Food in Mouth

Dumpling cross section

On Chinese food in America

In the Dining Journal on The New York Times, Eric Asimov asked an excellent question about Chinese food: "Why... were there no Chinese restaurants in New York that venerate great ingredients in a Slow Food sort of way... Chinese is one of the world’s great cuisines, yet in New York, and I daresay in much of the country, it remains for the most part consigned either to great expressions of immigrant food in various Chinatowns, to touristy, kitschy environments or to delivery status." He pretty much summed up the Chinese food scene in New York as well for the entire country. Sometimes that makes me sad that Chinese food doesn't go up to the next level that other cuisines have done. I'll probably die before there's a NYT 4-star Chinese restaurant that Chinese people actually visit. And I think that's kind of the issue with Chinese food that we don't get as much with something like high-end Italian food.


Honestly, no one cares if Babbo resonates with native Italians. But I dare say that even white people who dine at Shun Lee Palace or a Chinatown Brasserie would look around the room... and then think how the room looks vastly different than the dining room at some place in Chinatown. Even if Danny Meyer got behind a restaurant with a Chinese theme, how would people in New York respond? What if it had all the artisenal beer in the world and some carefully constructed cocktails features all the coolest bitters that hipster lounges use? And then the service? It'd be full of ABCs (American-Born Chinese) fluent in two Chinese dialects (Mandarin and Catonese) all the while speaking an accent-less Midwester/East coast English suitable for the nightly news. These linguistically talented servers would also be well versed in the respectable yet affordable wine list too. The chef? Probably one of two breeds - One, a die-hard Asian who's here to expand his business. Has personality that jumps off the pages of a print publication, and a charm that would befriend yuppie crackers who've done some traveling. Two, an ABC that's trained at a top culinary institution or maybe self-trained and well tattoo-ed. Has a respect for nature and sustainable ingredients, and cooks with a flare that uses some of the western style but really stays true to Chinese cuisine.

Chinese people are not going to go to that. I mean, they'll try it, but the focus on price is so... intense. Any restaurant that does Chinese food at a high level with quality ingredients just would never attract Chinese people. You could do one that's focused on a type of food, like the way Ippudo succeeds with ramen. And we've seen that Baohaus has really taken off here in NY. But the obsession that Chinese people have with money and cost and value... it's just so deep. The kind of restaurant that Eric Asimov says we need is one that probably could never exist. I really think it could, but I also really think if you can't fill half of it with Chinese (or even just Asians), then it will not count as much. If quality products would come to the country on a mass scale, and one could do this restaurant concept without creating a menu that's say... 15% more than the menu at Shanghai Cafe, then it would be a game-changer and would never be empty. But suffice to say, if quality ingredients is always going to come at a premium and that premium is passed on to the consumer... then that consumer probably won't be Chinese. So the question is, if someone created that restaurant that Asimov talks about... and it's the same crowd you get at The Spotted Pig, then what is it? A Chinese restaurant? Or something else?

Posted by Danny on

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  • is funny, the wine/beer portion of that blog post didnt really register to me, because i suppose part of me dismissed it outright as a by product of white people’s general ignorance of asian food and the culture which produced it.

    chinese food is generally not a cuisine which would benefit at all from wine pairings, as it is so flavorful in its own right that any wine would really threaten to overpower and/or compete with the flavor, and make your tastebuds numb from all the competition for attention. thats why most of the beers in china are watery, because if you had a deep lager or ale with you chinese food thats all you would taste.

    the arrogance of the slow food question bothers me more, as there is a supposition that the quality of ingredients are not important to chinese kitchens, it also ignores the fact that the ingredients necessary for alot of chinese cooking requires importation from asia which is anathema to the locavore aesthetic. but as a riposte to all of that i offer this interesting post.

  • It's not just Chinese food, other Asian foods are pretty much at the same rank. I've yet to see an upscale Vietnamese, Indian, or Korean around Berkeley.

  • @Hungry,

    I thought about that once... then my friend reminded me that high-end Chinese food exists in Asia too... I mean, in Hong Kong, it's Chinese people eating the pricy Chinese food. There's actually a 3-star Michelin Chinese restaurant in HK but that's obviously more table linen type of a place.

  • There exists an economic imbalance that makes America/Europe unique in their situations since the cost of food in those places is far greater relative to general salaries than in Asia. Food has the same value to everyone (aside from enjoyment purposes), so when you consider the fact that people in Asia derive the same utility of food at much lower prices, there's an obvious divide. Relative costs of 'high class' food are therefore skewed as well, so despite most Asian countries earning lower base salaries, the people are more inclined to visit 'expensive' (as a relative term) eateries... see HK, Tokyo, or Shanghai.

    In the US, since the base cost is so high, it would make little sense to spend even more on food if the marginal utility were diminishing. Yes, I could spend a $100 instead of $50, but would the extra $50 get me anything aside from a little ambiance? Not really. Not when I could get 250 McNuggets in addition to my dinner.

  • Are there upscale Chinese restaurants in other parts of the world that actual Chinese people go to and pay for?

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