Doron Wong Explores a New Frontier of Yunnan Cuisine
Wong: It changes all the time. It's about keeping an open mind and not really setting guidelines that you can't obtain. I really go with the flow. I don't take myself too seriously. You have to have fun. I run a disciplined kitchen, but I like it to be focused and have fun.
Chou: We're all about integrity -- in what we do, in the ingredients we're using, in the business itself.
Tell me about Yunnan food:
Chou: I always go to geography. Yunnan is next to Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Tibet. The Silk Road used to go through there, which brought together different cultures and people cooking different things. It's a verdant province of China, kind of like California, and it has all these different pockets of cuisine. There's a lot of room to play. We adapt that thinking and approach. It's super fresh and local. And there are salads, which is unusual for Chinese food, plus flowers, mushrooms, Szechuan peppercorns, southeast Asian herbs, and Tibetan spices.
How do you take on this cuisine when you've never worked with it before?
Wong: I'm well versed in Eastern technique, and the same technique applies here. You're using the wok, braising, steaming -- it's the same, but with different ingredients. So it's easy to adapt that portion of it. It's new, so you're experimenting, but with everything, you're experimenting. There are specific guidelines that we follow. Specifically, the balance of flavors -- when the food hits your palate, it should be sweet, spicy, salty, and bitter.
Any unique challenges?
Wong: It took a lot of reading. I know more about Cantonese cooking, but I spent a lot of time in southeast Asia. Yunnan is at the southern tip of China -- it borders Laos, Burma, Thailand. It's the only province in China that eats salad. We don't eat raw greens in the rest of China. It's very simple and light, not like Cantonese. This is a lighter version of Southeast Asian food. It's like Thai-Chinese food.
Talk to me about your restaurant garden.
Wong: We compost, and we use our kitchen compost in our garden. We're planting tomatoes, eggplants, herbs, different types of mint, lavender, and different flowers. It's local, seasonal, and fun, and it's one of our interests -- we're trying to produce good tasting food. That's what mass-produced food loses: the flavor.
Chou: A couple of cooks work at Brooklyn Grange, and we thought, oh we really should do this garden thing. It teaches more people about food and about growing food -- you don't understand until you're doing it yourself. And you appreciate the ingredients so much more when you're walking the herbs upstairs for the sun because you need to take care of this mint. It takes so long to create food that tastes good. People think Chinese food should be $5, but look at how long it takes for this carrot to grow. People aren't used to seeing market-driven Chinese. That gives us a difficult challenge from a cost perspective, but it's something we really stand by. We want to shape the culture for how people think of Chinese food.
How has the New York restaurant industry evolved?
Wong: When I came here, it was all about expense accounts, and no one was worrying about labor. You saw 100-seat restaurants with 30 cooks in the kitchen; they were doing fine dining food. As time went on, fine dining stated to evolve into more casual food. Then we had the hiccup with the economy, and there was a lot of downsizing in the kitchens. Now, 100-seat restaurants have seven cooks trying to produce the same kind of food but make it more accessible. Now we're somewhere in the middle -- cuisine is still evolving.
How would you compare New York's dining scene to Singapore or Hong Kong?
Wong: There are festivals here that educate people about cuisines -- that's important. If you bring American food to China, they don't really know what it is. They think they know, but things like spaghetti and meatballs taste like Chinese food. Festivals teach us about other cultures -- we're much farther ahead in terms of global cuisine.