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Emerging Chefs' Chinese Food Memories

by Emerging Chefs

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(3) page(s): 29 and 30

There have seen several articles by emerging chefs in previous issues. To see them, go to Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 12, Numbers 1, 2, and 4 on pages 29-30, 26, and 34-35, respectively. Still other emerging chefs share personal and professional thoughts about some of their Chinese influences; their names beginning their thoughts. All of these are completing their culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

ANDREA MARTIN told me: I recall growing up in a mixed-religion family in New York City and eating Chinese food with my Jewish mother and Protestant father. I did the things Mom wanted around the holidays because she was the boss in the house. This included dining at the local Chinese restaurant as did other Jewish families on Christmas and Easter. I did ask her why, her answer was "because nothing else was open."

Mom, now 72, remembers eating Chinese food as a child. Her earliest memory of a specific meal was in 1949 when she was fifteen. Walking down the street with her friend, they both ducked into a Chinese restaurant in the Bronx at One-hundred-seventieth Street and the Grand Concourse. They were hungry. My mother, definitely a creature of habit, ate the dish that she still loves most, Lobster Cantonese. She had hers on a Combination Plate with an Egg Roll and Fried Rice. Chinese restaurants were not that common then but my mother and her friend did not speak about the meal or its flavors but rather gabbed about what normal teenage girls do. They then headed home.

My father's earliest memory of Chinese dining, oddly enough, is also from that same year. He was ten at the time. He went out to a restaurant on Jerome Avenue and Gun Hill Road, also in the Bronx, with his parents and brothers. The food was inexpensive, and he ordered a Combination Plate. On it, he recalls was Chicken Chow Mein and an Egg Roll accompanied by some Wonton Soup. He remembers feeling sick afterwards because the Chow Mein was too gooey. This did not turn him off Chinese food forever because in 1956, when he was in college, he used to go out with his friends to a Chinese restaurant near Columbia University. There, every dish came with a brown sauce and meat and vegetables; also with Wonton Soup and an Egg Roll. He and his friends shared dishes because they were served family style.

Before my brother and I were born, my parents remember going out together for Chinese food to a restaurant called Boe Sun in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. They ordered the Lobster Cantonese Combination Plate and with Roast Pork and a Vegetable Combination Plate with Fried Rice. When I spoke to them recently, Mom and Dad recalled precisely how much this dinner set them back; exactly five dollars and forty-one cents. It was like a magic number to them.

A Chinese dinner was part of my family’s dining schedule when I was growing up. I went through phases of what I liked while my brother was a Chicken and Cashew devotee. My father would eat anything left from everything we ordered plus a noodle dish. We frequented local Chinese establishments on major Christian holidays and encountered a boisterous crowd. No one seemed to feel they were missing anything, not even on turkey day. Everyone was content to ea their favorite dish then head out to the movies.

Now that I studied Chinese cuisine for a few short days, my respect for Chinese food has grown. It is overlooked in our culture because it is seen as commonplace and affordable. My minutes in the Chinese kitchen have given me reverence for the mother of the Chinese meal--the formidable wok. It fires food with heat and intensity that can scare mere mortals. It is not forgiving if you forget something. Its high-heat and high-speed-demands require being awake and prepared. The grace that accompanies cooking inside its big black basin is thrilling to watch. Quick motions and the utility of one tool moving food with beauty and simplicity amaze me. The wok is a secret weapon; it has changed how I look at a Chinese meal.

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