How to Cook in Chinatown
How one chef's personal vision could restructure our relationship to 24 very tricky square blocks.
October 16, 2015 ● 5 min read
“People either think I have really big balls or that I'm really stupid,” Brandon Jew says, then grins. “I don't profess to either.”
He’s seated at a formica table in Hon’s Wun Tun House, where an industrious lunch rush is already underway. As to why his balls or his mental state are in question: he has chosen to open a restaurant—a Chinese restaurant nonetheless, in a sea of authentic Chinese restaurants—just down the street from here, nestled between dim sum shops and gated mahjong parlors and storefronts overflowing with long beans and curly, dried mushrooms. San Francisco may be the land of a thousand new restaurants, but very few of them live here.
“My frustration with Chinese food really stems from how people view it. The majority of it is just bad stigma. It's cheap, it's greasy, it's not good for you,” he says, dripping chili sauce over a bowl studded with bobbing wontons and beef tendon. “That’s never been my experience. Part of this project is showing that Chinese people are really ingredient nerds.”
The project, Mister Jiu’s, is a prodigious undertaking, mostly because it hinges on Jew’s ability to present a version of Chinese cuisine that both holds up to modern scrutiny and goes beyond what we expect of it. Jew cut his teeth at places like Quince and Bar Agricole, places known for putting out delicate and beautiful plates of what might be classified as California Contemporary, or New American; this might contain traces of Asian influence, sure, but isn’t something anyone would call full-fledged Chinese. Naturally, everyone’s watching this leap, waiting to see how he pulls it off.
At the moment, the bones of the massive space—formerly Four Seas restaurant—are still exposed. The construction crew smokes and chatters in Spanish over lunch, while snatches of Chinese intonations drift in from the windows. Across the street, clotheslined granny panties sway in the wind. The next balcony over occasionally plays host to strips of air-drying Chinese bacon.
The soon-to-be 85-seat dining room is airy and open, and as he leads the way up winding staircases, a second-floor banquet hall reveals itself; a yawning mouth of glass racks (fuzzy with dust), brass lotus chandeliers, and faded murals. The square footage might be daunting for a chef striking out on his first personal project, but Jew took it on in spite of its structural complications. San Francisco’s Chinatown is known for being so densely populated that the buildings are constantly wheezing and sighing under the pressure.
“If someone doesn't spend the time to restore the space, then it's just going to be run-down forever,” he says. “I think that's where most Chinatown real estate is at. Someone has to make sure these buildings can last another hundred years.” And so, delays.
To him, beyond the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and crumbly buildings, Chinatown is simply an untapped old-world market of the fetishized European variety. He grew up watching his grandmother throw elbows in a crowd of other, equally scheming grandmothers to get the bok choy, the fish, or the cut of meat she wanted. Nothing could stop her from getting it, and the resulting meals were cooked with the same sense of conviction.
In the tight little dining room of Hon’s, he looks down at his hands, rubbing the tips of his fingers together in little circles. “What I tell my cooks is there's things that you need to observe…it’s about a feeling. Like grandma shit you can't explain, in the bones,” he says. “So much is taken away from kitchen cooks now, because you throw it into a water bath at this time, pull it out, and then you're done. Just sear it and serve it. No one is having cooks take enough risks.”
In this climate, insisting on Chinese-style cooking may be a risk in itself. He doesn’t want French tops, griddles, circulators; his cooks will learn to use woks, steam, and oil-blanching. And if they’re coming to learn those techniques, they’re going to learn them on Chinese equipment.
He pauses to watch the chef stalk back and forth in his corner by the steamy window, chopsticks cocked, shoulders hunched, brow furrowed. When Jew doesn’t order noodles like he usually does, the guy comes out from behind the counter to peer down at him. “No noodles?” he asks, frowning.
“That guy, you will never not see him here. You will never see someone else cooking wontons,” Jew says, once he’s scuffed back behind the counter. There’s unmistakable awe in his voice. “He's there every fucking day. I'm not saying they're the best wontons I've ever had, but what a craft.”
The thought is probably not appealing to the majority of young cooks working in kitchens all over the country. Even as an operator, he realizes it’s preferable to teach cooks to knock out a litany of dishes quickly and consistently, aided by any number of kitchen toys. Having a cook hone their intuition and experience to make that dish exactly the way you want is a lovely poetic vision, but hard to enact. “It's sad to me that now you have to pick between how much of that you can do, and how much you can afford to do, really.” He peels a piping hot egg, the shell casting off in slick shards. “I'd rather be a master of something, and I want my cooks to feel the same way. You've got to understand a lot as a cook, but the only way you can be a master is to concentrate on one thing.”
By now, Jew’s pedigree as a chef is both refined and authoritative, after stints in Shanghai and multiple high-end Bay Area haunts. He wants expectations reimagined for Chinatown, but he also wants to make one thing clear: he’s not looking to be a fancy outlier. Mister Jiu’s is meant to be woven into the fabric of Chinatown as it exists now, with silky housemade tofu, steamed fish, fermented beans. In the way that Mission Chinese gleefully grabs hold of MSG claims and runs wild, Jew is hoping to articulate a quieter approach. Something that reflects the clean simplicity of the food he was raised on.
Of course, anyone busting their ass to open a restaurant anywhere is cooking their truth, their personal vision. It may be that doing so in Chinatown feels different because here intimidation so often leads to insulation. Depending on where you are, unfamiliarity is already enough of a hurdle in drawing in the elusive masses.
“One, I think people see 36 things here, and it’s overwhelming,” he says, holding up a laminated menu thick with lettering. “In Chinese restaurants, you know that there's a cook back there that does something way more spectacular than beef and broccoli. I never want to leave a restaurant thinking that I missed out.” So, neither will his guests: his menu will be small, flexible, approachable. If you want a mountain of pea shoots to yourself, get after it. If you'd rather carpet-bomb with little bites of everything in small-plate format, that works too.
One side of Mister Jiu’s faces touristy, tricked-out Grant Avenue. The other, which will serve as the main entrance, opens onto Waverly Place, a quiet side street. The kind of street, he notes, that was home to opium dens and prostitution in the old days. Nowadays, it’s pretty quiet, reflecting a truer version of Chinatown than the one besieged by trinket shops selling flimsy bamboo hats and selfie sticks.
“The food has got to be the equalizer, and I think it has to happen organically. Eventually you find the community of people that are going to support you and have similar tastes and desire the same kind of things,” he says. “It's going to take a while.”
Slow and steady, as Jew looks out from the skeleton of an open kitchen. The cluster of buildings around him shifts slightly. Always present is the intangible weight of hundreds of eyes hidden from view, curious. Deciding.