Calvin Trillin Pins Down Infamously Peripatetic Szechuan Chef Peter Chang


[Photograph,; ; magazine cover:]

If you don't read the New Yorker, the March 1, 2010, issue may be worth picking up just for the Calvin Trillin piece titled "Where's Chang? The Chef Who Can't Shake His Followers" (subscription required, sorry!).

Trillin takes up with a group of Mid-Atlantic-area denizens of the food board who are obsessed with the comings and goings of Peter Chang, a talented Szechuan chef who moves from one nondescript Chinese restaurant to another — often with no notice to his fans, who then desperately scour the region and post to the web in an effort to find him again.

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The Knoxville News Sentinel ran a good article (with video) about Peter Chang when he worked briefly at Hong Kong House in Tennessee. Warning: Chang is, of course, no longer there. The article is still worth a look.

Among contributors to food blogs and forums, it is common to dream of wandering into some dreary-looking chow-mein joint called Bamboo Gardens or Golden Dragon, ordering a couple of items you hadn't expected to see on the menu, and discovering that the kitchen harbors a chef of spectacular ability.

That happened in 2005, according to Trillin, when poster John Binkley discovered Chang at China Star in Fairfax, Virginia. Word quickly spread, but just as quickly, Chang left China Star for another restaurant. And then another, and another, and another, each time leaving his acolytes to suffer with Szechuan-deprived longing.

The Trillin piece is less about Chang himself (though the author does manage to shed some light on a few unanswered questions vexing the Chang chowheads) and more about the peculiar brand of web-enabled food fandom that anyone who has spent time on online food boards will be familiar with.

I love the kicker (and you should stop reading now if you don't want a spoiler):

It had occurred to me that Chang might have gone from restaurant to restaurant, for ordinary or even trivial reasons, without realizing that, by some principle of physics, every small movement he made caused a huge disruption among the train of fans he was unconsciously dragging along behind him. Chef Chang smiled, and nodded. He had known about it, he said. His daughter had followed it on the Internet.

The issue arrived in subscribers' mailboxes earlier this week and should still be on newsstands today. Pick one up or borrow it from a friend. Like most things Trillin writes, it's worth the read.