Doron Wong Explores a New Frontier of Yunnan Cuisine
Wong: I would like to see people to support the local farmers -- that helps everyone. And more urban farming. I guess that makes me a tree-hugger.
What are the major obstacles you see in the industry?
Wong: Being a big restaurant group, you always have incentives to purchase in bulk amounts. Small restaurants get hammered by the pricing -- we'd like the same price structure. You want to help the small guys stay in business, and that's a big line item for little restaurants.
The other one is staffing and having good people. At small restaurants, it's harder because you can't pay as much. Big restaurants can throw money out there. A lot of people don't pay their dues anymore. I come from the days when you started on prep and worked through the ranks. It took me 10 years cooking before i jumped into management. Culinary school is just a piece of paper that says you graduated from cooking school -- you did everything once. But cooking is about repetition -- you don't master something until you've done it 10, 20, or 40 times. You have to pay your dues, and it doesn't matter if you go to cooking school or not.
How has the media impacted the industry?
Wong: Because of shows like Top Chef, people don't do their time. They don't work through the ranks before they become sous chefs and chefs. A chef should be able to go into anyone's kitchen and cook anything. A lot of these chefs go from cooks for one or two years to going on TV and becoming celebrity chefs. That kind of bothers me -- I've been doing this for 20 years, and it affects our industry. You're breeding laziness.
What about the review cycle?
Wong: My friend is a chef at Rouge Tomate. They were struggling in their first year. Then they got their Michelin star, and boom, that was it. They're constantly busy. The impact of media is huge here in New York. If you're out of the media, your business starts to drop. The better the reviews, the more consistent the business.
Any big lessons that have really stuck with you?
Wong: I have a few mentors. Susur Lee for sure; he was the chef at Shang. He's still in my life. We talk about food and bounce ideas off of each other. Ken Oringer taught me a lot about flavor. A lot of his foundation is French. David Burke taught me how to treat food like toys. He looks at food a little bit differently. It's an art project. Cool looking food takes a lot of prep and a lot of other components.
What are your goals?
Wong: For the restaurant, preserving the Yunnan flavor, sticking to what we believe, and using local farms and seasonal ingredients. For the bigger picture, open up a couple more restaurants.
Chou: We have other concepts we want to do. We're very go with the flow. We'll see what happens. We really love what we do.
Wong: We're open for everything.