Peter Chang is not slowing down.
He jumps off the table to offer water to the guests. At another point, he returns to the kitchen of his Bethesda restaurant, Q By Peter Chang, to help his staff prepare a huge takeout order for the Dragon Boat Festival, an ancient Chinese festival that falls in late spring.
Even after sitting down, Chang, 58, remains in constant motion, answering calls on his smartphone and twisting a metal bottle cap with his fingers until it bends.
Chang prefers to speak Chinese, but some things don’t require translation. When asked if he plans to retire, a broad smile spreads across his face. He laughs and shakes his head.
His seemingly limitless energy is a driving force behind Chang’s restaurant empire – which is growing in both reach and culinary recognition around the world.
Earlier this year, Chang was one of five American chefs to be named a James Beard Award finalist in the “outstanding chef” category. He beat the likes of Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf, who was named a semi-finalist but not a finalist.
The final winners will be announced Monday night at a ceremony at the Lyric Opera in Chicago; Chang and his family will be in attendance, along with collaborating chefs Pichet Ong and Simon Lam.
It’s the first awards show in two years for the Barbs, sometimes called the “Oscars of the Food World,” and it comes after a 2021 audit that aimed to overhaul and diversify the program.
Lydia Chang, Peter’s 34-year-old daughter and business partner, was trying to manage expectations in the days leading up to the event.
“We’re not here with a goal of winning,” she said. “We are here to have fun and have a good time.
Lydia also runs the operations of NiHao, the family restaurant in the Canton area of Baltimore. The restaurant, which opened in 2020, was recognized by the Beard Awards as a Best New Restaurant semi-finalist, but was not a finalist.
Chang said he never envisioned achieving this level of success when he first left China two decades ago. “Chinese cuisine is still a fairly minor type of food in the United States,” he said through translator, friend and business partner Lawrence Chen.
Like Wolf, Chang was once a finalist to Beard in the Mid-Atlantic regional “best chef” category. But the national nomination is a new level of recognition, signifying its impact in getting American diners to understand the nuances of Chinese cuisine.
For some, it is high time.
Fuchsia Dunlop, a London-based cook and food writer specializing in Chinese cuisine, said: “It’s time for the western foodie establishment to give Chinese food its due. Dunlop, who ate at Chang’s Northern Virginia restaurant Mama Chang in Fairfax, hopes his appointment to Beard “will pave the way for greater recognition in the West, not just of the flavor of Chinese cuisine, but of its sophistication. as an art form”.
Westerners tend to “underestimate Chinese food while finding it delicious,” Dunlop said. Some aspects of Chinese cooking like the wok technique may seem simple to Americans, but in fact they have ancient roots and require great concentration and skill to ensure everything is cooked well over high heat.
Steve Chu, co-owner of Ekiben, a Chinese fusion restaurant in Baltimore, said he knows Chinese food is undervalued. Growing up, he was used to derogatory comments from some customers at his father’s restaurant, Jumbo Seafood in Pikesville. If the company raised prices by even a few cents, a customer might ask, “Isn’t Chinese food supposed to be cheap?”
When Chu heard about Chang’s nomination for the Beard, he thought, “It’s about time. »
Raised on a farm just outside Wuhan, China, Chang moved to the United States with his wife, Lisa, a pastry chef, and Lydia, then 14, two decades ago as a chef from the Chinese Embassy.
After leaving that position, he worked for years in relative anonymity in the kitchens of Virginia restaurants, with names like China Star and TemptAsian, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile.
Yet its well-seasoned Sichuan staples, unlike anything available in the region at the time, caught the attention of a coterie of hyperfans who began to seek out the intense flavors that stood out in his kitchen. His followers called themselves “Changians” and followed his whereabouts as he moved from restaurant to restaurant.
At first, Chang avoided the spotlight, fearing he would incur the wrath of the Chinese government after leaving his post at the embassy. But in 2011, he opened his first Peter Chang restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia. This fall, Chang will open a 10th branch in Columbia, Merriweather District. A new restaurant, Chang Chang, will also open this fall in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood.
A new concept, Peter Zhang, is set to launch this year in Fairfax, with future locations planned in Maryland, potentially Baltimore. Offering a more streamlined and limited menu than its existing restaurants, Peter Zhang will allow Chang to experiment with a business model that is gaining popularity with Asian restaurateurs. At the heart of it all are the bold and vibrant flavors of Sichuan.
The changing restaurant climate has encouraged Chinese chefs to move from the fringes of the food world to the center of popular cuisine. In places like the United States and the United Kingdom, “there are a lot of chefs who produce Chinese food on Chinese terms,” said food writer Dunlop. “There is a whole new space for truly authentic Chinese cuisine.”
Ekiben’s Chu agreed, saying that as China grows into a superpower and more Chinese students travel abroad for school, “Chinese culture and cuisine [is] start making headwinds and getting the respect he deserves. With the popularity of TikTok and other diverse platforms for sharing conversations about food, more and more diners are being introduced to food traditions outside of their immediate bubbles, Chu said. “It’s probably the most exciting time to eat in America.”
For business owners, a good translator helps. For the Chang family, it’s typically Lydia. Fluent in English, Mandarin and the Wuhan dialect, Lydia has helped communicate a unified voice across the family’s restaurant group, which includes concepts in Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut.
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“Lydia’s family have been very good at marketing themselves and Peter,” Chu said, calling Changs savvy restaurateurs. He added: “They’re also super talented.”
Master chef in her own right, Lisa Chang is responsible for some of the family’s restaurant group favorites, including scallion pancakes and dim sum dishes. “Anything to do with the dough is her job,” Lydia said.
Dunlop notes that although Chang has a base in the classics of Sichuan cuisine, he is not trapped by tradition, choosing instead to innovate and grow as the world around him changes.
During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown in the United States, Chang was introduced by a friend to an Amish community in New York’s Finger Lakes region. He began sourcing Amish-raised chickens and other produce for his restaurants. Customers “can really taste the difference in the ingredients,” Lydia said.
Chang said he was fascinated by exploring the different possibilities of basic ingredients, like how to make dozens of different items from a single cabbage. “There is a Chinese way of saying it. It’s called “Using a point to explore different angles”.
With that, Chang returns to the kitchen to prepare a plate of braised chicken, and another of tofu skin salad seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, a signature of the region. Called sick in Chinese, they offer a tingling, numbing sensation unlike anything else. No wonder his followers have become addicted.
Words can only go so far. Ultimately, Chang’s first language is food.