Glance over the current menu at Fung Tu (22 Orchard Street, 212-219-8785) and it may be hard to wrap your mind around what you’re about to eat. Dishes have a Chinese touchstone — you’ll spy fried rice and scallion pancake, duck with plum sauce and a whole steamed fish. But they also incorporate ingredients from all over the global and cultural spectrum: brisket in that rice, a chicken spaetzle served with Sichuan pork sauce, and shrimp toast dotted with trout roe.
The menu is a meld of chef Jonathan Wu’s Chinese background and fine-dining training, but it’s also reflective of a certain flexibility in the kitchen that’s been instilled in him since he was young. “I grew up with an eclectic pantry, and I still have an eclectic pantry,” he says, citing a childhood home filled with ingredients from American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Indian markets.
Wu fell in love with cooking early, but when he went to college at the University of Chicago, he majored in English, mostly because he was uncertain about the career path his parents hoped he’d follow, toward a law degree or medical school.
He tried cooking professionally between his third and fourth years of college, and felt pulled toward it, so his career adviser began trying to help him meet chefs in the Windy City. He sought out Charlie Trotter, who let him come in and observe, and Wu remembers being awestruck at the attention to detail: “The waiters had double-stick tape on their shoes so they could clean lint off the carpet while they walked.”
He landed a job behind the burners in a friend’s restaurant in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, after graduation, figuring if he didn’t like cooking, he could stick around and ski before deciding on his next move. As it turns out, he liked it a lot. “I caught the bug,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is it, I’ve found what I love, and I’m going after it aggressively. I’m not staying to ski.’ ”
He moved to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, working brunch at Brooklyn restaurant Enid’s to pay the bills. He did an externship at Blue Hill, which opened his eyes to seasonal cooking and the then-nascent farm-to-table movement. “I hadn’t experienced that ever,” he says. He decided to go to France, where he learned pastry and fish butchery, and Spain.
Back in New York, Wu says, he started “chasing an imaginary peer group — people who had worked in Europe and were completely food-obsessed.” He spent a year climbing the ropes at Geisha, a restaurant from Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert and chef Michael Vernon, before becoming fixated on winning a position at Per Se. He got his chance after the Per Se fire, and he won over Corey Lee and Jonathan Benno with a grouper dish. “It was a formative experience,” he says. “We worked with a huge variety of ingredients. There was so much learning in terms of the cooking knowledge and skill. And I gained precision and speed — I learned how to be super mentally strong, and how to be fast. And how to multitask.”
After two years, Wu burnt out, and he hit the road again, this time to Italy, where he worked in restaurants where “there were no tweezers in sight,” he says. That’s when he began to form a vision for his own restaurant, and he continued to suss that out after he returned to the city. “I knew I wanted to open a restaurant from the get-go, but I didn’t know what I would do,” he says. “Right after Per Se, I probably would have done a clone of Per Se with Asian influences. Once I made a decision to cook a certain type of Chinese food, it fell into place.”
He began hosting pop-ups, which is how he met Wilson Tang, owner of legendary Chinatown restaurant Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Tang injected the capital Wu needed to get going, and, with partners John Wells and Jason Wagner, they began looking for spaces, eventually settling on an address that had housed a handmade-noodle shop on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “We built it out together, which was a hell of an experience,” says Wu. Fung Tu debuted in November 2013.
Wu says he’s learned a lot of lessons over the intervening year, and he’s incorporated criticisms from eaters while sticking to his vision. “This restaurant is better than it was a year ago, but we’ve maintained the integrity and spirit,” he says. “The flavors are bolder, but not artificially so.”
He’s also still making headway in convincing diners to lay out a little more cash for Chinese food. “True potstickers are really handmade pasta, but you can’t charge $30 for them,” he says. “Yet Mario Batali and Michael White can charge a lot for tortellini. It’s frustrating.”
In the immediate future, Wu would like to shoot for more balance. “I’m married and I have a three-year-old,” he says. “One goal is to get the restaurant on its legs enough so I can spend more time with the family.” After that, he might start thinking about a fast-casual concept, and he’d like to have a lab where he can play with food — and keep expanding his pantry.