We pat ourselves on the back for certain food choices. But what do we know about the runner who brought the vegetarian entrée, or the cook who seared the local bluefish? We sit down, we order, we chat with our friends, we eat. The comfortable rituals of eating out obscure the grind of the restaurant business.
A recent labor department crackdown in Park Slope, Brooklyn, found abuses at 25 restaurants: unpaid overtime and underpaid workers. The issue is compounded by the fact that a large percentage of restaurant workers are undocumented and thus fear speaking up. Usually, these issues are not foremost in my mind when I’m reviewing a restaurant, but I was unexpectedly drawn into a labor conflict recently, while working on a piece about Lan Sheng.
The first time I ate at the restaurant, a new Sichuan place in Midtown, a friend and I whiled away an afternoon over a huge bowl of ma po tofu, dark with chile oil, and rabbit fried with pickled chilies. For a while, we were the only ones in the restaurant, and the server, an older, bespectacled fellow who got a kick out of our insistence on spice, plied us with free cans of soda.
The extensive menu lists scores of interesting dishes, so I visited again, this time at dinner, when a complimentary plate of Sichuan pickles starts each meal. We ate slippery conch with roasted chile vinaigrette. Oddly, rabbit with millet did not contain any of the grain; instead it was composed of cold bunny sitting in a shallow pool of pickle brine, topped with a flurry of pickled chilies. Chengdu pork wontons, wrinkled like tiny brains, had uncommon delicacy. Vegetarian dishes were equally delicious, particularly crisply fried salt-and-pepper lotus root and pumpkin strips sautéed with green chilies.
Prices are low, but the restaurant makes quirky gestures toward fancy—Kenny G wailing away on “Summertime” over the sound system, cushy banquettes, white tablecloths and china, each dish decorated with a rose carved out of carrot. There’s no alcohol on the menu, but ask for a beer (Bud or Coors Light) and a cold can will be produced, later showing up on your bill as a $5 “dessert.”
I was excited about Lan Sheng: It doesn’t surpass the best Sichuan restaurants in the outer boroughs, but it’s certainly a good addition to the neighborhood, and a worthy rival to Szechuan Gourmet, which is on the same block. Then a colleague forwarded to me a press release from a campaign called Justice Will Be Served (JWBS), a collaboration between the National Mobilization Against SweatShops, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, and the 318 Restaurant Workers Union. It concerned a labor dispute involving Wu Liang Ye, the popular Sichuan restaurant, but the group claimed that it also involved Lan Sheng.
A lawsuit brought by the workers at the now-closed 39th Street and 86th Street branches of Wu Liang Ye alleged that the restaurants were breaking labor laws. On October 8, judge Denny Chin handed down a default judgment against the two restaurants, ruling that the employees were owed damages. By that time, however, the restaurants had been abruptly closed, putting all the employees out of work, allegedly as retaliation for the lawsuit.
JWBS claims that the company that owned the Wu Liang Ye restaurants illegally moved its operations to new restaurants and rehired the workers not involved in the lawsuit. One of those operations, says the group, is Lan Sheng.
At a rally for the displaced Wu Liang Ye workers, I talked to Jin Ming Cao, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Of Lan Sheng, he said, “All the workers that did not join the lawsuit were rehired there.” He said he’s certain that Lan Sheng is actually owned by Wu Liang Ye because the employees are “all the same people. I know the cashier, the waiter, the chef.” Josephine Lee, a representative for JWBS, makes the same assertion for the same reason.
Told about these accusations, Lan Sheng owner Binsheng Yan, a round-faced young man who looks no more than 24, seemed genuinely baffled. He said that he owns the restaurant with his mother, Yang Lan, and that they are unrelated to Wu Liang Ye. “We hired their chefs and some of their waiters, since those people were out of jobs,” he explained. “A lot of people liked their food.” Yan speculated that the confusion arose because he advertised in Chinese-language papers that Lan Sheng had hired Wu Liang Ye’s chefs.
Yan has even been delivered court papers meant for Susan and Jian Li, the Wu Liang Ye owners named in the suit. “Who are these people?” he asked me. He also produced his lease: It lists Lan Sheng Inc. as the company, and was signed on April 1, 2009, by Yan, his mother, and his stepfather, Karl D. Gluck.
While I talked with Yan, the waiter, who said his name was King, came over. He said that he was one of the former workers at Wu Liang Ye on 39th Street, and that he had not participated in the lawsuit, but he called the workers in the suit his “good friends.” I asked if the Wu Liang Ye people actually own Lan Sheng. “No,” King said, gesturing to Yan. “He is the boss.”
Although I could be wrong, I’m inclined to believe them. But the situation was a good reminder of the real-world issues behind the New York food scene and its easy hedonisms. My recent dinner at Marea, for example, was only the latest experience of a restaurant where all the runners were Hispanic, while all the servers, in the better-paying jobs, were white.
We found the best dish on Lan Sheng’s menu during our last visit: Chongqing braised fish. It’s easily the most expensive dish on the menu ($24), but it’s staggeringly generous—a huge, bubbling hot pot of chile oil, Sichuan peppercorns, leeks, Napa cabbage cooked down to silk, and delicate pieces of carp, its flesh stained orange with spice. Over the food, at least, there is no debate.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road