He’s a cult figure who’s opened restaurants in Fairfax, Alexandria, Atlanta, Knoxville and Charlottesville. Fans have traded clues about his whereabouts on the web, and he’s been tracked from restaurant to restaurant by Todd Kliman of The Washingtonian, who wrote about his own obsession with Chang’s food in the March 2010 issue of Oxford American. That same month, Calvin Trillin wrote a profile of Chang for the New Yorker.
Last week, you could find Chang at the James Beard House, cooking his superb Sichuan cuisine for a sold-out crowd. On Monday, his new restaurant in Short Pump, Peter Chang Café, opened quietly at 11424 W. Broad St. near Walmart. I spoke to Chang and his business partner, Gen Lee, yesterday — or more accurately, I spoke to Gen Lee. Chang doesn’t speak English and Lee translated for him that afternoon over a banquet of duck, cumin lamb and exceptional fried eggplant (among other dishes).
Chang is a small, youthful-looking man with a wide smile. His partner Lee, older and grayer, and Lee’s wife, Mary, are warm and welcoming, and provide a polite but firm buffer between Chang and his ardent fans. The first incarnation of Chang’s restaurant in Charlottesville descended into chaos as customers overran and overwhelmed the place, and fans “accidentally” walked into the kitchen where Chang was working.
The new partnership with Lee changed all that, and, as with the now-reinvented restaurant in Charlottesville, it’s doubtful that sort of situation will occur again.
The solution to the mystery of Chang’s abrupt disappearances seemed obvious to me once I met him in person. He’s quiet, self-effacing —even shy.
He told me that he grew up in the countryside of Hubei province in China, in “the smallest of the small” places and “the poorest of the poor.” Before he became a chef, his first priority was simply to have enough food to eat. Later, at cooking school, he would roll up newspapers to practice his knife skills. “There was no extra [food] for practice,” Lee explains.
Perhaps that explains his preference for smaller cities. Although Chang went on to win awards in China, cook for China’s President Hu Jintao and was later appointed chef at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, given his temperament and upbringing, it’s not a stretch to imagine that a small restaurant, and a city of about 200,000 like Richmond, may be a better fit than someplace larger. And like many first-generation immigrants, both Lee and Chang seem reluctant to go out on a financial limb to start a flashier, larger business based on the flimsy foundation of celebrity.
In addition, authentic regional Chinese cuisine (as opposed to Americanized dishes like General Tso’s chicken or orange beef found on most Chinese menus) has almost never made it onto the plate of the average American. Those dishes will still be available at Chang’s restaurant, but better and more exciting choices, things like thin slices of fish with sour cabbage in a deep broth crackling with spice and scallion bubble pancakes — thin, translucent and as round as balls — will be the restaurant’s focus. To educate the palate of America, Lee quoted Mao Zedong (founder of the People’s Republic of China), saying, “First we need to take the country[side] to take the city.”
Both Chang and Lee say that Chang is here to stay. “A chef needs to cook, to let his imagination go,” says Lee. Another restaurant, perhaps more (as franchises) are planned for the future, and Chang will train the chefs at the Short Pump location. “This is Peter Chang’s home, says Lee, “his home base, 100 percent.”