Like many of his fellow chefs, Boston native Doron Wong got his restaurant start via a menial job: A 14-year-old aching for something to do, he picked up a position answering phones at a pizza place. But because he was a curious kid, he found himself gravitating toward the back of the house, where he’d ask the kitchen staff to teach him how to do things. “Before I knew it, I was in the kitchen,” he says. “I was so young, I couldn’t even touch the slicer.”
By the time he graduated from high school, that he’d continue on to culinary school was a foregone conclusion, and he enrolled immediately. He landed formidable post-graduation gigs, too, and he spent some time behind the burners at David Burke’s Park Avenue Cafe and Ken Oringer’s Clio. But he felt drawn to exploring his mother’s heritage, and so he packed his knives and set out for Hong Kong to get acquainted with Asian technique. He moved around a bit on that continent, spending some time in Singapore, as well.
He returned to the States 15 years ago, and, he says, he “began pushing hard.” He was intent on doing Asian cuisine, and his resume includes stops at Ginger & Spice, Delicatessen, Shang, and Toy.
Some time back, Yunnan Kitchen (79 Clinton Street, 212-253-2527) owner Erika Chou ran into Wong on the subway, and after the pair spent a lot of time together talking food, she brought him on board in her restaurant at the beginning of the year to tackle a menu from Yunnan, a region of China that abuts Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, and an area Wong had no experience working in before this job.
In this interview, the chef talks about taking on a new cuisine, the evolution of the New York dining scene, and lessons learned over his career, and Chou weighs in on Yunnan food and the restaurant’s philosophy.
Tell me about your philosophy and the philosophy at Yunnan Kitchen.
Wong: It changes all the time. It’s about keeping an open mind and not really setting guidelines that you can’t obtain. I really go with the flow. I don’t take myself too seriously. You have to have fun. I run a disciplined kitchen, but I like it to be focused and have fun.
Chou: We’re all about integrity — in what we do, in the ingredients we’re using, in the business itself.
Tell me about Yunnan food:
Chou: I always go to geography. Yunnan is next to Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Tibet. The Silk Road used to go through there, which brought together different cultures and people cooking different things. It’s a verdant province of China, kind of like California, and it has all these different pockets of cuisine. There’s a lot of room to play. We adapt that thinking and approach. It’s super fresh and local. And there are salads, which is unusual for Chinese food, plus flowers, mushrooms, Szechuan peppercorns, southeast Asian herbs, and Tibetan spices.
How do you take on this cuisine when you’ve never worked with it before?
Wong: I’m well versed in Eastern technique, and the same technique applies here. You’re using the wok, braising, steaming — it’s the same, but with different ingredients. So it’s easy to adapt that portion of it. It’s new, so you’re experimenting, but with everything, you’re experimenting. There are specific guidelines that we follow. Specifically, the balance of flavors — when the food hits your palate, it should be sweet, spicy, salty, and bitter.
Any unique challenges?
Wong: It took a lot of reading. I know more about Cantonese cooking, but I spent a lot of time in southeast Asia. Yunnan is at the southern tip of China — it borders Laos, Burma, Thailand. It’s the only province in China that eats salad. We don’t eat raw greens in the rest of China. It’s very simple and light, not like Cantonese. This is a lighter version of Southeast Asian food. It’s like Thai-Chinese food.
Talk to me about your restaurant garden.
Wong: We compost, and we use our kitchen compost in our garden. We’re planting tomatoes, eggplants, herbs, different types of mint, lavender, and different flowers. It’s local, seasonal, and fun, and it’s one of our interests — we’re trying to produce good tasting food. That’s what mass-produced food loses: the flavor.
Chou: A couple of cooks work at Brooklyn Grange, and we thought, oh we really should do this garden thing. It teaches more people about food and about growing food — you don’t understand until you’re doing it yourself. And you appreciate the ingredients so much more when you’re walking the herbs upstairs for the sun because you need to take care of this mint. It takes so long to create food that tastes good. People think Chinese food should be $5, but look at how long it takes for this carrot to grow. People aren’t used to seeing market-driven Chinese. That gives us a difficult challenge from a cost perspective, but it’s something we really stand by. We want to shape the culture for how people think of Chinese food.
How has the New York restaurant industry evolved?
Wong: When I came here, it was all about expense accounts, and no one was worrying about labor. You saw 100-seat restaurants with 30 cooks in the kitchen; they were doing fine dining food. As time went on, fine dining stated to evolve into more casual food. Then we had the hiccup with the economy, and there was a lot of downsizing in the kitchens. Now, 100-seat restaurants have seven cooks trying to produce the same kind of food but make it more accessible. Now we’re somewhere in the middle — cuisine is still evolving.
How would you compare New York’s dining scene to Singapore or Hong Kong?
Wong: There are festivals here that educate people about cuisines — that’s important. If you bring American food to China, they don’t really know what it is. They think they know, but things like spaghetti and meatballs taste like Chinese food. Festivals teach us about other cultures — we’re much farther ahead in terms of global cuisine.
What would you like to see happen in New York restaurants?
Wong: I would like to see people to support the local farmers — that helps everyone. And more urban farming. I guess that makes me a tree-hugger.
What are the major obstacles you see in the industry?
Wong: Being a big restaurant group, you always have incentives to purchase in bulk amounts. Small restaurants get hammered by the pricing — we’d like the same price structure. You want to help the small guys stay in business, and that’s a big line item for little restaurants.
The other one is staffing and having good people. At small restaurants, it’s harder because you can’t pay as much. Big restaurants can throw money out there. A lot of people don’t pay their dues anymore. I come from the days when you started on prep and worked through the ranks. It took me 10 years cooking before i jumped into management. Culinary school is just a piece of paper that says you graduated from cooking school — you did everything once. But cooking is about repetition — you don’t master something until you’ve done it 10, 20, or 40 times. You have to pay your dues, and it doesn’t matter if you go to cooking school or not.
How has the media impacted the industry?
Wong: Because of shows like Top Chef, people don’t do their time. They don’t work through the ranks before they become sous chefs and chefs. A chef should be able to go into anyone’s kitchen and cook anything. A lot of these chefs go from cooks for one or two years to going on TV and becoming celebrity chefs. That kind of bothers me — I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it affects our industry. You’re breeding laziness.
What about the review cycle?
Wong: My friend is a chef at Rouge Tomate. They were struggling in their first year. Then they got their Michelin star, and boom, that was it. They’re constantly busy. The impact of media is huge here in New York. If you’re out of the media, your business starts to drop. The better the reviews, the more consistent the business.
Any big lessons that have really stuck with you?
Wong: I have a few mentors. Susur Lee for sure; he was the chef at Shang. He’s still in my life. We talk about food and bounce ideas off of each other. Ken Oringer taught me a lot about flavor. A lot of his foundation is French. David Burke taught me how to treat food like toys. He looks at food a little bit differently. It’s an art project. Cool looking food takes a lot of prep and a lot of other components.
What are your goals?
Wong: For the restaurant, preserving the Yunnan flavor, sticking to what we believe, and using local farms and seasonal ingredients. For the bigger picture, open up a couple more restaurants.
Chou: We have other concepts we want to do. We’re very go with the flow. We’ll see what happens. We really love what we do.
Wong: We’re open for everything.
Best place in the city for a drink:
Wong: Death and Company
Best special occasion restaurant:
Best no occasion restaurant:
Wong: Minca. I’m there all the time.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Wong: Congee Village.
Dish you could eat forever:
Wong: Foie gras. People are going to hate me. I can roast a whole lobe and eat it.
Best dish you’ve had out recently:
Wong: A sunchoke dish at Toro.
Something you love about New York restaurants:
Wong: There are a lot of them. If that one’s no good, you go next door.
Something you wish you could change:
Wong: How people see Chinese restaurants. Don’t judge Chinese restaurants as if they were in Chinatown. People have a tendency to say, “I can get that cheaper in Chinatown.” But then they want cool, nice stuff.
Wong: Al di la.
Wong: Dishwashers are the most important people in my book.