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Chinese restaurants may be popular in US, but owners lament lack of awards

Mark Niu


Chinese food is one of the most popular and abundant cuisines in America. But despite that, some wonder why Chinese restaurants are often left out when it comes to critical acclaim.  Mark Niu has more on that part of the story.

With tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants in America, last year the world-famous Michelin Guide only awarded one Chinese restaurant a Michelin star.

It gave out 231 stars nationwide, including 49 Japanese restaurants and 13 Korean restaurants.

Hanson Li is the CEO of Lazy Susan and has also been involved with several Michelin-star restaurants — none of which were Chinese.

"I think Chinese Americans have had to do a lot of work of changing or evolving the taste of the dishes to suit and to be successful in America, adapt to the local taste and the local customers over the last two years," Li said. "Having the stereotype for a long time of being a cuisine that should be cheap, should be a lot of food."

The founder of San Francisco's Eight Tables, George Chen, describes their signature dish.

"This first course is called Nine Essential Flavors of Chinese Cuisine. The nine flavors are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, numbing-tingling, spicy-hot, nutty, sharp-fresh, and smoky," Chen said.

The restaurant seeks to elevate Chinese American food with a private dining experience for just eight tables. Chen admits his team was crushed when Michelin did not recognize his restaurant.

"People said, maybe we're going to get two, but at least one. And we didn't get any and we still don't have any at all," he said. "It bugs me. Every chef with this crowd wants a star. It's not for my ego, it's for my team. It helps bring more people here to work and to discover this food."

Their Tai Medai fish has detailed ingredients of cilantro, Sichuan flavors, Shanghai bokchoy, and a sauce made from its own bones and fish head.

A meal at Eight Tables costs $150 for five courses and $250 for nine courses.

And when people say that’s expensive for Chinese food, Chen responds:

"I hate that. Yeah. People pay $20 for a pasta Bolognese meat sauce. They’re not complaining," he said.

"I have fresh chow mein noodles made with fresh vegetables, shrimp, roast pork for twice that portion and people still think outrage. We don’t cut corners. Our ingredients are the best. So why should Chinese food be relegated to cheap, inexpensive."

Eight Tables Chef De Cuisine, Floyd Nunn, has worked and trained at several Michelin-star restaurants and says recognition or not, he plans to keep innovating with Chinese cuisine, which he says has so many more tastes to offer, than what many have yet to explore.

"You know, I didn't see much of a difference between what I was serving there [at Michelin restaurants] and what we're serving here. And I think the perception around cooking Chinese food with the same price tag that we were serving European centric food there, is you know, people are just expecting it to be less expensive or they don't see the value necessarily in it, but the value comes in a lot of ingredients that people aren’t familiar with, like fish maw, sea cucumbers," Nunn said.

Li, of Lazy Susan, is working with the Asian American non-profit Gold House and reservation platform Open Table to launch the Gold Chef Prize, which will award Nine Asian Pacific chefs cash prizes, promotion opportunities and mentorship.

"Americans like Chinese food. That’s without a doubt," Li said. "We’ve unfortunately maybe bucketed it into the cheaper Chinese food that most people grew up with. And it's hard for a chef, a creative chef who wants to, you know, take that next few steps up in terms of the refinement of Chinese cuisine."

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