In Chinese, the word we transliterate in English as “kung fu” (or gongfu in the current spelling system used in mainland China) does not mean martial arts. It means simply art, or technique. One displays exceptional gongfu when one has mastered a craft or metier. So I’m not stretching a metaphor at all when I call Peter Chang a Kung Fu Master of Sichuan cuisine.
Say “Chinese food” nowadays, and what springs to mind? Fast food. Even food courts. Heavily breaded and deep fried. Gloppy sauces. Swimming in oil. Some restaurants soar above that and manage to maintain a level of quality. Others seem to ride a roller-coaster of quality, as if there was an itinerant community of chefs who would move from place to place for an extra quarter an hour. But none of those are star chefs in the way we glorify our restaurant cooks these days. Do you know the name of the chef at your favorite Chinese restaurant?
That’s why I was bemused several years ago when Peter Chang and his cuisine became the rage on Internet food chat sites such as DonRockwell.com and Chowhound. People fell in love with his cuisine and wailed (online at least) when Chang would up and disappear from a restaurant without notice, and then celebrate when he reappeared somewhere else. His followers tracked him across Northern Virginia and then to Knoxville, Atlanta and Charlottesville. Chang’s reputation became national in March 2010 with two major magazine profiles, by Todd Kliman in Oxford American and Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker. People obsessed about the brilliance of flavors in Chang’s cuisine, and raved about the spiciness, the ma la of Sichuan.
Chang’s gongfu is more than ma la, of course. Ma means “numb,” referring to the sensation caused by Sichuan peppercorns, while la refers to the spicy heat of chile peppers. The ma balances the la. And that’s the key to Chang’s cuisine, just as it is the key to any star chef – the balance and clarity of flavors. In this way Chang reminds me of Alain Ducasse and his ability to coax complex flavor out of ingredients that seem simple.
That’s what I and several Virginia winemakers experienced earlier this month at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville. You can read Chang’s story and how his dishes fare with various Virginia wines in my feature in this week’s Washington Post Food section.
In addition to pleasing the palate though, Chang’s gongfu – and that of his wife, Lisa, who is pastry, dumpling and dim sum chef – delights the eye. His artistry was on display with the various plates that resembled Chinese paintings, almost too pretty to disturb or eat, and with the balloon-like scallion “pancake” that looked like it should float to the ceiling. This whimsical touch reminded me of Michel Richard or José Andrés. You want to laugh and clap when a dish is presented to you, even before you have a chance to taste it.
It looks now like Chang may finally be settling down and making Richmond, Va., his base – at least for awhile. Peter Chang Café will open next month in Richmond’s Short Pump neighborhood. It’s near the highway, in case he feels the wanderlust again. But I sure hope he stays.