As a Jewish boy raised in Brooklyn in the 1950s, Ed Schoenfeld grew up in a very different kind of New York City restaurant scene. “If we went out for ethnic food, it was usually one of two cuisines—and Chinese was one of the two,” recalls Schoenfeld. (The other was Norwegian, which at the time had a major presence along the Brooklyn docks.) It was from those early meals of Cantonese fried rice and chicken lo mein that Schoenfeld grew a love—which later burned into a passion—for Chinese cooking.
He got his start in 1973 at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan on the Upper East Side, a restaurant that many credit for bringing Hunan and Szechuan cooking to the United States. Two weeks after Schoenfeld began working as maitre d’hotel, the New York Times dropped a four-star review, which “opened many, many doors for me,” says the man who would later work at Shun Lee and open and run some of the top Asian restaurants in the business.
Schoenfeld now consults for professional sports teams, launched an experimental food court and most recently has opened a Red Farm in New York’s West Village—a collaboration with longtime partner Joe Ng (also of Chinatown Brasserie).
We spoke with da-footzah (Mandarin translation: Big Beard) about the state of Chinese cooking in America.
What was your first experience with Chinese cooking?
Going with my mom in the ‘50s to Cantonese-American restaurants in Brooklyn.
What neighborhoods were serving Chinese cuisine then?
Chinatown in Manhattan was certainly a place we went. I remember going to a place in Crown Heights, on Empire Boulevard. We never really went out for French food, once in a while we went out of Italian food. It was usually Chinese.
What were Chinese restaurants like in the 1950s and ‘60s?
They were Cantonese-American restaurants, with chefs that I presume came here much earlier because in the ‘50s it was against the law for Chinese people to immigrate to the United States. The food was pretty realistic in terms of what Cantonese people eat. And, of course, they always wanted to make foods they think that their clients want—which in this case is American clients.
What were some of the dishes?
The normal things like fried rice and shrimp with lobster sauce. Spare ribs, chow mein, lo mein noodles and, of course, wonton soup. These were, and still are, the heart of many Chinese restaurant menus around America—and around the world.
So Cantonese is the most popular Chinese style in the United States right now?
It was only in the 1970s when we first started having Hunan and Szechuan restaurants. Now there are lots of dishes in that repertoire that that have gone mainstream. Kung pao hot pepper sauce is almost always Americanized, except it’s totally Chinese.
What are some regional Chinese dishes that are maybe underexposed?
It’s important to note that in order to eat like this you would not go to a restaurant catering to the NYC food community, but ones that cater to the Chinese community in places like Flushing or South Brooklyn. And there are only a few restaurants that do, for example, Northeastern cuisine from Harbin. Queens has a couple of places like that.
Is it possible to make a statement like “you should order this item, but never that item.” Like how Bourdain famously wrote to never eat fish on Sunday…
I don’t think that you can just make a blanket judgment about, you know, “don’t order crispy skins because it’s a crappy dish.” It depends on the people who are in the kitchen and the job they do. A good chef is going to make an authentic regional dish or create a riff on something authentic. If they’re a shitty chef, it probably won’t taste too good. Listen, if they’re selling you a piece of fish and it’s only $3, I would think twice about it.
What are some things people might not know about Chinese food?
The first thing that people don’t understand about Chinese food is that to a Chinese eater, the texture of the food is more important than flavor. The professional chef often works backwards, from texture into how they’re going to flavor the dish as well. Which is why in Chinese cooking you have dishes that are sort of dry and crunchy. You have vegetables that have very crisp texture. Shrimp has a crunchiness to it. And it’s sometimes at the expense of the natural flavor.
That’s counter-intuitive to many…
They feel that if they get the right texture, then they can find a way to flavor the item and it’s going to be delicious.
What else might people not know?
For me, delicious trumps authentic. The kind of atmosphere that I see in Flushing, where the Chinese community demands a very low price for the food that they get, that a chef has real limitations in terms of the kinds of foods he can use and what he does with it. The real cutting edge excitement is happening in the restaurants that are staffed by chefs that have had a chance to become a little more worldly. They’ve been cooking in Kuala Lumpur, they’ve been cooking in Laos, they’ve been cooking in a fancy hotel in Singapore or in Australia or in Vancouver and they’ve been exposed to different kinds of foods. I was in Beijing in 2004 and chefs were cooking with things like duck liver and saffron. There was a high level of creativity.
You’re finding European flourishes in the cuisine of Mainland China…
Well, I think European is even restricting it. It’s worldly.
You know, a good example is one of the items we’re doing here at Red Farm. For many years a lot of the better restaurants have sold a dish of little lettuce cups filled with minced chicken, or originally it was minced squab, and pine nuts. And you eat it and you fold it up like that. It’s a lovely thing. Joe [Ng] ended up doing this, but with a little pancake like you’d make for Peking duck. We used it like a soft-shell taco. He’s even making a salsa for the top of it.
Well, it’s fun, but you know, the thing to understand about when we do those things is we are playful and we do want to have fun, but it’s also sensible cooking. We’re not doing it for the sake of art.
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