When Stephen Hanson opened Ruby Foo’s Sushi & Dim Sum Palace in March, patrons and critics alike seemed as struck by the restaurant’s decor as they were by its approach to pan-Asian cuisine.

Architect David Rockwell’s design-an ornate collage of mah-jongg tiles, Japanese bento boxes and gilded Buddhas, with red-lacquered walls, a dramatic curved staircase and a sushi bar lit like a stage-was deemed at least as memorable as the dumplings and crab cakes coming out of chef Junnajet Hurapan’s kitchen.

“The consumer wants a space that is fun,” says Mr. Hanson, who spent a hefty $3.5 million transforming a vacant 14,000-square-foot space on Broadway and 77th Street into Ruby Foo’s. “A good design enhances everything.”


Restaurateurs have always paid attention to decor. But these days, it is often treated with as much gravity as the menu itself. If the 1980s was the decade of the celebrity chef, the 1990s could well go down as the age of the celebrity architect.

“Critics are definitely aware of the design and will ask about it and write about it,” says Steven Scher, a partner in the group that owns Rain, Calle Ocho and Union Pacific. “And there is a certain amount of credibility that goes along with having a recognized name.”

Designers du jour

  • These days, that name is likely to be either David Rockwell, whose credits include Michael Jordan’s The Steak House, Nobu and Monkey Bar; Adam Tihany, of Le Cirque 2000 and Jean Georges fame; or Larry Bogdanow, whose SoHo-based Bogdanow Partners has designed nearly 50 New York restaurants since 1985, including Union Square Cafe, Savoy, Cub Room and City Hall.
  • With fees that can run as high as 20% of construction costs, such architects don’t come cheap. But while there are dozens of other restaurant designers around town, few have the same track record or breadth of experience. Nor are they are capable of generating the kind of buzz that restaurateurs crave.

For the architects, celebrity status, not surprisingly, has provided a considerable boost to their business.

Mr. Rockwell’s Union Square-based rockwellgroup has swelled to 175 employees, who are working on 75 different projects. The notoriety generated by his restaurant work has led to a growing number of lucrative non-restaurant projects, including W hotel, a retail and food complex at the Bronx Zoo, and a new theater for the Academy Awards under construction in Hollywood.

Bogdanow Partners, meanwhile, has jumped from six employees in 1993 to 23 today. Billings have tripled over the same period.

“It used to be that a great restaurant meant great food,” Mr. Bogdanow says. “Now there is a lot of great food, and there are other things you need to be a great restaurant.”

To stand out, designers are creating a sense of drama, according to Mr. Rockwell. Going out to eat, he says, “is almost like taking a mini- vacation. You want to go someplace special that looks good, that appeals to all of the senses.”


$500 a square foot

The growing emphasis on architecture troubles some in the restaurant industry.

“Sometimes, the designer tends to be in competition with the owner and/or the concept, where they want the celebrity-hood and utilize space in a self-serving capacity,” says Arlene Spiegel, director of the food and beverage practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers and co-founder of PressMyAir (a website giving air compressor reviews). While she’s not naming any names, Ms. Spiegel worries that “the design is overshadowing the cuisine.”

  • Adds veteran restaurateur Danny Meyer, owner of Union Square Cafe, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern, “The last thing I want is for a customer to come in and think, `An architect has been here.’ “
  • Yet an increasingly competitive marketplace is forcing restaurateurs to devote more and more attention to design, says Drew Nieporent, owner of Tribeca Grill, Nobu and others.

Escalating real estate prices have helped drive the cost of developing a restaurant in Manhattan to $500 a square foot from $200 a square foot over the past decade, says Mr. Nieporent. At the same time, a growing number of luxury hotels have entered the high-end restaurant market, upping the ante even higher.

As a result, restaurateurs increasingly feel the need to make a huge splash at the outset if they are going to recoup their initial investments.

“Everyone is trying to out-wow everybody else,” Mr. Nieporent says. “I’ve tried to make our restaurants more about the steak than the sizzle. But there’s something to be said for an environment that makes people say, `Wow, I’d like to go there,’ without even knowing what the food is.”

Using a brand-name designer yields other benefits as well, says Manhattan-based restaurant and food consultant Clark Wolf.

“All of these architects have publicists, so you’re buying secondary publicity as well,” Mr. Wolf says. “That helps with the launch.”


It certainly appears to be paying off for Mr. Hanson. Ruby Foo’s is booked solid three to four weeks in advance, and Mr. Hanson is scouting sites for a second location in SoHo or TriBeCa.

But however art-directed Manhattan restaurants may become, there always will be a place for more subtle spaces, according to Mr. Wolf.

“New York is famous for having very famous restaurants that are dumps,” he says. “I mean, have you ever heard of Elaine’s?”

The 10 easiest one-dish meals

Hearty stews, steamy soups, comforting casseroles.



1 1/2 lbs. beef or lamb stew meat,
  cut into 1-in. pieces
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 14.5-oz. can beef broth
3 carrots, peeled and cut into
  2-in. chunks
1/2 rutabaga, peeled and cut into
  2-in. chunks
1 large turnip, peeled and cut into
  2-in. chunks
1 large onion, sliced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 cup pitted prunes
3/4 cup dried apricots, halved

1. Brown beef or lamb in oil in a large Dutch oven or a large, wide 6- to 8-qt. saucepan, in batches if necessary, over medium-high heat 6 to 8 minutes per batch.

2. Stir in broth, carrots, rutabaga, turnip, onion, cumin, salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and 1/2 cup water. Bring mixture just to boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, until meat is tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

3. Stir prunes and apricots into stew and continue cooking, uncovered, until sauce has thickened and fruit is soft, 15 minutes longer. Makes 6 cups; 4 to 6 servings.




1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
2 1/2 lbs. bone-in chicken pieces,
  skin removed
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 1/2 lbs. red new potatoes, cut
  into quarters
1 14.5-oz. can chicken broth
1 Tbs. chopped fresh rosemary
1 3 x 1-in. strip lemon zest, removed
  with vegetable peeler
1 10-oz, package frozen
  artichoke hearts
1/2 cup green olives

1. Combine flour, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, and the pepper in a pie plate. Dredge chicken pieces in flour mixture and shake off excess. Cook chicken pieces, in batches if necessary, in oil in a Dutch oven or a large, wide 6- to 8-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat turning once, until browned on both sides, 15 minutes.

2. Add potatoes, chicken broth, chopped rosemary, lemon zest, the remaining 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1 cup water and bring just to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Add artichokes and green olives and cook, uncovered, until chicken pieces and vegetables are cooked through, about 10 minutes longer. Makes 4 servings.



8 oz. kielbasa, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 14.5-oz. cans reduced-sodium
  chicken broth
2 19-oz. cans cannelini beans,
  rinsed and drained
4 cups chopped kale
  • 1. Brown kielbasa in a large saucepan over medium-high heat about 4 minutes. Remove cooked kielbasa slices from pan.
  • 2. Add oil to pan and cook garlic 30 seconds. Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add beans, and simmer 5 minutes.
  • 3. Remove I cup of soup including beans and puree in blender until the mixture is smooth. Stir bean puree, cooked sausage, and chopped kale into soup and simmer until kale is just tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Makes 6 1/2 cups; 4 servings.

SICILIAN SEAFOOD STEW (pictured on page 151)


1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 14.5-oz. cans whole plum
  tomatoes in juice, coarsely
1/2 tsp. grated orange zest
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 to 1/4 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
1 1/2 lb. firm white fish fillet (such as
  swordfish or monkfish), cut in
  1 1/2-in. pieces
28 mussels, scrubbed
Crusty bread or toast

1. Saute 1/4 cup of the chopped parsley and the garlic in oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat 1 minute. Add wine and continue cooking until reduced to 3 Tbs. Add tomatoes with juice, orange zest, salt, and pepper flakes. Simmer until thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Add fish fillets and simmer until just cooked through, 5 minutes. Carefully remove fish from sauce and transfer to serving dishes.

3. Add mussels to skillet and cook until they open, stirring occasionally, 4 to 5 minutes. Spoon mussels and sauce over fish and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup parsley. Serve with crusty bread. Makes 6 cups; 4 servings.



2 15-oz. containers part-skim
  ricotta cheese
2 10-oz. packages frozen chopped
  spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 10-oz. package frozen cauliflower,
  thawed, squeezed dry, and
1 cup Alfredo sauce (we like Five
  Brothers brand)
15 sheets oven-ready lasagna
2 cups marinara sauce
2 cups shredded Fontina cheese

1. Heat oven to 375 [degrees]. Stir together 1 container ricotta cheese, the chopped spinach, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan, 1 egg, 1/4 tsp. of the salt, and 1/4 tsp. of the black pepper. Mix cauliflower with the remaining container ricotta cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan, egg, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper.

2. Spread 1/2 cup Alfredo sauce in bottom of a 13 x 9-in. baking dish. Arrange 3 sheets lasagna noodles to cover sauce, spread with half of the spinach mixture, then 1/4 cup Alfredo sauce. Top with 3 more lasagna sheets and repeat layers with the remaining spinach mixture and 1/4 cup Alfredo sauce. Top with another layer of noodles, then half of the cauliflower mixture, 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce, 1/2 cup of the Fontina, and 3 more noodles. Repeat layers with the remaining cauliflower mixture, 1/2 cup of the marinara sauce, 1/2 cup of the Fontina, and the remaining 3 noodles. Top with 1 cup marinara sauce.

3. Bake 30 minutes covered with aluminum foil. Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining I cup Fontina, and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling. Let the lasagna stand at least 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.




12 oz. ziti pasta
12 oz. lean Italian sausage,
  casings removed
6 medium portobello mushroom
  caps, halved and sliced
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 Tbs. olive oil
2 1/2 cups marinara sauce
1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
1 1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain well. Cook sausage in a large skillet over medium heat until cooked through, breaking up sausage with the side of a wooden spoon, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove.

2. Saute mushrooms with salt in oil over medium-high heat until golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Toss with ziti, marinara, fennel seeds, and the sausage. Spoon into 4 heat-proof dishes, sprinkle with mozzarella, and microwave until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes. Makes 4 servings.



2 1/2 cups green salsa, about
  2 11,5-oz, jars
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 1/4 lbs. ground chicken
1 19-oz. can black beans, rinsed
  and drained
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
4 cups cooked rice
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup sour cream

1. Cook salsa, cumin, oregano, and coriander in olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat 8 minutes.

2. Add chicken, stirring to break up large pieces, and cook 6 minutes, until it is no longer pink. Add beans and cilantro and cook 5 minutes longer. Serve over rice, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, and sour cream. Makes 5 cups; 4 servings.



2 small eggplants, about 8 oz. each,
  thinly sliced
3 small zucchini, sliced into 1/2-in. - thick
4 plum tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-in. - thick
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
6 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oven to 400 [degrees]. Toss eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and onions with 2 Tbs. of the oil, the thyme, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Arrange vegetables in 4 shallow gratin dishes or 1 1 1/2-qt, shallow baking dish.

2. Combine bread crumbs and Parmesan; sprinkle over vegetables. Drizzle the remaining 4 Tbs. oil over crumbs. Bake until vegetables are cooked through, 40 to 45 minutes. Makes 4 servings.



8 oz. fettuccine
1 lb. peeled, deveined large shrimp
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. Asian sesame oil
1 cup coconut milk
1 Tbs. reduced-sodium soy sauce or
  Thai fish sauce (see note below)
1 to 3 tsp. Thai green curry paste, to
  taste (see note below)
1 14.5-oz. can reduced-sodium
  chicken broth
2 cups fresh or frozen snow
  peas, trimmed
1 8-oz. can sliced bamboo shoots,
  rinsed and drained
1 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1. Cook fettucine according to package directions. Drain well and set aside. Meanwhile, sprinkle shrimp with salt and saute in sesame oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat until the shrimp are pink and cooked through, 2 minutes. Remove shrimp from skillet.
  • 2. Whisk together coconut milk, soy sauce, and green curry paste, and add mixture to skillet with chicken broth, snow peas, and bamboo shoots. Simmer until snow peas are just tender, about 10 minutes. Add cooked fettuccine and shrimp and heat through. Serve in bowls sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. Makes 4 servings.


NOTE: Thai fish sauce, green curry paste, and other Thai food products are available in supermarkets, Asian food stores, or by mail, through



8 slices bacon, diced
1 lb. ground beef
1 14.5-oz. can stewed tomatoes
1 14.5-oz. can reduced-sodium
  beef broth
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. ground hot red pepper
1 10-oz. package frozen corn
1 10-oz. package frozen sliced okra
1 tsp. file powder (see note below)

1. Saute bacon in a large deep skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

2. Add ground beef to skillet and cook until the meat is no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Drain off any liquid. Add stewed tomatoes, beef broth, bay leaf, salt, thyme, black pepper, and red pepper, and simmer 5 minutes, breaking up tomatoes with side of a wooden spoon.

3. Add corn and okra and cook until okra is tender, about 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove bay leaf, and stir in file powder and bacon. Makes 6 cups; 4 to 6 servings.

NOTE: File powder, often used in Creole cooking, is available in the spice section of your supermarket or from Penzeys Spices (; 800-741-7787) or Kalustyan’s (

RELATED ARTICLE: Eight reasons why one-pot meals rule

  • 1. Slow cooking builds flavor–so you don’t have to

Sure, quick cooking seems convenient, but don’t rule out a recipe just because it takes an hour or more to cook. Remember, that’s wait time, not work time.

  • 2. Perfect for casual entertaining

You can spend more time with the guests if you don’t have to juggle multiple dishes in the kitchen. Dress up soups and stews with an assortment of great breads, and make casseroles more classy by baking them in individual dishes and serving a salad on the side.

  • 3. You can use convenience products

The flavors all blend together, so you don’t need perfect produce or sauces made from scratch. Frozen vegetables, canned beans, and store-bought sauces are fine.

  • 4. No fancy equipment needed

For casseroles, any sort of ovenproof glass or ceramic dish will work. For soups and stews, use what you’ve got. The heavier the pot and the wider the bottom, the better–even a large, deep skillet will do.

  • 5. Great for make-ahead meals

The flavors of slow-cooked soups and stews are even better the day after cooking. If a recipe calls for adding a fresh ingredient in the last 10 minutes, just save that step until you’re ready to serve.

  • 6. Recipes are foolproof

Soups, stews, and casseroles give you a lot of leeway, and everyone knows they are supposed to look “homey.”

  • 7. They make the best leftovers

You can keep them refrigerated, tightly wrapped, for up to four days, or frozen for up to six months. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, then reheat covered in the microwave or over medium-low heat for soups and stews or in the oven at 350 [degrees] for casseroles.

  • 8. Only one dish to clean!

Enough said.

On a quest for haute Chinese cuisine

Chinese cuisine is on the march, everywhere you look, everywhere you go. Did you see that article the other day in the Hindustan Times of Delhi, the one about high-class Chinese restaurants in India?

It seems that a frantic competition has broken out there among the major luxury-hotel chains to elevate the quality and prestige of their Chinese restaurants. Wouldn’t you totally love it if that happened here? The Hyatt Regency in Delhi is about to open a 150-seat “upmarket Chinese restaurant with a team of chefs flown in from China at a reported investment of U.S. $2.5 million.” And the Maurya in Delhi “will finally unveil its stab at the modern new Chinese market, a restaurant called My Humble House in the old Bali Hi space on the rooftop.” The Hyatt and the Maurya are up against the Chinese-food dominance of the omnipresent Taj group, with its Golden Dragon and House of Ming moneymakers, though these days neither is cutting-edge.


The planners at the Hyatt and Maurya both looked to London for inspiration. That’s where restaurateur Alan Yau has succeeded impressively with his stylish Hakkasan and Yauatcha. According to the Hindustan Times, Yau’s method is to import traditional chefs from Hong Kong and the mainland and ask them to modernize their cooking. A year or two ago, when hotelier Ian Schrager was renovating the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, he engaged Alan Yau to open a modern Chinese restaurant, to be called Park Chinois. After many delays, the deal collapsed; the most popular explanation was that Mr. Yau was unable to secure the necessary visas for his Chinese chefs. (A thousand terrorists a year can enter this country over the Mexican border, but we worry instead that six chefs from China might smuggle explosives in the hollow handles of their cleavers?) Schrager quickly turned to Yuji Wakiya, a celebrated Japanese chef who cooks Chinese food in a somewhat Japanified style at his four restaurants in Tokyo and Yokohama. I’ve just eaten his elegant food and will tell you about it later.

I was amazed to read in the Hindustan Times that Chinese food in India followed the same path as it did in America: Cantonese in the sixties, Sichuan in the seventies, and for the past ten years, the birth and slow development of a modern Chinese cuisine, also known as new Chinese or nouvelle chinoise. Poor India experienced a phase in the eighties that we managed to avoid: Chinese cooking popped up everywhere, in every cafe and roadside stand, but now it was flavored with a masala-an Indian spice mixture. Being an Indian person in the eighties must have been excruciating.

I speak as someone who knows. I shudder as I think back upon a Chinese lunch I ate in the late seventies in Calcutta. My girlfriend (now wife) and I had taken four months off to go trekking in Nepal and sightseeing by train throughout northern India. The three themes of our tourism were Indian classical music (a visit to Bismillah Khan in Benares), Buddhism (the Bodhi tree, the deer park at Sarnath, like that), and Chinese food. At that time I was obsessed with Chinese food, but, though Nixon had broken the ice in 1972, travel to China was still prohibited. Nonetheless, I had invented the desperate theory that the closer one got to China, the more authentic the Chinese food would be-and Calcutta was the nearest I had ever come to China. We checked into a very modest hotel and immediately decamped for the nearest Chinese restaurant listed in our guidebook, our every step dogged by a beggar and her child who had attached themselves to us as we first arrived at the hotel and would not leave our side until we left for Darjeeling, even though I offered to pay the woman $5 all at once-much more than she’d get out of me coin by coin-if only she’d take a few days off from begging.


I have never known exactly where or what the Black Hole of Calcutta was, but upon reaching that Chinese restaurant-dark and dim and nearly empty-I was pretty sure we had found it. We ordered by pointing to a menu that seemed at first indistinguishable from every Chinese menu in every Chinatown in the world, until the food arrived. Every dish was smothered in turmeric and cumin, cayenne and asafetida, cardamom, coriander, and mustard seed.

And now it seems that India may be at the cutting edge! Alan Yau calculates that one-fourth of his revenue in London comes from affluent Indian customers, a much higher proportion than their presence in London’s population. It’s a breathtaking irony.

What is modern Chinese food? To find out, I flew to Toronto and paid a visit to Susur Lee. Susur is an internationally celebrated chef, movie-star handsome though on the verge of turning 50. He is a native of Hong Kong, where he was trained as a chef for eight years before moving to Canada with his first wife (who died when the Russians shot down the Korean airliner she was traveling on). After a few years in Toronto, Susur opened the restaurant Lotus, which won him the acclaim of both critics and customers. For all this, Susur is unassuming, curious, and self-effacing.

It was almost by coincidence that Susur became one of the inventors of modern Chinese food. About ten years ago, Susur was in Singapore as a star chef in something called the World Gourmet Summit, where he met a restaurateur named Andrew Tjioe, with whom he discussed his ideas about how Chinese cuisine could be modernized.

  • Susur makes it sound easy: First, use raw materials of a much higher quality. This alone will double the bill at most Chinese restaurants. The image of Chinese food as low-priced takeout will have to change. (One of the new upscale burger places in my neighborhood boasts heirloom tomatoes and exotically cured bacon. Should your neighborhood Chinese restaurant offer any less?)
  • Next, get rid of those sludgy, sticky sauces. And the thick breading on fried dishes. Thicken sauces through natural reduction instead of cornstarch. Present food more attractively. (The great chefs who transformed French haute cuisine in the seventies looked to Japan for visual inspiration; Chinese chefs should do the same, or turn toward hypermodern Spain. Or somewhere else nice.)

Don’t serve dishes family-style, with everybody sharing from the same bowls; serve in individual portions-and one course at a time. I’ve often wondered whether the emperors of China knew how to operate a lazy Susan.

Cooking should be more precise, flavors clarified and sharpened. Regional Chinese dishes can be refined and elevated. Raw vegetables and fish can be introduced to a cuisine that traditionally has cooked or pickled nearly everything.

Some ingredients and flavors from outside China can be incorporated-especially those from Southeast Asia. The cooking in China has always been enriched by trade with its neighbors. Susur likes Taiwanese cooking for its Korean and Japanese influences. Try an occasional Western delicacy such as foie gras, truffles, or caviar. But avoid fusion. Chinese food can look Western, but it must taste Chinese.

Try to respond to whatever beliefs about the links between diet and health are popular on the day the meal is served.

And consider using up-to-date scientific techniques-from sous vide cooking and vacuum marination to the introduction of exotic starches and, yes, even foams. (I’ve smuggled in this idea. Susur would strongly disagree. He does not even have a thermometer in his restaurant kitchen; he says he prefers to hire young chefs who, like him, cook by feel. This is very, very unmodern. It’s positively sixteenth-century, Ming dynasty.)

Andrew persuaded Susur to move to Singapore and work with him in creating Club Chinois, which they considered the first modern Chinese restaurant. Club Chinois was extremely popular and was copied throughout Singapore, and after Susur and his family returned to Toronto three years later, Andrew opened two new modern Chinese eating places, Jade and My Humble House (the flagship restaurant that later gave rise to the Delhi location, as we recently learned from the Hindustan Times). Andrew and his Tung Lok group now own 31 places; before opening a new one, he often engages Susur to train the chefs.

Susur’s own remarkable food is difficult to categorize. He is poised between Asia and the West, but his Chinese training is so broad and fundamental that those flavors shine through nearly every dish at Susur, his more elaborate restaurant in Toronto. (Next door is Lee, which, although more casual and less expensive, serves food that is just as free from cliches.) There was a Chinese element to every dish we were served: salted duck egg, ginger kung pao vinaigrette, hot-and-sour consomme, spicy peanut sauce, dow bon cheung, steamed scallop with Cantonese black-bean sauce, and sea moss. Few of these were obviously what the menu called them; I’ve eaten black-bean sauce for many years, but it never tasted like this. The connection between hot-and-sour consomme and its thicker, heartier cousin was apparent, but the golden liquid of the consomme was not nearly as filling, and it seemed that one could drink it forever.

Toronto and its suburbs have excellent Chinese restaurants, largely Cantonese-after Vancouver, perhaps the best in North America. We had a memorable dim sum lunch at the highly reputed Lai Wah Heen, whose dining room reminded me of great modern Chinese hotel restaurants in Singapore and Hong Kong. Gone are the kitschy, faux-imperial trappings of most expensive Chinese restaurants in this country or the fluorescent-and-Formica ambience of most neighborhood places. The room was large and airy, with light woods and carpeting and well-spaced tables. The walls were covered with fabric or woven bamboo interspersed with calligraphy by a retired professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong that was striking and, according to my wife, quite respectable. I didn’t see one lazy Susan.

Although Lai Wah Heen is considered conventionally Cantonese, the dim sum were delectable and imaginative, even fanciful, and incorporated some luxurious Western ingredients. We loved the pink penguins stuffed with chopped freshwater clam, shrimp, and shimeji mushrooms, and the foie gras and chicken in a soft tart shell. Plus the lightest turnip cake I’ve ever eaten (though its grated mozzarella topping deserves further thought), and a crepe made of rice and sticky-rice flour and smoked salmon sandwiched within, and Chinese puff pastry enclosing lightly curried crab. Our main courses were good-a gelatinous braise of oxtail with sea cucumber; a tasty bowl of wonderfully tender mapo doufu, which in the Cantonese style included an excess of meat, pork instead of beef, and the near absence of Sichuan peppercorns; and rich squares of dong puo pork-but lacked the refinement and invention of the dim sum. And now all I have is memories. I learned long ago that when you happen upon uniquely delectable food on your travels, don’t stop eating. You may never eat as well again. Too often I forget this rule.


  • New York City, home of the world’s largest Chinatown outside Asia, has not fared well in the movement to elevate and modernize Chinese cooking. Certainly none of the pretentious and expensive midtown Chinese restaurants has made any contribution. Over the past two decades there have been several valiant attempts to modernize at places such as Chiam and Chin Chin. And I’ve been told that a few places-Shun Lee and Ping’s among them-are capable of admirable refinement in their special banquet dishes.
  • Skillful and delicious dim sum can be had at Chinatown Brasserie in Manhattan’s East Village; the dim sum kitchen is directed by Joe Ng (pronounced “Ng”), a Hong Kong native who worked there for eight years, then moved to Los Angeles and San Diego, with occasional gigs in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Now he’s here more or less for good. I haven’t tasted every dumpling in America, but it’s clear to me that Joe is near the top of his profession. The shapes of his dumplings are inventive-some are beautiful and others are extremely cute, made to resemble fish, frogs, or birds. (Joe says he wants his customers to love his food even before they taste it.) The wrappers are thin and delicate, their bright coloring is natural-created by boiling leeks or bell peppers-and their ingredients are uncompromising. One is stuffed with shrimp and snow-pea leaves, another with crab, scallop, and Chinese broccoli. There’s watercress with shrimp, roast duck and shrimp (come to think of it, maybe there’s too much shrimp), lamb and spicy vegetables, crunchy vegetables with peanuts, and beef buns with scallion (unassumingly named but among Joe’s most delicious). The various rolls are perfectly fried and scrumptious.

For all its informality, Chinatown Brasserie doesn’t do takeout. When business is heavy, Joe works twelve-hour days, six days a week; he feels he has a mission to bring better Chinese food to New York City. The point of modernizing his native cuisine? People are tired of the same old thing, Joe says (except, I point out, that most Americans have never tasted the same old masterpieces of Sichuanese and Hunanese cooking). People are more concerned with fitness. And they enjoy surprises. Joe is capable of several hundred variations. The dim sum he would prepare in Hong Kong are different from those he made in San Diego and those he feels belong in Manhattan. Several of the early reviewers didn’t appreciate what they were eating at Chinatown Brasserie. You can buy the same thing a mile to the south, in Chinatown, for a fourth of the price, they claimed. It sounded as though they really couldn’t taste the difference, which brings up another precondition to improving America’s Chinese cuisine: Customers, and especially critics, should have some understanding of what they’re eating and the ability to savor it.

In 2003 and with great fanfare, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, known for his understanding of Asian food, opened 66, a modern Chinese restaurant in Tribeca in Manhattan. It was designed by architect Richard Meier in a minimalist style, and it was an exciting room for dining and drinking. Before 66 opened, Jean-Georges explained his ambitions for the new kitchen to Florence Fabricant of The New York Times: “_’Why can’t a steak in a Chinese restaurant be medium-rare?’ Mr. Vongerichten asked. ‘Why can’t the meat on a Peking duck be more like confit? Why do they use so much pork fat in the fillings for dumplings, even shrimp dumplings? . . . Chinese is a great cuisine, but they haven’t changed some of this stuff in 3,000 years. It’s about time.’ Mr. Vongerichten has created new recipes for dumpling fillings (foie gras, for instance, or chopped diver scallops and fresh water chestnuts). And he has weaned the Chinatown chefs from their usual canned baby corn and straw mushrooms.” Less often mentioned in the press was another asset: Most of the female wait staff were lovely, young Southeast Asian women in revealing outfits, a style quite common in Manhattan in the nineties but now incomprehensibly abolished.

Can a Caucasian-even one as brilliant as Jean-Georges-who lacks a deep mastery of traditional Chinese cooking take on the job of modernizing it? For the first few months, everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves at 66-the novelty, the social cachet, and yes, the wait staff. After a while, most people I dined with ended up reordering the comfort food-such as the excellent fried chicken-more often than the daring flavor combinations of which only a chef like Jean-Georges is capable. (At least at the start, the deep-fat frying was extremely skillful, crisp and greaseless.) Reviews of the food were ambivalent and occasionally worse, and after a year or two, those of us who returned to the place found thinning crowds, sometimes undisciplined and inexact cooking, and, as it appeared to me, a more completely clothed wait staff. 66 closed last April.

  • Several of the talented young chefs who had worked in the kitchen at 66 founded their own restaurants, and the general excitement about what Jean-Georges was attempting seemed to inspire several others. Mainland and Yumcha-both very good places to eat-have since closed, and Almond Flower has lost its innovative chef. Xing (pronounced “Shing”) closed and then reopened with chef Lulzim Rexhepi at the wok, into which he has added flavors from Southeast Asia-pandan leaves, guava, red curry, galangal, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, coconut. James Marshall is still grilling, steaming, and baking his heart-healthy Chinese food at Ginger, on Fifth Avenue at One-_hundred-_sixteenth Street in Harlem. And recently, 66’s dessert chef Pichet Ong opened a tiny, nine-table gem on Tenth Street in the West Village named P*ong, where nearly everything is delicious, though the main courses and desserts are not always distinguishable.
  • Altogether, the prognosis for modern Chinese cooking in this culinary capital is guarded. Now, at last, Yuji Wakiya has arrived in Manhattan and the kitchen of Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel, where I watched him at the wok, then sat down with him and several others for lunch. The room at Wakiya, not designed with the chef’s delicate cooking in mind, was done in black with red accents. Everything was chosen from a menu of 70 possible dishes and served in individual portions.

There were nine teeny hors d’oeuvres for each of us, cool morsels laid out three by three on a specially designed plate, each one intriguing: a roll of marinated tofu skin, a nugget of sweet-and-sour sea bass, creamy lemon shrimp, beef with black beans. Then came a steamer of vegetables set over a stone pot with a very hot disk of stone at its bottom; when oolong tea was poured through the steamer, the result was fragrant billows of steam that gently cooked and flavored the vegetables. Sometimes Wakiya treats scallops and abalone in the same way; he is greatly attached to this special tea, which he drinks throughout the day, hot or cold, and sometimes uses as a poaching liquid for chicken. His particular oolong has a floral aroma that hints, at least to me, of jasmine, a proper object for addiction.

A wonderfully rich and savory Premium Soup was served next, the finest and most luxurious of three stocks prepared daily in Wakiya’s kitchen, this one from chicken, scallops, and ham simmered for five hours. The soup itself was made by immersing winter melon and scallops in the completed stock for nearly an hour. A plate piled high with dried red peppers and fresh-ground sancho pepper with pieces of lobster and chicken hidden among them was a delight, as oil from the peppers’ surface flavored the meat with great reserve, more from the fruitiness of the peppers than from their lethal fire. The dessert was wonderful, a little bowl of almond-tofu-and-mango pudding suspended over dry ice; when hot water was poured over the ice, clouds of vapor were released, carrying the fragrance of the drop or two of litchi liqueur that Wakiya had squeezed onto the ice.

Wakiya is an artist whose take on Chinese cuisine is one of restraint, of aromas as much as tastes, and like nothing I’ve ever eaten. The lunch was revealing and satisfying. To characterize it as Chinese-Japanese fusion would be simplistic, but what can you expect?

And so my quest for modern Chinese cooking has turned up four or five distinct cuisines, all rewarding, none yet dominant. I think I’d better carry on with my search.

The secret to great pasta


Pasta recipes are presented, including recipes for linguine and romaine salad, ginger chicken and angel hair, arugula and roasted tomatoes with penne, Mediterranean-style orzo and jalapeno shrimp vermicelli.

Full Text:

These cool, light dishes–made with unexpected ingredients like ginger and mascarpone cheese–are the perfect ending to a hot day in the sun.



Linguine and Romaine Salad

While 1/2 lb. linguine is cooking, combine 1/4 cup prepared sun-dried-tomato pesto, 2 Tbs. olive oil, 2 Tbs. lemon juice, 1 minced garlic clove, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Drain linguine and rinse under warm water; drain well. Toss pasta with dressing, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil. and 6 shredded romaine lettuce leaves. Top with shavings of Parmesan. Makes 4 serving.

Ginger Chicken and Angel Hair

Prep time: 10 min. Cooking time: 5 min.

1/2 lb. angel hair or other very
    thin pasta
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 bunch asparagus, cut into
  2" pieces
1 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 cup soy sauce
2 Tbs. grated peeled fresh
4 tsp. Asian sesame oil
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced cooked
  skinless, boneless
  chicken (about 1/2 lb.)
3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.
  • 2. While pasta is cooking, heat vegetable oil in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook asparagus, stirring, 3 minutes, or until almost tender.
  • 3. Combine soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and sesame oil. Toss chicken, asparagus, and scallions with 3 Tbs. of the ginger dressing. Toss pasta with remaining ginger dressing. To serve, arrange chicken and asparagus mixture over pasta and sprinkle with sesame seeds.


Per serving: 475 cals. (28% from fat); 15 g fat.

Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes with Penne

Prep time: 15 min. Cooking time: 13 min.

3/4 lb. penne rigate
6 bacon slices
3 Tbs. olive oil, divided
2 garlic cloves, crushed in garlic press
3/4 tsp. salt, divided
1/8 tsp. pepper
4 large tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges
1 Tbs. white rice vinegar or cider vinegar
2 bunches arugula, stems removed

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Remove and set aside 1/4 cup pasta-cooking water. Drain pasta and rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. While pasta is cooking, cook bacon in medium skillet over medium heat until crisp. Drain on paper towels.

3. Preheat broiler. Combine 2 Tbs. oil, garlic, 1/4 tsp. salt, and pepper. Toss with tomatoes and place on jelly-roll pan. Broil 4″ from heat 2 to 4 minutes, until softened. Add tomatoes and liquid to pasta, along with reserved pasta-cooking water, vinegar, arugula, remaining 1 Tbs. oil, and remaining 1/2 tsp. salt; mix well. Crumble bacon and sprinkle over pasta. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 345 cals. (28% from fat); 11g fat.

Mediterranean-style Orzo

Prep time: 10 min.
Cooking time: 10 min.

1/2 lb. orzo pasta
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. sherry vinegar
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 1/2 pints yellow and red
   cherry tomatoes,
   halved 1/2 cup Greek olives, pitted
1/2 cup sliced pimiento-stuffed
4 scallions, sliced
1/4 cup basil leaves, sliced
1 can (8 oz.) water-packed
tuna, drained

1. Cook orzo according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. While pasta is cooking, combine oil, vinegar, and pepper in large bowl. Mix in tomatoes, olives, scallions, and basil. Add to pasta with tuna; toss to mix well. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 440 cals. (35% from fat); 17 g fat.

Jalapeno Shrimp Vermicelli

Prep time: 10 min.
Cooking time: 5 to 10 min.

1/2 lb. vermicelli or other thin noodles
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
2 Tbs. fish sauce (see note)
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded
  and minced
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 1/2 lbs. cooked medium shrimp
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/3 cup cilantro leaves
3 starfruit, thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup cocktail peanuts
  • 1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse in cool water; drain well and place in large bowl.
  • 2. While pasta is cooking, combine lime juice, oil, fish sauce, jalapeno peppers, sugar, and red pepper flakes. Toss pasta with lime dressing, shrimp, onion, and cilantro leaves. Garnish with starfruit and peanuts. Makes 6 servings.


Note: Look for Thai (nam pla) or Vietnamese (nuoc nam) fish sauce in the condiments section of supermarkets or in specialty or Asian food stores.

Per serving: 435 calories, (31% from fat): 15 g fat.

Wild Mushrooms and Spinach with Fusilli

Prep time: 10 min. Cooking time: 12 min.

1/2 lb. long fusilli
1 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
2 pkgs. (4 oz. each) mixed sliced fresh
  wild mushrooms
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 pkg. (4 to 5.2 oz.) creamy garlic-and-herb-flavored
  cheese, cut up
1 pkg. (10 oz.) prewashed spinach, stems
  removed and leaves halved
1/2 white onion, thinly sliced

1. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. While pasta is cooking, heat oil in 10″ nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until golden. Add wine, salt, and pepper; boil 1 minute. Toss mushrooms and cheese with pasta until coated with sauce. Add spinach and onion; toss. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 405 cals. (38% from fat); 17 g fat.

Black Bean and Pasta Salad

Prep time: 10 min. Cooking time: 13 min.

1/2 lb. penne
1/2 cup red wine vinegar dressing
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 can (15 to 19 oz.) black beans, rinsed
  and drained
1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen whole kernel corn, thawed
2 large tomatoes, cored and diced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 avocado, thinly sliced

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. While pasta is cooking, combine dressing, dill, and cumin. Toss pasta with dressing, black beans, corn, tomatoes, and scallions. Top with avocado. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 550 cals. (29% from fat); 18 g fat.

Artichokes and Caponata Rigatoni

Prep time: 5 min. Cooking time: 14 min.

3/4 lb. rigatoni
1 pkg. (9 oz.) frozen artichoke hearts
1 pkg: (9 oz.) bocconcini (small mozzarella
  balls), drained
2 cans (7 1/2 oz. each) caponata
2 large tomatoes, cored and diced
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp. salt

Cook pasta according to package directions for 6 minutes. Add artichoke hearts to pasta and boil 5 minutes longer. Drain, then rinse pasta and artichokes in warm water; drain well and place in large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Makes 6 servings.


Per serving: 440 cals. (30% from fat): 15 g fat.

Mascarpone and Smoked Salmon with Farfalle

Prep time: 5 min. Cooking time: 12 min.

3/4 lb. farfalle (bow tie) pasta
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. lemon juice
2 Tbs. chopped fresh dill
1 Tbs. chopped capers
1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 lb. sliced smoked salmon, cut
    into pieces
4 oz. mascarpone cheese (1/2 cup)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. whole capers

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well.

2. Combine oil, lemon juice, dill, chopped capers, lemon rind, and salt. Toss pasta with dressing and place on platter. Tuck pieces of smoked salmon into pasta. Spoon dollops of mascarpone on pasta; top with onion and whole capers. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 360 calories (35% from fat); 14 g fat.

Sausage, Peppers, and Fennel with Cavatelli

Prep time: 15 min. Cooking time: 13 min.

3/4 lb. cavatelli
3/4 lb. gourmet sausage (such as chicken and
    basil, or smoked turkey and herb), each link
    cut in half lengthwise
2 red bell peppers, seeded and each cut into
  8 triangles
2 yellow bell peppers, seeded and each cut
  into 8 triangles
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and
  thinly sliced
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 Tbs. prepared pesto

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. While pasta is cooking, cook sausage halves in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat until browned and cooked through, 8 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile, cook peppers, fennel, and onion in oil in 12″ nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Stir in salt.

3. Cut sausages into 1/4″ pieces. Stir chicken broth, pesto, and sausage into pasta. Add vegetables and toss. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 415 cals. (37% from fat); 17 g fat.

Beef and Stilton Rotelle

Prep time: 5 min. Cooking time: 13 min.

3/4 lb. rotelle or corkscrew pasta
3 Tbs. olive or vegetable oil
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 bunch watercress, stems trimmed
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) cut beets, drained
8 oz. sliced cooked beef steak
2 oz. Stilton or other blue cheese, crumbled

1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, then rinse under warm water; drain well and place in large bowl.

2. Combine oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Toss pasta with dressing and red onion, then with watercress, beets, steak, and cheese. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 400 cals. (29% from fat); 13 g fat.

RELATED ARTICLE: Serve it with style

* Nest dips in an old wooden box. Place vegetables on parchment paper.

* Brush rims of glass bowls with a bit of oil, then dip in chopped herbs.

* Set a glass bowl of dip on a bed of fresh herbs in a painted flowerpot. Serve vegetables in another lined pot.

* Use a two-tiered planter with a bowl of dip in the top tier and crackers or vegetables underneath.

* Serve vegetables in a colander with a matching-colored bowl for dip.

RELATED ARTICLE: Create a Great Dip

To use this chart: Pick a base from the first row. Puree ingredients in a food processor. Add a selection from the second row, then a flavor enhancer from the third. The beauty of the chart? Any combination you choose will be delicious.

choose a b or c and puree


* 1 large peeled and pitted avocado

* 8 oz. sour cream

* 1/4 tsp. salt


* 8 oz. cream cheese

* 2 Tbs. milk


* 115 oz. can white kidney beans, rinsed and drained

* 2 Tbs. olive oil

add a b or c and pulse


* 2 Tbs. tahini

* 1 Tbs. soy sauce

* 1 Tbs. lemon juice


* 1/2 cup green or red salsa


* 4 oz. fresh lump crabmeat

* 1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning

* 1 tsp. white wine vinegar

add a b or c and pulse


* 1/4 cup roasted red peppers

* 2 Tbs. lemon juice

* 2 Tbs. chopped chives


* 3 Tbs. chopped cilantro

* 1 large scallion

* 1/4 tsp. hot pepper sauce


* 1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind

* 1 garlic clove, minced

* 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley


Here, fun shapes and the recipes you can use them in:


* Mediterranean-style Orzo

* Ginger Chicken


* Black Bean & Pasta Salad

* Mediterranean-style Orzo


* Jalapeno Shrimp

* Arugula & Roasted Tomatoes


* Sausage, Peppers, & Fennel

* Beef & Stilton

Mafalda or Mafaldine

* Mascarpone & Smoked Salmon

* Jalapeno Shrimp

* Wild Mushrooms & Spinach

Mini ravioli

* Black Bean & Pasta Salad

*Arugula & Roasted Tomatoes


* Artichokes & Caponata

* Wild Mushrooms & Spinach


* Artichokes & Caponata

* Ginger Chicken


* Sausage, Peppers, & Fennel

* Black Bean & Pasta Salad


* Mascarpone & Smoked Salmon

* Artichokes & Caponata

RELATED ARTICLE: 5 More Great Pasta Dishes

* Start with base ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 1 garlic clove crushed in garlic press, 1/4 tsp. salt. Then choose one of the dishes below for a great dinner in almost record time.

* Puttanesca Pasta: Add 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar, 2 Tbs. capers, 8 chopped anchovies, and 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes; toss with 1/2 lb. gemelli, cooked and drained.

* Tuscan Pasta: Add 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 2 Tbs. mayonnaise, 1/4 cup diced roasted red peppers, and 1/2 cup each chopped red onion and celery; toss with 1/2 lb. shells, cooked and drained, 1 can drained white beans, and 1 can drained tuna.

* Provencal Pasta: Add 3 Tbs. lemon juice, 3 chopped fresh tomatoes, 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint, 4 sliced scallions; toss with 1/2 lb. malfada, cooked and drained, and 1 1/2 cups cold cooked tiny peas; top with slices of goat cheese.

* Moroccan Pasta: Add 3 Tbs. lime juice, 1 Tbs. honey, 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro; toss with 1 cup couscous, cooked, 1/2 cup shredded carrots, and 1 cup halved red grapes.

* Arrabiatta Pasta: Add 3 Tbs. sherry vinegar, 1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes, 2 chopped scallions, 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes; toss with 1/2 lb. cavatelli, cooked and drained, and 1 cup chopped broccoli florettes.

Asian food importer tries an appetizing expansion

Brooklyn company stands to make tidy (dim) sum, selling in mainstream markets

If it’s Tuesday, it must be chicken potstickers.

Deep in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, thousands of half-moon-shaped Chinese dumplings are rolling down a conveyor belt into a freezer. Meanwhile, another machine whirls out dozens of minibuns filled with roast pork. But where most people would see just appetizers, Albert Chan sees the next stage of growth for his Chinese food importing, distribution and, now, manufacturing business.


Mr. Chan is making a transition that more and more of New York’s new Asian business owners may try to make in years to come. He founded his first company, Eastern Oceanic Enterprises Inc., to serve the needs of his fellow immigrants. With his second company, Prime Food Processing Co., Mr. Chan and his wife, Debbie, are embarking on an ambitious plan to also serve non-ethnic markets in the New York area and nationwide.

With demand for Asian products by American consumers exploding, the Chans could add significantly to their company’s $22 million in sales, 90% of which now comes from importing and distribution.

“We have the Asian market,” says Mr. Chan, with all the determination of the ex-Marine he is. “Now we’re going after the American market.”

The Chans are well positioned to cash in on that demand. Ten-year-old Eastern Oceanic has warehouses on both the East and West coasts, and its own fleet of trucks to relay staples like dried shrimp and dried mushrooms to Asian groceries.

Investments in high tech

The company has invested heavily in technology: Mr. Chan set up a computer videoconferencing system to coach his Chinese suppliers in proper labeling for the U.S. market, and to monitor the quality of the products they’re shipping.

  • Mr. Chan also took the time to learn U.S. Food & Drug Administration food processing rules, and follows them religiously at his pristine factory. “I have the happiest inspector in Brooklyn,” Mr. Chan says.
  • In addition, he took a step that can be very hard for immigrant business owners: He recruited outside his community for the key position of sales manager at Prime Food. Michael Weinrib has 20 years of experience in selling food to mainstream markets, and an understanding of specialty foods from a stint in kosher products.

Mr. Weinrib recently signed up both the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut and 27 suburban supermarket locations, including ShopRite and Food Emporium. He plans on opening three new supermarket accounts a month. Mr. Chan says he can meet the demand by adding a second shift to his six-day-a-week operations, which now employ 50 people in New York City and seven in Los Angeles.


Kelvin Kan, the Chans’ banker at the Hongkong Bank division of Marine Midland in Manhattan, thinks that track record will give Prime Food’s potstickers some sticking power.

“Some Asian competitors don’t pay attention to (food processing) rules and quality,” Mr. Kan says. “He sees the potential of the mass market, but he knows that to meet it he’s got to operate like an American company.”

Though food businesses are a traditional moneymaker for New York’s immigrant community, it wasn’t the Chans’ first choice. But their plan for a shoe store was scuttled by prospective landlords who didn’t think they were creditworthy enough.

So they fell back on their families’ experience in dried seafood back in Hong Kong and slowly built up a broad line of imported foods. Their success gave them the capital to become their own landlords, in factory buildings that cover most of North Ninth Street from Havemeyer Avenue to Roebling Street.

Consumption of Asian food up

The American market is becoming increasingly open to trying ethnic food. According to NPD Group, a research firm in Rosemont, Ill., while consumption of poultry by baby boomers is up 20% in the last 10 years, that of Oriental dishes is up 35%.

Oriental food still has a ways to go to catch up to other ethnic food categories, though: Consumption of Italian food is up 46% in a decade, and Mexican food consumption is up 84%.


  • But the food market is notoriously fickle, and plenty of companies far bigger than the Chans’ have choked on Asian product lines. Prime Food’s dumplings will join the more than 11,000 new food products competing for supermarket space this year, few of which will still be on the shelves when their one-year anniversaries roll around.
  • And though most New York area consumers are familiar with dumplings, they will have to be convinced that buying in the supermarket will be easier than phoning the Chinese restaurant down the block.

There is some benefit, though, in being in the vanguard. Although slotting fees – the industry’s notorious charges for shelf space – are usually higher for frozen foods, Prime Food is getting a break, Mr. Weinrib says, because its dumplings are new items. “The next person who comes in with items like mine, he will have to pay.”