In the 1992 film "My Cousin Vinny", the smart-talking, Brooklyn-born Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) gets out of a car in Wahzoo, Alabama and quips, "I bet the Chinese food in this town is terrible."
New Yorkers have been obsessed with Chinese food since the first American Chinese restaurants started serving egg foo young, and the evolution of General Tso and its footsoldiers is a critical chapter in the history of the city's go-to take-out cuisine. Witness to all that history is one of Chinese cooking's greatest outsider champions, a man who's done more to feed the city's obsession than anyone else: Ed Schoenfeld, a white, Jewish, Brooklyn-born hippie teenager, and the restaurateur behind RedFarm and Decoy in the West Village and Upper West Side.
Schoenfeld's personal history with Chinese cuisine dates back to the late 1960s, when he took cooking classes from Grace Chu, the widow of a former Chinese diplomat to the United States who escaped the 1949 rise of communism in China by emigrating with a diplomatic visa. He hosted banquets cooked by some of China's finest expat chefs while driving a taxi to foot the bills. He later helped open the iconic Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan in 1973 with restaurateur David Keh, and in the following decades played roles of server, a maître d', partner, and consultant on restaurants like Chinatown Brasserie in New York, Tein Li Chow in Chicago, and Chanto in Tokyo. In 2011 he opened what would become the first of two RedFarm restaurants, his love letter to the history of American-Chinese food.
Schoenfeld isn't just an expert on running Chinese restaurants; he's also a folk historian on all the ways Chinese cooking his developed and evolved over the decades. Which is why I sat down with him over the course of two afternoons to ask, among other things, how and why Chinese cuisine came to be such a beloved fixture of the New York diet, and how it's changed in the city's collective consciousness over the years.
What follows isn't a definitive accounting of Chinese food in New York. Instead, consider it a personal history, from Schoenfeld's point of view, of the definitive moments in the development of Chinese cooking from exotic luxury to everyday necessity.
The Early Days
The first major influx of Chinese immigration into the U.S. started around 1848, encouraged by a huge population growth in China and the California Gold Rush, and the expanding Union and Central Pacific railroads. They hailed primarily from Canton in southern China, and they brought their woks with them, cooking food quickly with little fuel, which turned out an apt fit for the camp-style cooking migrant workers were limited to. Fittingly, the first documented Chinese restaurant in the United States was Canton, which opened in 1849 in San Francisco.
As Chinese immigrants became more successful, anti-Chinese sentiment rose to meet them. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act went into affect, severely limiting Chinese immigration to the U.S. Later, in 1949, Mao Zedong's communist revolution resulted in completely closed borders between the U.S. and China.
Meanwhile in China, the highest level of chefs around the country cooked for wealthy artists, politicians, or the imperial family. The best chefs had a limited but well-paying audience within their own country and little desire to move to a developing country.
So in the U.S., Cantonese cuisine reigned supreme and unopposed, forming Americans' collective ideas of what Chinese food meant and how it tasted. Families, not professional chefs, opened restaurants, deploying woks to cook affordable and accessible American favorites: sweet-and-sour pork, lo mein, and egg rolls.
1949 to 1965: The Mandarin Years
The 1949 border closings meant big changes for Chinese cuisine in the West.
It was no longer cool to be wealthy in China. The rich were sent to work in the fields, refined recipes were burned en masse, and porridge and gruel were served in communal kitchens. Meanwhile, the only people who escaped to the U.S. before 1949 were the wealthy with diplomatic visas, like politicians and artists, and they brought their chefs with them.
Unlike the Cantonese home cooks who came before them, these chefs hailed from a wider variety of Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and together they created what is often considered the first "authentic Chinese" cuisine in New York. At so-called "Mandarin" restaurants, these professionals held tightly to their regional roots, expanding the New York Chinese palate beyond the Cantonese classics. Throughout the next decade, the Upper West Side became dotted with Mandarin restaurants, mostly in the West 90s, but all the way up to 125th Street.
Here's where Schoenfeld weighs in with his first memory of Chinese food: "I must have been 11 or 12 when I first went to The Great Shanghai on Broadway and 102nd Street.* I remember having my first spring roll! Not an egg roll, this was thinner and more delicate." Mandarin restaurants introduced brighter and spicier flavors, cooked with a superior level of skill. Memories of those meals would stay with Schoenfeld for decades to come.
* Some have noted this location as 98th and Broadway, but I'll take Gael Green's word for it.
Banquet Cooking and the Golden Age
The thing to remember about Chinese food during the mid-20th century is how exotic it all felt to American eaters. And as they grew more familiar with a growing number of Chinese restaurants, they craved new flavors and dishes from the Chinese canon. So when immigration laws relaxed in 1965, master chefs who had fled with their employers to other parts of the world came to New York, bringing the spicy flavors of Sichuan cuisine with them.
"From 1965 to 1975, around 20 Sichuan restaurants opened along Broadway," Schoenfeld says. "The industry exploded; no one had heard of Sichuan food, and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. We entered this golden era of authentic Chinese cooking that went full steam ahead into the 70s. Spicy Sichuan food was exciting. It was hot."
Around this time, Schoenfeld was penning the Gravy Stains column in the Brooklyn Heights Press, and taking cooking classes with Grace Chu, the widow of a Chinese ambassador who had immigrated to America before 1949. There he fell in love with the high art of banquet cooking, a choreographed feast that could last hours with over a dozen courses, which he discovered through New York's two best banquet chefs.
T. T. Wang, "a master chef of the highest order, and one of the best in the world," had cooked for the Taiwanese ambassador to Japan and the Chinese Ambassador to Washington D.C., and then immigrated to New York, partnering with Michael Tong of the Shun Lee family of restaurants. Their Shun Lee Dynasty, which opened in 1965, was the first upscale Sichuan restaurant in New York, and the first Chinese restaurant to receive four start from Craig Claiborne of the New York Times in 1967.
"The dishes were the same I was studying with Grace Chu," Schoenfeld says. "Grace's were pretty nice, but T. T.'s were fucking awesome. When I'd order beef with hoisin sauce, the beef was silky and tender, like filet mignon. The hoisin had a more sophisticated taste. It was essentially the same stuff, but on a much higher level." Schoenfeld started hosting banquets of his literary friends at Shun Lee, preaching the gospel to all who'd listen.
He also held banquets at Shun Lee's competitors, Sichuan on 95th and Broadway and Sichuan East on 95th and 2nd. The chef of both restaurants, Lo Huey Yen (who came to be called Uncle Lou), originally fled to Brazil in 1945, then followed his employer, the infamous painter Chang Dai-Chien, to New York after immigration laws softened. While Wang slightly predated Uncle Lou and was fundamental in bringing upscale Sichuan cuisine to New York, Schoenfeld credits Uncle Lou with establishing some classics, like the fiery vegetable and pepper "Da-Chien Chicken" dish he'd created for his former employer, still seen on menus today.
"I was very lucky," Schoenfeld tells me, "because I fell in with this group of chefs who I didn't appreciate at the time. They were some of the best of the 20th century; I just knew they were fucking good. I have a whole group of stars in my firmament."
The Hunan Wars
With Sichuan restaurants firmly cemented by the mid-seventies, David Keh and Michael Tong sensed that New Yorkers were ready for even more Chinese variety. They tracked chefs who had fled before 1949 and, without knowing it, both found "the next hot thing" in Taiwan: Chef Pang's Hunan Yuan.
Before the revolution, Pang had been the chef to the governor of the Hunan province, a food-lover who had cultivated a fine crop of chefs during the 1930s and '40s. When the revolution hit, Pang fled to Taiwan to open Hunan Yuan, a restaurant dedicated to refined fine dining with influences from Hunan cuisine.
Tong and Keh separately recruited some of Pang's chefs to come home to New York with them, and each opened, within months of each other, what they pushed as "the new hot Chinese restaurant." The Shun Lee group brought Hunan to 45th Street and 2nd Avenue in the last few months of 1972, while Keh opened Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan on January 7th, 1973. Both restaurants introduced new dishes to the New York Chinese canon, a mix of high-end (vegetarian duck and steamed ham with cassia flowers) and comfort food (General Tso's chicken and orange beef).
"Both restaurants immediately got reviewed by Craig Claiborne," Schoenfeld tells me, "and both got four stars from the New York Times. So immediately this kind of war blew up, battled through advertising. One of them would get an advert in the Times directly parallel to their restaurant review. So on one side would be the review for Hunan, and across would be the ad saying, 'We have just opened the newest Hunan restaurant in New York City and we have four stars.' Then we opened Uncle Tai's and wrote an ad saying, 'We're the newest Hunan restaurant and we have four stars and we have new dishes from Taiwan that our competitor has never heard of!' Shun Lee would say then that they had four new dishes. There was the incredibly vital act of war."
Having set himself within this closely kept circle of Chinese greats, Schoenfeld offered his services. He became the "white guy at the door" at Uncle Tai's, "in a tacky blue tuxedo shirt with polka dots and ruffles, a fake velvet bow tie, and velvet lapels." Schoenfeld became Keh's glitterati-spotter, identifying the likes of Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Taylor, Aristotle Onassis and, for the food elite, Julia Child, James Beard and, of course, Craig Claiborne. "People wanted to be schmoozed and appreciated, and I knew who the people were when no one else did."
Both restaurants played up the glam, with highly-stylized dining room trimmings and fine-dining service available to those who could afford them. Their success lent Keh and Tong a good deal of security; though neither restaurant would remain en vogue indefinitely, both they stayed open for many years to come, providing enough scratch for their owners to invest in more restaurants.
While the Hunan Wars mainly catered toward the elite, Schoenfeld argues these restaurants paved the way for other, more affordable food, down the line. As New York's hunger for new and different Chinese flavors grew, a new generation of entrepreneurs rose to fill demand. But the chefs of these less upscale restaurants weren't masters of fine dining; they were after a more accessible form of cooking.
The Go-To Takeout of the '80s
"When [Shun Lee's] Uncle Lou wasn't cooking, he was often drunk," Schoenfeld recollects. "If you came in at 5 or 6 p.m., his food was magical. If you came at 7 p.m. he'd be too fucked up, lying on the floor."
Uncle Lou's generation of chefs were aging after decades of brutal work. And unlike in China, they never formalized a way to train young chefs in the refined techniques they brought with them. So "we had some really great chefs," Schoenfeld explains, "but the younger generation were more entrepreneurial than they were really wanting to be fantastic students."
Meanwhile, as border regulations eased in the '70s, Chinese immigration to the U.S. was booming again. Manhattan's Chinatown was already an enclave of Cantonese who had settled decades before; new immigrants from northern and western China began settling in Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. They opened up small restaurants or "coffee shops" for their fellow countrymen, specializing in food that was quick and affordable for blue collar workers.
Cooks from the fine-dining world joined forces with their families and friends to open their own neighborhood restaurants: "First it was a revolution," Schoenfeld says, "and then everyone and their brother wanted to have their own restaurant. If all they had was maybe $75,000, they couldn't do the sophistication needed to lure customers to a bigger place. Instead it was the 'mom-and-popification' of New York, with the food a function of how good the main cook in the family was. All it took was one good cook."
And these restaurants weren't picky about regional allegiances. They offered Cantonese chow mein alongside fiery Sichuan and Hunan moo shoo pork; dishes that were distinctly Chinese but nonetheless varied and accessible to non-Chinese eaters.
"As that marketplace spread and people started looking at Chinese food as a daily, habitual thing, it morphed into more of a home meal replacement food. It adapted a lot, and there continued to be high-end places, but the growth was in different areas." Chinese food became American food.
Hard Times for Chinese Cuisine
Then came the great crash of Chinese cuisine, so severe Schoenfeld left the Chinese restaurant business for almost a decade.
After shuttling between Tong and Keh's restaurants, opening up modern Chinese resturants to varying degrees of success, Schoenfeld was ready to open his own place. In 1990 he opened Vince and Eddie's across from Lincoln Center, serving modern American food to the theatre and neighborhood crowds. A variation—Fish's Eddie—followed in 1991, and then Chop Suey Looey's Litchi Lounge in 1992; a wacky take on Chinese cuisine, with $18 tropical drinks served "with $5 worth of tchotchkes."
"I had a lot of change in my personal life in those years," Schoenfeld confesses. "My wife and I split up, I gave her most of my money, and I became a single dad. In '93 I sold my shares in my restaurants. I just took a job, and had to reinvent myself." He started teaching some Chinese cooking classes, but consulted mostly on Asian, Latin and American concepts outside of NewYork.
It wasn't a bad time to take a break.
In 1993, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a study revealing the unexpectedly high fat content of America's beloved Chinese dishes, he notes. A low-fat craze sweeping the nation led Chinese food sales to dip. The cheap restaurants fought back not with ambitious, creative cooking, but so-named "spa cuisine" menus of steamed proteins and vegetables with light sauces on the side. Tong and Keh's restaurants earned enough to keep the lights on, but their glamour was now seen as kitsch. With Japanese cuisine rising in popularity, demand for deep fried nuggets of chicken in sweet and sour sauce shifted toward miso and sushi. Highbrow Chinese cuisine fell into a rut, and lowbrow Chinese had little room to grow.
Schoenfeld reflects on the upscale restaurants that tried to bring back the Golden Age of Chinese food, but made more of a hum than a bang. Mr. K's opened in 1998 with white gloves, captain attendants, and mid-meal sorbets, but was considered more of a "throwback" than anything new and earned a limp single star by the New York Times.
Chinatown Brasserie opened in 2006, hoping to woo customers with a Chinese menu and modern atmosphere. Schoenfeld was taken on as a consultant "for credibility, and to create the food," but he wasn't free to design a creative experience in the space. Their flashy opening executive chef was of Chinese descent but had never worked with Chinese cuisine. Years spent at France's three-Michelin-starred Troisgros didn't translate to Chinese cooking as neatly as Schoenfeld hoped. So the owners focused on vibe more than food, something "hip and groovy, where anyone with a short skirt and some decolletage could work the front door." He knew it wouldn't move Chinese food forward, and he left the restaurant unhappy. "No matter how good I said I was, they didn't have the vision to move in a direction where I could have made them a lot of money."
Even the acclaimed Susur Lee couldn't bring back the glory days; his Shang at the Thompson Hotel opened in 2009 and lasted only two years. Lee blames the closure on a dining public that cared more about a restaurant's vibe than the food on the table, but Schoenfeld feels Lee "tried too much of a white tablecloth, grown-up concept" in a market where creative food in a relaxed environment was the new normal.
Chinese cooking—beyond take-out—would eventually become relevant again to the New York dining public, but it'd have to loosen up.
"The industry is really casual now," Schoenfeld starts, "with fine-dining chefs like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges opening up more casual places. Chinese food has to match the market."
In 2011, Schoenfeld opened RedFarm with chef Joe Ng, who had been first the dim sum and later the executive chef at Chinatown Brasserie. "The idea was to create a farm-to-table kind of thing; no one's doing Chinese food with regard to where the food comes from. In Chinatown, they use beyond-fresh fish. Why aren't they doing the same with produce? Why aren't they shopping at the greenmarket? So that's where we started when coming up with this menu; a modern take on really authentic Chinese food."
RedFarm's atmosphere couldn't be farther from Shun Lee's: light wood tables are topped with checkered napkins, and employees dress in jeans. Yet the food is thoughtful: spring rolls are plated to look like blooming flowers, dumplings like Pac Man, and a classic dish of pressed deep-fried duck stuffed with taro is transformed into crispy chicken filled with "luxurious shrimp... a dish you'd have at a Cantonese banquet which Joe kicked up to fantastic."
Other players in creative Chinese cuisine have made their mark, too. "We're not the only people cooking really good food, and we're not the only people who are creative," Schoenfeld says. "I like the chances of more creativity and quality coming out of Chinese food in New York." While he still appreciates classic restaurants that have stuck around through thick and thin, like Asian Jewels Seafood and Nan Xiang in Flushing, he gives credit to modern newcomers like Tuome, Mission Chinese Food, and Fung Tu for further evolving how we define Chinese cuisine.
"We're in a whole new era now," he says, "so I'm not worried about the future of Chinese cuisine in New York. There's more growth and creativity now than there has been at any other point in my lifetime."