Chinatown neighbor, Brandon Jew, is attempting a uniquely San Francisco Chinese cuisine at Mister Jiu’s.
Long before opening Mister Jiu’s, Jew was working at some of California’s most influential establishments, including Zuni, Quince, and Bar Agricole. Then he set his sights on Chinese food.
"There’s a lot of room to re-conceptualize Chinese food. Being in Chinatown, I wanted to re-conceptualize San Francisco Chinese cuisine, in particular.”
Jew’s latest venture is a tribute to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mister Jiu’s is the third Chinese restaurant to occupy the same historic building since it was built in 1880.
As a child, Jew remembers eating at the Four Seasons restaurant there, never imagining he would be salvaging its gold chandeliers for his own dining room.
Back in his kitchen at Eight Tables, Chen is fond of saying “Chinese food needs to be elevated in this country,” as a kind of mission statement.
Jew agrees. “For a long time in America, Chinese food has been devalued and over-portioned, and I think that’s just how it had to be for people to survive,” he says.
“That is a part of Chinese-American culinary history, because what Chinese chefs had to do was get cheaper ingredients but serve a lot of it to carve out a culinary place.”
To entice modern Bay Area gourmands, Jew is on a different tack. “People came to love Chinese food in the first place because they thought it was delicious. And I think that’s a great place to start.”
Whatever he’s doing is working – Mister Jiu’s is one of the most difficult reservations to get in the city.