A young chef learns new moves from a legend of Chinese cooking in America.
By Lucas Sin as told to Caroline Hatchett
Lucas Sin worked in restaurants in Hong Kong, Japan, Seattle, and New York before opening Junzi Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut. The fast-casual Chinese restaurant mini-chain later expanded to four more locations in New York. Before the pandemic, he oversaw chef’s dinners and tasting menus exploring various aspects of Chinese cuisine. Sin has transformed the series into three-course delivered meals. Junzi Kitchen’s locations remain open for delivery and take-out.
Cecilia Chiang is an extremely intimidating person to meet for the first time. She’s absolutely terrifying in theory. Just take everything you know about scary Chinese grandmothers, plus she’s maybe the most important person in the world.
Cecilia immigrated to America in the 1960s to open the Mandarin in San Francisco, which, in my opinion, is the most important Chinese restaurant in the country of all time. It was extremely elegant and absolutely a place where everybody could learn to eat and cook and refine their palates. Everything she did set the precedent for all of the ambitious cooking and thinking about Chinese food that followed it to this day.
Cecilia said that Chinese food need not be monolithic. And she was one of the very few people, if not the only person, doing what she was doing in the 1960s.
I’m not the only person doing what I’m doing now. I’m riding on the success of Danny Bowien, Jason Wang, Brandon Jew, Susur Lee, and Yan Can Cook. They were all here for me, but not for when Cecilia was around. I am now in the same class of brilliant, creative minds like Amelie Kang at MáLà Project, Trigg Brown and Josh Ku at Win Son, and the team at Cafe China, which has a Michelin star. Together, we’re aiming to build a huge community around Chinese food, but Cecilia invented the field in the first place.
I met Cecilia because my professor at Yale, Paul Freedman, is good friends with her and wrote a chapter of her book. When I told Paul that my business partners and I (in this case Yong Zhao and Reed Immer, who are some of the early founding members of our restaurant, Junzi Kitchen) were going to San Francisco, Paul said, “You have to meet Cecilia.” We’re like, “What are you talking about? What do you mean meet Cecilia?” He said, “You have to go. I’ll call her and tell her you’re going to arrive at her door.”
So we fly to the West Coast, and we visit lots of restaurants before we go to Cecilia’s place. And we’re already hearing whispers of her name. We eat at Brandon Jew’s restaurant, Mr. Jiu’s. He mentioned Cecilia coming in to approve of his food before he opened. It was that kind of thing. We heard about Cecilia from Corey Lee at Benu. It was like all these people are talking about this woman we’re about to meet.
We stop by SFMOMA to pick up a nice Chinese vase to bring as a peace offering and gift for her. And we basically march up to her door. We get security checked and everything. We enter the building, go upstairs, and Cecilia just opens the door herself. She’s in a beautiful, elegant Chinese dress and was like, “Oh, you must be those young kids coming to see me.”
So we sit down, we show her the vase, and she sort of nods in approval. She’s very gracious about the whole thing. She serves us tea, and mind you, at this time she’s 97 or 98 years old. She’s sitting everyone down to chat, and the whole conversation is in a blend of Mandarin and English.
Soon, for whatever reason, she’s convinced that we are the next guard and future of Chinese food. The nicest thing she said during this whole first meeting was that she could already tell we were continuing the mission she started when she moved here to America.
Now, here are our similarities. Both Cecilia and the Junzi team were new restaurateurs in the sense that we hadn’t run restaurants until we owned one. We also both cook northern Chinese food. What most Americans think of Chinese food is primarily derived from southern culinary practices, whose flavors and dishes are over-generalized as wok heavy, stir fried, sweet and sour—that’s a big one—and savory umami.
For us, when people say Chinese cooking, it’s kind of like people saying European cooking. China is huge. There are 53 ethnic minorities, 23-plus provinces, and an innumerable quantity of regional cooking styles. All we’re trying to do is show people that it’s more than one thing.
That first night, Cecilia asked us, “Why did you come here?” And we just sort of said, “We have no clue. We just wanted to learn from you, to absorb your grace, and hopefully make us better people.” So that’s the first time we met. She also fed us that night, and I remember her turning her back to go into the kitchen, and all three of us are just fist bumping.
Oh my god, we just met Cecilia, and she doesn’t actually hate us.
When we were back in New York, Cecilia would randomly call us in the middle of the day. If I was around, she would tell Yong to pass the phone, and say, “Hey, I need to talk to chef and give him some ideas.” She would tell me about steaming rice with the right Chinese sausage. She’s super old, right? But I could ask her things like, what density do the sausages need to be? What’s the fat ratio? Do you think you think steaming or poaching sausages is the better way to prep before you cut it? And she would just give me the answers.
Also, every time we went out to California, we made the effort to see Cecilia for dinner. Sometimes, for whatever reason, she would ask us to stay with her in her guest room. That’s where the fish story begins.
One night, we were hanging out at her house, and Cecilia says, “Are you hungry?” We obviously say yes. She says, “OK, I’m going to steam fish. Come into the kitchen, and I’ll show you. You have to take notes.”
So she has this fish. I don’t remember what type of fish it is, but it’s butterflied and the insides are cleaned with cold running water. She places this scaled fish onto a blue ceramic plate with two chopsticks underneath it. Then she splashes a little bit of wine over the fish and stuffs the gut with ginger, scallions, a little bit of salt, and a little bit of sugar.
While we’re watching her do this, she stops and tells us to hold on a minute. She sort of shimmies out of the kitchen and goes to her bathroom on the other side of the apartment. She comes back with a shower cap, which she stretches over the entirety of the fish on top of the plate. Then she takes this plate that’s covered in this shower cap, puts it in the microwave, and says something to the effect of: “In the name of convenience in the modern age, we shall steam this fish in this shower cap for eight minutes on high. It works every time.”
The fish, it goes without saying, is one of the best fish you’ve had in your whole life. It’s astounding. The adaptiveness, the flexibility, the smartness of Cecilia’s cooking is so with the times. That’s how she used to run her restaurants, too.
Right now, I’m thinking a lot about the struggles of the aging owners of the Chinese take-out restaurants that everyone loves. As these proprietors get older, their kids are becoming lawyers and doctors, and they’re not coming back to run the stores. I’m thinking about how Junzi might be able to participate in that type of cooking or that type of restaurant. People want Chinese delivery food more and more. Demand is going up, and supply is going down. Our data seems to demonstrate that between 2016 and 2019, 16 percent of Chinese restaurants in greater New York have closed. If those restaurants didn’t modernize, they would just disappear. The question is what do we do to bring those operations into the modern age?
Proverbially, how do you cook fish in a microwave instead of a cumbersome steam oven or wok?
Food-science-wise, the thing about microwaves is that every single particle inside that fish is vibrating at the same frequency. They all heat up based on friction, and you’re steaming the fish from the inside out. The ginger and scallion perfume the meat from the inside out, too. It just makes a whole lot of sense, and the only variable is that you have to have good fresh fish.
It’s a perfect recipe. Oh, I forgot about finishing the fish. You season it with soy sauce and pour hot oil over top to make it sizzle and activate the aromatics. This is exactly how I steam my fish at home now—not with a shower cap but with Saran wrap—and it produces beautiful, consistent results.