On Wednesday evening, the menu of refined Chinese-American mash-ups at Fung Tu will play host to a selection of more authentic Chinese fare. The thirteen special dishes planned for the event are a collaboration between Chef Jonathan Wu and Kian Lam Kho, the IACP Award–winning author of Phoenix Claws & Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking. On offer, a bit of everything necessary to please a sophisticated Chinese palate, though the specials will be available à la carte along with the restaurant’s usual dinner menu.
Wu’s acclaimed hybrid cuisine is the result of an exploration into the foods of his ethnic heritage combined with a classically French training gained in the kitchens of Per Se and Blue Hill. As a child of the Eighties who grew up in suburban Connecticut, Wu has not yet been to China and was raised on his mother’s homespun adaptations of the Chinese foods of her youth. Like many first- and second-generation kids of that era, he recalls his parents’ efforts to expose him to traditional Chinese culture as agonizing: “My father would be like, ‘Sit there and listen to this Chinese cassette tape,’ and it was so painful,” he recalls, noting he does not speak the language well. “Food is by far my biggest connection to the culture. I’m learning about the history of China — from the dynasties to the scholar poets to the Cultural Revolution — and food has been a portal to all that. I feel extremely lucky and blessed to do something I love to do, as this is the most rewarding and fulfilling thing to me.”
By collaborating with Lam Kho, Wu is hoping for a crowd that “will appreciate the more ‘out-there,’ Chinese-Chinese food, not American-Chinese food.” Most noteworthy would be textural delicacies, including the night’s Jellyfish with Cucumber Granita, and Braised Sea Cucumber with Bamboo and Shiitake Mushrooms. The Chinese appreciation for texture in their cuisine is a world beyond the Western palate’s universe of sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and even the new kid on the flavor block, umami.
When the two chefs first met back in 2013, it was Lam Kho’s expertise in traditional Chinese cooking techniques that piqued Wu’s interest. The Chinese American chef reached out and invited Lam Kho, who grew up in the southern region of China, to collaborate on a traditional Chinese dinner at Fung Tu. “We talked about the format, and once we figured out the categories — like how many seafood dishes, should we have a soup — we started to fill them in,” says Wu about their collaboration process. “It was 90 percent Kian.”
The one-off menu also afforded Wu the opportunity to actualize a dream of his to serve beef tendon at Fung Tu. “I love beef tendon, but I’ve been reluctant to put it on the menu because I don’t think it will sell. Doing this with Kian, I can do more traditional food. I love it chilled with scallion greens, and I’ve always wanted to do that, but with leeks. [So I’m doing a] nice braised leek salad, and then [putting] a tangle of beef tendon on top. I’m doing it tingly-style, so it will be more Sichuanese,” he explains, referring to the region famous among the gastro set for its fragrant, tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Cooking Chinese-style Chinese food is a gamble, and Wu accepts this is not a dinner for the culinary faint of heart, much less the masses: “We weren’t worrying about the commercial-ness of this dinner, as this is an opportunity to cook real Chinese food. It’s a dangerous play, as I’m buying a product — sea cucumbers — that are close to $200 a pound,” he says when discussing the inventory quandary of a specialty menu available for a single night. Wu recently went on a sourcing expedition with Lam Kho to Po Wing Hong, one of the oldest food retailers in Chinatown, where one of the owner’s passions is sea cucumber, with the most expensive variety fetching upwards of $900 a pound. There, Wu learned how the different grades of sea cucumber mirror the nuances and even pricing of caviar, with relation to its provenance and physical attributes. “[They were] describing the richness of the mouthfeel and how it’s like pork belly,” says Wu about the confusingly named marine animal found along the ocean floor. “[Then they] started to talk about technique and approach, as the procedures are quite specific. [Sea cucumber is sold as] a dried food stuff, so there has to be a reconstitution phase, and then a flavoring phase. It was like three hours of sea cucumber talk.”
While the special menu offerings will be pan-regional, Lam Kho’s Cantonese roots from the Hokkien and Fujian regions are evident in a few dishes, including the fish course of Steamed Pomfret with Pickled Plums and Mustard Greens. “I considered green plums to be from the Japanese canon, like ume, but Kian was like, ‘No, this stuff is Cantonese, we eat this all the time.’ So the complementary ingredients are very Hokkien,” says Wu. “Kian’s approach is very Cantonese — it’s so clean and essential. He was like, ‘I want you to make a very clear fish stock using the bones, so no boiling, no milky kind of broth, just a very, very light simmer. Then I want you to steam the fish, and we’re going to pour this broth over it.’ He didn’t want to muddy the broth at all by steaming the fish in it. It’s clean and elegant, and we’re making the fish stand out, which I see as an expression of his specific regional heritage.”
For Wu, the whole endeavor has been both a cultural and culinary education, one that extends to his staff and, ultimately, to Fung Tu’s diners. “I’m always trying to find ways to inspire the team and be inspired myself, and a big part of that is learning classical or traditional techniques,” says Wu, who will share tasting notes with the front of house to aid patrons with understanding the scope of the specials. “What we do [at Fung Tu] is not traditional, but I feel like it needs grounding in its foundation from traditional techniques. By adding those to the repertoire, then Fung Tu’s repertoire can grow.”
“Night of the Phoenix Claws”
Wednesday, June 14
6pm to 10pm
22 Orchard Street
Between Hester & Canal