By Anna Wilding on March 11, 2017
RICHMOND, VA (Herald de Paris) —¬† Chef Peter Chang is on his way to becoming an iconic Chef on the American food scene and certainly, currently America’s most revered Chinese Chef. Twice recently nominated for a prestigious James Beard Award, Chef Chang’s cooking will surprise and delight you, as we discovered for ourselves when visiting his new restaurant in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood.
Chef Chang now owns 9¬†restaurants dotted throughout the region, from Virginia Beach and Richmond to Washington DC. ¬†Each restaurant is unique to the locale, in order to focus on local farm to table ingredients, but all unanimously showcase Chef Chang’s unique and authentic flair for Szechuan cooking.
Chef Chang began his career in Hubei, China. His culinary artistry propelled him to the top of his profession there, becoming an award wining Chef in China before moving with his family to Washington DC, to become Executive Chef at the Chinese Embassy.
Underscoring all of Chef Chang’s food is the desire to bring proper or authentic flavors to Chinese cooking in America. His use of spices became so legendary throughout the towns that Chef Chang has cooked in, that soon his fans were following him wherever he cooked. A slogan even developed, ‚ÄúWhere’s Peter?‚ÄĚ ¬†It soon became obvious that his own restaurants would emerge and take the East Coast of America by storm.
We settled into our table at the simple and colorful new Scott’s Addition location and waited. Other than the James Beard nomination, we were unaware of his strong following excepting so far as it was also recommended I visit by the head of the Virginia Film Office, Andy Edmunds.
The wait staff was excellent and soon we were being plied with an outstanding array of incredible textures, shapes, colors and flavors. Not to be outdone by Indian or delicate Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking, Chef Chang’s unique combinations of spices and herbs left us salivating for more. Who knew there were such a vast array of spices and peppers in Szechuan cooking? We didn’t, and the dinner was unlike anything we had tasted before in Asian cooking in the United States.
First, a large Scallion Bubble Pancake arrived. I can only describe this as a beautiful delicate golden cooked balloon that crunched and melted in all the right places when you literally popped it, tore it apart, and then bit into each morsel. Next up was the innovative Hot and Numbing Tofu Skins, that looks like a side dish of spaghetti and apparently possess taste bud altering properties. Indeed, while not being spicy or chili hot per se, it did have the effect of slightly numbing ones’ lips but in a pleasant way. It is literally made from the fine skin of the tofu, and naturally, Chef Chang had to go to the secret local tofu manufacturer to explain how to prepare and slice the skin off the tofu so he could fulfill orders for his restaurants. A Chef who likes to rise to his own challenges, and is that not what all great Chefs aspire to in some way? On reflection, I note it appears to be a common thread of all the notable Chefs I have reviewed.
Next we had an extremely textured bite and lightly fried piece of flounder with cumin and coriander before setting forth on the main courses. The flounder tasted a little salty to me but the Maitre D’ Mark, or our amiable waiter, explained that perhaps this was the taste bud altering effects of the peppers in the tofu that he had forewarned us about. Chef Chang likes to use three peppers, such as ghost pepper which is relatively rare in American Asian cooking. The maitre d’ may have been right as 2-3 bites in bits into the flounder, the saltiness disappeared. Whatever the reason, the saltiness was not enough to deter us and it was a colorful and exciting dish with or without saltiness.
Chef Chang joyfully told me that he plans to start using fresh sea bass, instead of fresh flounder, as it is easier to source in the Mid-Atlantic.
My next dish was extraordinary again. The most succulent and yet largest single piece of salmon I have ever had. It was carved in style and shape of a steak, served like a steak over sauteed Brussels sprouts, and then cooked medium rare, again like a steak. As a semi-vegetarian I have not eaten a steak for over 30 years, and this was as close as I was going to get to the sensation. The salmon was the most delicate, succulent, drippingly moist piece of salmon I have ever had. I had mine served over rice, with the tofu skins and I was in culinary heaven. ¬†The simple juicy flavours, combined with the the sublime textures-the rough of the rice, the meltingly pink salmon and the sublime smoothness of tofu skins delivered a rare originality in each bite. I was pleased to learn later from Chef Chang that it was his favorite dish to cook at home for his family, served simply with tofu. Nice to know the Chef and I were on the same page.
At Chef Chang’s suggestion, my dining companion had Three Peppers Beef on a Hot Iron Plate, a rich and flavorful dish full of texture. Texture is the palatable aspect of great cuisine. Chef Chang’s beef is tender, yet crisp, all while bursting with the flavors of ghost pepper, jalapeno, and bell pepper in a heavy brown sauce, and accompanied by the buttery richness of sauteed onions. This is a hearty dish, and the peppering takes one right to the edge without being too spicy or not spicy enough.
Thankfully, our mouths full from a table full of tangy and zingy morsels, desert was not an option. Why damper down such beautiful tastes and where would we fit them in. The salmon was large enough for two in and of itself. In fact, the waiter quipped that in the kitchen everyone speaks mandarin and when the ideas of deserts had been introduced, it was served as ice cream with leeks. ¬†In other words, Chef Chang is not doing deserts. Not for now, anyway.
It is a rare breed, an exceptional Chef who can rise to the top while still remain authentic. Chef Chang’s inspirations include Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Jose Andres, Chef Wolfgank Puck. ¬†Having met all three and tasted the food of all three, I can assure readers that Chef Peter Chang is a worthy addition to the lexicon of contemporary American cooking that runs the diverse gamut from Chef Morimoto to Chef Keller to the later James Beard and many more besides.
Chef Peter Chang’s culinary artistry has been 17 years in the making in America and his cooking is worth every bite.