“Movember” is over, but chef Jonathan Wu is sticking with his mustache. “It did take me 35 years [to grow one],” he laughs. “This guy was corporate cheffing before the restaurant — no facial hair,” says Wu’s business partner, Wilson Tang. “Now, he’s like, ‘Fuck it. I have my own place. I can grow whatever I want.’”
Wu and Tang are co-owners of the modish Chinese-American restaurant Fung Tu in New York City. (Why they didn’t just call the place Wu-Tang, we suspect, probably has something to do with trademarks. Well, that and having two additional partners: beverage director Jason Wagner and chef de cuisine Matt John Wells.)
About three years ago, when the restaurant was still under construction (and both guys were still clean-shaven), they were introduced to filmmaker Grace Lee. “She liked our story,” says Tang. Tonight, the pair will appear in the broadcast debut of Lee’s new PBS documentary Off the Menu: Asian America (check your local listings), which chronicles the launch of Fung Tu, among other stories dealing with America’s diverse Asian food culture.
One of the first cultural curiosities mentioned in the film: this idea that Asian-Americans are perhaps even more obsessed with taking food photographs than the rest of us. The Fung Tu guys don’t disagree. “Asians are obsessed with food, it’s true,” Wu says. “It’s a funny stereotype. Who are the food-obsessed people in New York City? Asian chicks. I mean, look at his Instagram feed,” he says, referring to Tang. “There’s a lot of Asian chicks taking photos of food.” “And I’m cool with that,” Tang says. “I love for that to be our dining demographic. Yo, come in, take as many pictures you want.”
It’s been an interesting few years for Wu, the talented alumnus of several fine-dining institutions, including Thomas Keller’s Per Se, and Tang, the charismatic second-generation proprietor of Chinatown’s long-standing Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Critics were less than enthused when Fung Tu first opened, but the guys kept at it, ultimately earning a respectable two-star review from The New York Times. The partners also somehow managed to stay in business despite losing gas service for two whole months.
How do you cook Chinese food without a single working wok? You get creative.
Asian food has never been more popular in the United States than it is now. In this documentary, the filmmaker shares how her Korean family used to keep the kimchi tucked away down in the basement. Nowadays, it’s out in the open and everywhere. How did this cultural shift happen? Why did it happen? And how have you tried to seize on that momentum at Fung Tu?
TANG: For myself, Asian food was always in style. Even when it wasn’t “in style,” it was in style. For me now, it’s how do I cater to a broader palate? The foods that people gravitate towards, it’s either spicy stuff or it’s dumplings. I do it. I give it to them. Noodles, we’ve got that. And here [at Fung Tu], it’s that, just even cooler. It’s elevated. We have egg rolls here. We have scallion dumplings. We have fried rice. We have chicken wings. We have meatballs. It’s stuff that Americans know. Like a meatball sub, only here it’s a Chinese meatball sub. Or, like, chicken wings, only this is a mustard wing. Stuff that people know about, just with Chinese spices, Chinese ingredients, a Chinese chef.
A Chinese chef with classic European-style culinary training.
WU: Among the cooks, it’s often second-generation immigrants who have trained around and are deciding to explore their heritages. I think that’s happening a lot, whether it’s with Thai food, like Uncle Boon’s, or with Phet over at Khe-Yo, exploring his Laotian roots. And also, it speaks to a generation that’s more fluent and conversant with American culture. Like with Wilson. I mean, Nom Wah is a 100-year-old business, but he knows how to use the Internet. Ten years ago, could you find a Chinese restaurant with a Web site? Probably not.
Nom Wah is known for serving dim sum all day, every day. How did you come up with that idea?
TANG: Growing up, it was like, with dim sum, you’ve got to wake up early, you’ve got to go on Saturday, you’ve got to fight the crowds. I’m just like, fuck this. I’m going to do this the way I want to do this. It’s going to be like a diner, a Chinese diner, open morning to night, you have a menu, you pick what you want.
WU: It’s a better product, too. It’s not sitting on a cart. He’s making it to order.
TANG: Growing up, my parents were always like, ‘Wilson, get a job,’ be a white-collar kind of dude, and you know, work the 9 to 5. That’s the American dream. I did it. And it sucked. It really sucked working in an office. For my dad, he was like, “You’re making a big mistake. Why are you going back to the restaurant? It’s such hard work,” and this and that. That generation is different, too. My dad was in the restaurant business. It was hard. You didn’t have such a big reach as we do now, like on a personal level through social media, or even a business level. If we’re in the press somewhere, the world knows. Back then, it’s like, “OK, New York knows about it.” That really made my job easier. I’m not slaving away behind the stove all day, or working front of the house all day.
WU: I think a difference between us and our parents was, well, we were given the opportunity to make a choice. This was the only thing open to someone without an education. That’s the job for a first-generation immigrant. What can I do? I can work in construction, or I can work in a restaurant. In the city, that’s typically the route. We’re lucky, our parents worked their asses off to give us the opportunity, the privilege, really, to be able to make this choice. We’re kind of insane to do it, but…the point is, we get to do what we love to do.
Back to that thing you mentioned about Asian chefs who were cooking other styles of food and then decided, like you did, to explore their own heritage and kind of blend techniques and flavors. But there’s also another phenomenon, too, where you have these Caucasian chefs who don’t have an Asian heritage but they’ve adopted Asian flavors as their own.
WU: Like Andy Ricker.
Yeah, or like Scott Drewno, chef at the Source in Washington, D.C., big towering white dude who does great Chinese cooking. [See another good example here.] There’s something about Asian flavors in America — whether you have that heritage or you don’t, there’s something unifying about it, something timely. Why is that? It’s got to be a flavor thing, doesn’t it?
WU: It’s a complex question. I think, overall, the profile for food has blown up in the last 10 to 12 years, and it has to do with media, it has to do with the Food Network, it has to do with celebrity chefs. I think maybe that has emboldened more chefs. I know the feeling in New York City, on the cusp of the old vanguard of, like, these chefs, like Jonathan Benno, Marco Canora, they’re part of the old paradigm. Jonathan Benno worked for 20 years before he took the helm of a restaurant, and you’re expected to work in the European tradition and gain technique in that field. And I think sort of my generation after, there’s more openness. It’s OK to branch out of French food. I think it does have to do with overall awareness and interest in food of all kinds. People like [Anthony] Bourdain, they’re teaching us, they’re teaching the public. He’s going to all these amazing places. “Here, this is Burmese food.” A non-industry person in Des Moines is like, “Oh, wow, this is a tea leaf salad.” You know? There’s been a lot of education through the media. Like, millennials, man — they’re food-obsessed. Look at [comedian] Aziz Ansari. What’s on his mind? Food. All the time. These are people raised on Food Network.
TANG: Back to your question about Caucasian chefs, like how Andy Ricker strikes a chord. Everyone has a story, you know? He was so obsessed with Thai food that he actually moved [to Thailand]. I give that so much props for you to totally submerse yourself into that culture and knock down the barriers. He just kept knocking. And he got in. He did it. I give that so much props. It’s the other way around, too. You hear about these people opening an American-Chinese restaurant in Shanghai, and that’s all the rage now. That’s flipping the script.
WU: I think it’s deeply American, too. This is a country where, first of all, one can make their own dreams, and then secondly, one can focus on whatever identity one wants. You know, like, a Caucasian person cooking Asian food, or an Asian person cooking French food. That’s the freedom that we have here. Also, relatedly, it’s the notion of authenticity. Like Andy Ricker is exploiting that notion of, like, is it authentic if a white dude is cooking Thai food? I mean, clearly it is. He makes very authentic food. Is the food here at Fung Tu authentic? Authentic according to what? I mean, is it authentically Chinese? No. Is it authentically American? No. But is it authentically its own thing? Absolutely. And does it have an authenticity in spirit if we’re talking about Chinese food? Yes.
I’m glad you brought that up. You talk about that in the show. That’s a very subjective thing, “authenticity in spirit.” How do you, as a chef, know when you have that? Generally, when we talk about authenticity, we’re talking about traditional ingredients, traditional recipes, traditional techniques and that sort of thing. But when you experiment with ingredients and recipes, how does it register as “authentic in spirit” to you?
TANG: It’s like a flavor memory. Let’s go back to 1992. I’m home from high school, I’m doing my homework, my mom opens the door, she’s tired from work, she’s not going to cook tonight, but she has this takeout box. And inside is this very lean duck wing. It’s marinated in soy, and there’s like a white glistening of fat on it because it’s cold out, and the fat has congealed a little bit. And I bite into it, and it’s amazing. And this is deep in my mind as a high-schooler. Fast-forward 20 years, and Jonathan’s cooking in the back, my wife and I come in for dinner, and we have a duck breast dish here. And when we order the ducks, they cut out the wings, and we don’t really use it. But Jonathan has taken that and done his thing with it. He’ll give those out as freebies for good customers or VIPs or, like, me. When I eat that, it evokes that same food memory. Now we’re talking about a spirit. This is what I remember. That’s just one example out of many.
WU: I’d say it’s a personal connection. Listen to the detail. Those are very evocative and important moments. It reminds you of family. Nobody can take that away. Nobody can say that’s not authentic, that feeling.
In the film, Grace Lee spotlights your use of olives at Fung Tu. That’s not something you typically see at Chinese restaurants in America.
TANG: Oh yeah, but I can’t imagine that egg roll without olives. It tastes so much better than the ones at Nom Wah [laughs].
WU: That’s kind of what this place is about. It’s surprising, right? Olives in Chinese food. But in fact, it’s a thing in Chinese cooking. It goes back to my mother. She had all these Chinese snacks around the house, and one of them was olives, Chinese olives. They’re green usually and often flavored with chili or star anise. Researching it, it’s like, yeah, there is an olive that’s independent of the Mediterranean variety. It grows in southern China and southeast Asia. This sort of thing is what this place is all about, those little-known things, Chinese olives and bringing them to the public. Or, like the toon leaf, it’s a very special Chinese vegetable. You’re not going to find that anywhere else in New York City. We’re able to get them fresh because they grow in my grandfather’s yard. And in the movie, we go there. The spirit of Chinese food is here, it’s in this place, and it’s because of these products that are special. We have feelings toward these products; they are connected to us.
I love hearing stories about restaurateurs and their sagas. I want to hear a little more about your saga here. Critics weren’t big fans of this place at first, then that turned around, and they became big fans. How did you do that?
TANG: It takes a couple of months for us to get into gear. Of course, if you come in the first month, it’s going to be great, but it’s not going to be outstanding. But give us a couple more months, we’ve got the timing right, the labor right. Come then, and now we’re talking.
WU: This is all exacerbated by the fact that this place is original. There’s no template for it. There was still a menu-development period those first six months — hell, the first year…maybe we just worked hard. I’m pretty introspective. I’m not really ever happy with stuff. And that’s what happened. We honed and honed, and worked and worked. Hey, we were lucky. Somebody thought we were doing something interesting because [The New York Times] doesn’t usually do that, to get a Ligaya Mishan review and then a Pete Wells review. I can only think of one other restaurateur that’s ever happened to, and that’s David Chang. He got a $25 and Under [review] and then a full-blown [review] for Ssam Bar. It’s a rare thing. We never thought we were going to get Pete. It was like, Ligaya came, The New York Times did its thing and we’re done.
Tell me about the gas issue. That’s another chapter in your saga. You were closed for a while, but not the whole time you were dealing with the problem. You had to adapt. How did you do that?
WU: It’s still affecting us. To lose a week’s worth of revenue, it hurts. New York City is a hard place. And we can’t control what other people do, whether they’re responsible or irresponsible.
TANG: To add to that, we’re in a city that is very old, we’re in a building that is over 100 years old, and shit happens. There’s construction, someone smells something, gas gets shut down. It’s a combination of an old city and shoddy work being done that caused the gas to be shut off.
It was off for, what, two months?
TANG: Two months! We were closed for one week, thinking that, “OK, this is fine, we’ll be back next week.” Halfway through the week, I’m already saying, “Let’s try to gear up for opening without the gas because it’s looking that way.” It’s never just a week.
WU: We have a good team. We had a meeting, and by the end of the meeting, we had a plan hashed out. What do we need to open? I can figure out, with our partner, Matt John, my chef de cuisine, we can figure out a menu that’ll work on butane burners and induction burners and an [electric] oven. The main thing was, we needed hot water. Wilson figured out a way for us to get hot water, and we figured out the menu.
How did you get the hot water?
TANG: There’s a boiler in the basement, so we just tapped into that line to get the hot water, so we’re up to code as far as bathrooms having hot water, sinks having hot water. It was a total hack. We had consent [from the landlord]. We could have been closed in two months, just for the fact that we didn’t have hot water. It’s illegal to operate an eating establishment without hot water. You can’t even wash your hands in the bathroom, you can’t keep the place sanitary…. It wasn’t a smooth ride for two months. We were so heavy on electric use. Our circuit couldn’t handle it. Every night, the power would go off. Our GM/partner Jason would have to go the basement and turn the switch back on. It was an ordeal to go through.
In terms of menu items, what did you do?
WU: We had to decrease the amount of fried items, because our fryer is gas-powered. So we were using a pot on an induction burner to fry. It’s a big difference. Fryers are an amazing piece of equipment; they maintain the temperature very well. We just couldn’t fry as many things. We couldn’t use the wok. We had to take off fried rice, our best-selling items. We lost that. But…
WU: We did.
TANG: We also got a lot of press out of it.
WU: It was nice to hear when people would tell us later that they had no idea that the kitchen had no gas, and we heard that a lot. Later on, they’d be like, “Wait. We just read that you had no gas. We had no idea. We were just here. We didn’t know.” Well, we did — that’s for sure.
Pull out your crystal ball for a moment. What does the future hold for Asian food in America?
WU: You’re going to see more things like what Jason Wang is doing at Xi’an Famous Foods. He’s doing something special, taking a regional style of Chinese food and blowing it up for the masses. These styles — Sichuanese, Hunanese, Cantonese, Xianese, Beijingese — are proliferating more, and even the more obscure regions are going to come to the fore. I mean, people are not just speaking about Thai food as a whole, it’s like Northern style or Isaan style.
TANG: Or with Vietnamese, there’s Hanoi style, Saigon style. It’s going to get even deeper into these specialties. In New York, it will be how do you mass-produce that in more of a grab-n-go style like X’ian. It’s such a competitive market. Real estate costs are so high; labor is so high. How do you still make money doing it? It’s by having small places, no waiter service, no fine dining, $10 to $15, eat and go. That’s the general direction I want to go. I don’t want to do any more restaurants because it’s just difficult. There are too many moving parts.
WU: Maybe in 15 years, it’s going to be more abstract stuff, like here.
You think Fung Tu is a model for what we’ll eat in the future?
WU: It’s not a model, but it’s a little future-y. More immediately, it’s stuff like Mimi Cheng’s, stuff like this new place Ma La that’s going to open in the East Village. It’s straight-up food, but taken out of the enclave neighborhoods and using nicer ingredients. Traditional foodstuffs, done nicely with seasonality and those New American sensibilities. That has to happen more, and then people will start to get [Fung Tu] more, to be honest.
You don’t think New York gets it?
WU: There’s a small fraction that really freaking likes what’s going on here. As a whole, cultural impact–wise, it’s a little early.
22 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002