Why Isn't Chinese Food Hip?

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Crispy lamb filets with chili cumin from Szechuan Gourmet. Photograph taken by Kathryn Yu

Wall Street Journal food writer Raymond Sokolov poses this very question as he decries the dearth of both high-quality, high-end Chinese restaurants in America and contemporary non-Chinese chefs in American kitchens who rarely look to China for inspiration.

Is he right? I have an opinion, but I'm sure many other serious eaters do as well.

I think he is correct in saying many excellent American chefs are more likely to find inspiration in other Asian cuisines, namely Japan, Thailand, and Korea. But it must be noted that David Chang makes a better pork bun than any I've had in a New York Chinatown restaurant. He also makes a fried chicken at Momofuku Noodle Bar that clearly pays homage to a Chinese dish found in many Chinese restaurants. In fact, when I tasted it for the first time, I asked Chang, and he flat out told me he was trying to replicate a dish he had eaten many times in lower Manhattan's Chinatown.

But another reason for the lack of Chinese influence on chefs might be the difficulty for American chefs to apprentice in Chinese restaurants, both in China and America. Sokolov mentions Sichuan cooking expert Fuschia Dunlop as a beacon of Chinese food in the west, but Dunlop is one of the few westerners who has attended cooking school in the Sichuan province.

I also take issue with Sokolov's characterization of Chinese restaurant food in America. Maybe the ma po tofu was somehow lacking when Sokolove tried it at Szechuan Gourmet, but there is much great food to recommend there, including a killer lamb with cumin. I've also had first-rate Sichuan food at Grand Sichuan Eastern with none other than Dunlop herself, who seemed quite impressed with the place in general. Finally, I would urge Sokolov to head down to Chinatown Brasserie for some of Joe Ng's incredible dim sum.

Do you think Chinese food is still hip?

Szechuan Gourmet

21 West 39th St, New York 10018 (b/n 5th and 6th Avenues; map)
212-921-0233

Grand Sichuan Eastern

1049 2nd Ave, New York 10022 (b/n 55th and 56th Streets; map)
212-355-5855

Related

A Meal at Szechuan Gourmet: Your Weekend Eating Assignment
Another Manhattan Sichuan Restaurant Worth the Sweat
The Best Dim Sum in New York Isn't in Chinatown
Talking with Fuchsia Dunlop: One Englishwoman's Take on Food in China Today

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