The Surprisingly Dense, Intensely Personal Backstory Behind the Menu at Fung Tu
Photographs by Evan Sung.
The menu at Fung Tu, which is appropriately located on the border of the Lower East Side and Chinatown in downtown Manhattan, is an unfussy document, on which dishes are described simply, such as “Smoked & Fried Dates Stuffed with Duck” and “Masa Scallion Pancake with Cilantro and Cashew Salad and Smoked Chicken.” But behind each dish there’s a story, and more history than one might imagine, not just from Chef Jonathan Wu’s own life, but from his extended family and, more broadly, Chinese culinary heritage. As you will learn below, Jonathan, who cooked at Per Se among other restaurants before opening his own joint, invested years of research and experimentation in the development of his own, distinct style, and much of that work was carried out — rather bravely, in my opinion — away from the public eye.
This interview was booked after Evan Sung, who shot the accompanying photographs, and I dined (anonymously) at Fung Tu, and were knocked out by our dinner. We both left our sit-down with Jonathan eager to return and experience the menu armed with all the backstory he shared with us. (Also of note: It was a tribute to the kitchen that we did not have any idea that the restaurant was operating without gas at the time of our meal; a situation that has since been rectified.)
The following dialogue runs a little longer than most of the ones here; and the full transcript was quite a bit longer. But I think it’s a fascinating look at the evolution of a chef and his style (and, purely by chance, a nice companion piece to last week’s interview with George Mendes). Enjoy:
How did you find your way to your own style? As I understand it, you grew up eating rather eclectically at home.
It was quite eclectic. There was an Asian market. I grew up outside Hartford in the suburbs of Connecticut. And there was an Asian grocery store but it was, like, 40 minutes away. And Stop and Shop was 10 minutes away, 15 minutes away. So weekly it was a Stop and Shop run and then probably [semi]‑weekly for Asian goods. That meant that there was everything from fermented black beans to pork floss to fermented tofu and thousand year‑old eggs. We had those in the pantry and then things like corned beef and El Paso taco shells, College Inn broth, Ronzoni pasta, and Ragu.
Literally? You’re not exaggerating.
Literally. My mother was not formally trained. Her mother was a good cook, but she didn’t sit my mom down and [tell her], “This is how you make these dishes.” It was through osmosis.
That in itself was an interesting story. My mother was born in Taiwan. Her father was a chemical engineer and moved the family to Pakistan for work at a paper mill, so my mother spent ages six through thirteen in Pakistan. And it was rural Pakistan. But that meant to make Chinese foodstuffs like soy sauce, my grandfather used his chemistry knowledge to make soy sauce from chickpeas. This is before Dave Chang. So I saw a soy sauce product from chickpeas. He made his own thousand-year-old eggs: He would take sodium hydroxide and put duck eggs in them. My grandmother would make pork floss and braise it like red cooking, pork shoulder, and then dry frying it while agitating in a wok to make that fluffy product.
So I guess in a way my mom was exposed to some very interesting, deep preparations of Chinese food. So she’s comfortable in the kitchen and used what was available to her. And there is that Middle Eastern influence, I think.
My parents worked a lot. I would find myself at home and, you know, all right, “I guess I’m going to make my after‑school snack.” Sometimes dinner. And I would reach for what was available in the cupboards. And there’s that sort of comfort with a varied pantry. So we have a very varied pantry here. It’s everything from fish sauce to dried fava beans to gochujang.
In terms of developing your own style, how did that start to happen for you? Did you keep a notebook through your education and stages and various jobs?
Yes. All throughout the training years it came back to the flavors of my mom’s kitchen. The combination of soy sauce, star anise, bark cinnamon, those sort of five spices and a stewy context, like the red-cooked flavors. Those always kind of migrated in and out. My mom’s dishes like sautéed soy bean sprouts with black vinegar and bacon. It did always kind of migrate back to the American-Chinese cooking of my youth.
When you began training for the pro kitchen, did you have in your mind that this is where you were headed?
It was not a conscious decision… it was pretty blank… it was about acquiring knowledge. And the end product was not in mind at all.
After being a private chef, that’s when it started to happen. After working at Per Se I took a job as a private chef in New York. In terms of cooking, it gave me a lot of freedom, the time to explore my own ideas. Most of the creative stuff happened outside of work because I had time. The cooking I did for the family was largely mandated by them.
What year was this?
I worked as a private chef for a number of years. It was ’07 to ’13. But the time outside of work, that’s when all of a sudden I was planning this, in all aspects. But it did start with the cuisine. Coming out of Per Se I think everybody who spends a real amount of time there internalizes it, very deeply. And I was conscious of that. If I had opened a restaurant right out of there it would have been so similar. It would have been some Asian ingredients but the exact same format. And it took some time to sort of find my own voice. The overarching guidelines were I wanted to be original and I wanted to have soul. And all of a sudden it was like, whoa, there’s heritage here. Let’s go to the American-Chinese food that I grew up with. And I know it will be soulful, and I know it can be original. And that’s where it all started.
And then I started to really delve into it. I didn’t know. I’ve not formally trained in Chinese cooking, so I did a lot of reading. I found some incredible Chinese cookbooks in English. There’s a book ‑‑ I’m going to give them all away — but Chinese Gastronomy by Lin. And he’s also got this ‑‑ it’s actually a pair of authors, but Secrets of Chinese Cooking. But especially Chinese Gastronomy. It’s an incredible text…
I learned that there’s a sense of essentiality historically in some branches of Chinese cooking, and I don’t think that in Chinese cooking, especially American-Chinese cooking, essentiality is something that’s emphasized. By essentiality, I mean taking an ingredient and expressing it fully. I feel that’s more fully known in, say, Japanese food, certain new American and French styles. Like Michel Bras is about teasing all the flavor out of a particular ingredient, whereas most Chinese food is known as a more muddled mix of flavors, like pork stirfry with a certain sauce. It can be pork, it can be beef, it can be shrimp. There’s no specificity, no essentiality. The dish isn’t geared towards having to be pork, having to be shrimp. It’s interchangeable. And that was exciting. It was very exciting.
That was an epiphany for you.
Yeah. It was like, “Wow!” I mean, there’s a lot of nuance and “fineness” in Chinese food. And it’s historical.
Did you cook out of these books for the sake of assimilating the history, or was that not a necessary step?
It wasn’t specific recipes. It was about developing a philosophy for how we were going to cook here.
So you tried a lot of different dishes during those years?
Six years is a long period. You know, it used to be very standard that somebody would sous chef for a great chef for five years, and then maybe go with someone else for a couple of years. It still happens but people are a little more in a hurry to get that chef title. You worked at Per Se two years, you spent some time at Blue Hill, you spent some time overseas. But you take this six‑year period to develop in isolation. Were there periods of doubt during that time? Because you must have been watching peers of yours —
Right. Get a partner, get a restaurant, get a second restaurant. What was it about you that gave you the patience to spend that much time building a foundation?
I had the patience because I had no doubt about the cuisine. It spoke to me. I knew it was interesting.
You knew you were the right person to do it?
It was almost this thing where I couldn’t not do it. It had to happen. It had to come out. And if [not]‑‑ I would have died with regret.
And you knew you needed that much time to kind of get to where you wanted to be?
I knew that there was a lot of tweaking that had to happen. And the realities of the situation, I mean, I just didn’t have money and I knew I needed to test this thing out so that’s when I started the pop‑up. I did a breakfast pop‑up. A friend of a friend has a wine bar Williamsburg. It was a kitchen. It used to be a restaurant. So he wasn’t using it during the day so he was kind and let me pop up for brunch. Ideas started to get developed there. And that’s how I met one of my business partners. Wilson Tang came to one of the pop‑ups and he reached out the next day and he’s like, “Hey, let’s meet.” And he offered me the opportunity to pop up for dinner at his Bowery space, and then again.
I wanted to do dinner, too, and so I was able to develop the food more and more. Many of those dishes: The shrimp paste with bok choy. We’ve done variations but it’s this salad, it’s like the Chinese salad but it’s, like, garlic chive oil and thousand year‑old egg chopped up in a dried aged bean curd. We’ve moved through the seasons with it, whether it be beet, white asparagus, tomato. It’s shifted. But that started in the pop‑ups.
As far as your kitchen team goes, how do you convey all of this “soul” to people who are helping you realize the food every day?
We try to give them context and tell them the stories behind the food. Because it’s very easy in that respect in terms of the food. It’s not contrived. It’s just the way I operate; there has to be meaning. There’s something meaningful in the dish to me, and whether it be a personal connection or some sort of fascinating ingredient. But they’re almost always culled from some sort of experience. Every single dish. Literally. You can go on down the line, from the dates to the mache, and usually I’m not happy if there’s just one. There have to be multiple connections.
The dates are inspired by a story that was told to me by a relative from Shanghai. He grew up pre‑cultural revolution, and he and his wife are a most artistic couple in a very scientific sort of like‑minded family. And they love food. They love to cook.
And I asked this relative one day if he would tell me about the foods of his youth. And he started to rhapsodize about this black date that was smoked, stuffed with red bean paste, coated in egg wash and fried. And it was a street snack. And ever since, when he’s gone back to China he’s not been able to find it. That resonated deeply with me. First of all, a smoked date that’s fried and stuffed sounds delicious. And I assumed they’re jujubes. They’re black ones that I see dried in Chinatown, but I did a lot of date salads at Per Se, so I’m familiar with Medjool dates and that’s what I worked with.
I am not a huge fan of red bean paste. I wanted to take the dish to be into a more savory context, so I dug deep. [I called on another pairing that I know is] a good combination, so that’s what happened. You take duck legs, cure them, confit them, shred the meat, fold in soy sauce and sliced garlic chives. Pipe these dates that are ‑‑ there’s so much love that goes into them. They’re poached in soy sauce and water and cinnamon, pitted, peeled and then smoked over apple wood chips and then they’re stuffed and then they’re ready for service. And they get dunked in buttermilk and then coated in a flour and fried.
You just described a very elaborate process.
Right. Not complex, not complicated, not a high level of degree of difficulty, but a lot of steps and ingredients. What’s your trial-to-success ratio with a new dish? How close was your first attempt at that dish to the final version you just described?
It varies but the dates were first shot.
Everything you just said — you saw the whole thing in your head?
Yeah. It was completely visualized, and we executed it. It was great. There were many other dishes where it was excruciating.
How many phases might something else go through?
Oh, I don’t know. Dozens. This was such an intense period. It was [Fung Tu’s chef de cuisine] Matt John [Wells], Jay Chan, who was Matt John’s sous chef at Mas, and then myself. We had a seven‑day period where we did 17 to 20‑hour days of menu development.
There were other dishes … I wanted to do a fish custard. It was supposed to be like a soft tofu but we were going to use the bones of the fish as the gelatinizing agent. And the problem is it was fall and it needed to be hot dish. And so that wasn’t going to work because if it heated up, the gelatin was going to melt and it was going to turn liquid, so then it turned into making our own tofu. And that’s just a process. We had beautiful access to Fung Inn Too’s amazing soy milk. And not just their retail soy milk. Through Wilson, we get it straight out of the spigot and it’s the thickest, creamiest soy milk which is the best for tofu because it has the most protein. But I’m most familiar using Nigari which is like the Japanese magnesium chloride. That’s the salt that you use to precipitate, that they usually use. But we decided to go Chinese style and use calcium sulfate, I think, which is gypsum. And this is a credit to Jay because basically he did a lot of trial and error in figuring out how to get set. And that was the dish.
And instead of bringing fish bones into it, he made a concentrated fumet, put that on top and then it had ‑‑ we made our own meat floss. It was a very misunderstood dish. I think it was very subtle and delicious. My mother absolutely loved it. But diners just totally missed the mark. I learned a lot from that.
[Ed. Note: The following segment has been spliced in from another portion of our interview but applies here. – AF]
Philosophically, does it matter if you’re right? I’m not even talking about a particular dish. You’re trying to do something very original. It has these very specific cultural historical reference points. It’s very well thought out and researched. But if the average New York citizen, 2015, walks in and their palate just doesn’t get it, does it matter if it makes sense, if it’s researched, if it’s faithful to something, or do you have to adjust to satisfy what you hear from people?
It doesn’t matter how thoughtful a dish is because at the end of the day it has to be delicious. And while [a] dish [might be] delicious, it also needs to sell. So here’s the intersection of art and commerce in a restaurant, and the commerce side cannot be ignored. As someone who’s opened a restaurant and is a business person now, I have to recognize that.
This is something that I have talked to the Uncle Boons people about. Commerce is important. It was hard. We went through some slow periods here where it was touch and go. I’m not independently wealthy, so it would be an expensive art project. And it would be a ruinous art project and that doesn’t work for me. So what you’re speaking to is the commerce aspect.
So you might tweak something to bridge a gap between you and the average diner. You might make a concession?
Yes. I have. I mean, that can lead to creativity. Creativity is my strong suit. So I put wings on the menu. I put meatballs on the menu because I knew that they would sell, and they do sell.
Do people ask for those or were those here from the go?
No, they didn’t ask for them. But when we were slow, I was thinking about the commercial side and I was like, “Huh. What’s going to sell better? A fish custard tofu or a meatball?” A meatball is going to sell a lot better. But I could be creative with it, so one of my grandfather’s absolute favorite dishes is lion’s head meatballs. So miniaturize it. It’s a lot of fun, you know? It involves bacon and egg whites. There’s French technique. It’s almost like a mousseline. It’s fried until the outside is just set and then it gets poached in this broth that’s just like a reverse engineered sauce that my grandfather liked. It’s weird from a Chinese perspective because it’s served on you tiao bread which is so out of context; growing up that’s with rice porridge or soy milk in a breakfast setting usually. But its use it as a bun is very out of the box. I thought it was going to be fun. Let’s do it. So lion’s head meatball on you tiao. It sells like crazy.
And the wing. Who doesn’t like chicken wings? And also it was a way to be creative. I love that specific mustard style South Carolina barbecue sauce then the ubiquitous weird hot mustard in Chinese restaurants which is foreign to me. This is all new. It’s a Chinese-American thing. I didn’t grow up with it but I know it’s ubiquitous. So combining those things into a wing … there it is. Hot mustard wings. Those things sell like crazy.
You have an interesting collaboration with Matt John Wells. How did you two connect?
We have a mutual friend who was the GM at Mas, Chris Bender. He was at Per Se. And I was putting the word out for help cooking at the pop‑up, and he was like, “Oh, Matt John. He’s available. Call him.” So I called him up. I just immediately liked him. He speaks very freely. And then we started cooking together, and there’s a synergy. We work well together. It’s funny, there’s a lot of unspoken stuff in terms of working with cooks, you can see how clean they are, you can see what kind of technique they have. There was a mutual admiration and respect and we just hit it off.
Yeah. Even though we’ve trained in vastly different places ‑‑
What’s his background other than Mas?
He was at Peninsula Grill in South Carolina. He’s been doing it for a long time, since he was 12. And he’s worked in Florida. But it’s interesting. It’s almost like we’ve worked in the same place many times. Because we can have conversations, and we’ve worked with almost an encyclopedic amount of products. And we have overlapping knowledge, but he’s extremely good practically.
And then there’s the specifically food‑wise, how do we work together? It’s very intuitive. He has a lot of soul. The duck dish is largely him.
Is it also helpful to you in terms of collaborating on a dish? I would imagine it would helpful useful for you to have somebody, to put it simply, who’s not you, but who gets you, who is part of the DNA of the restaurant, being here from the go, who might be able to see something that you just are too close to an idea to see? As a writer, you’ll show something to people. Sometimes you can’t get out of your own way because you’re so caught up and you’re so up close to something that somebody looking at it from the outside can set you straight.
Specific example of that is the Masa scallion pancake. A lot of the ideas behind that dish are the Chinese scallion pancake, and then on a trip to San Francisco, I got obsessed eating at La Palma in the mission; it’s a tortillaria, and one of their specialties is huaraches. And it’s smeared with refried beans, like, black beans and then whatever protein, usually I get chicken, and there’s some sort of salsa and a bunch of cilantro on it. I love that. I figured what the heck, I’ll mash that up with a Chinese scallion pancake, add a bunch of scallions to it.
And then it was a vehicle really for the cilantro salad that I wanted to serve. This is that same couple, the date couple. They would serve a huge chopped cilantro salad and it would have sesame oil, roasted peanuts, and then strips of pressed tofu. And I just loved it. I don’t know. Cilantro is love or hate. It was interesting to me, like a big cilantro salad. It was a vehicle to have this big chopped cilantro salad on this huarache.
And we were chopping so much cilantro and just visually it was kind of ‑‑ it looked like crap and it didn’t eat that well. The way diners ate it, it kind of like fell in their lap. Matt John is like, “All right, let’s let’s pick the cilantro and then you can have these big pluches of cilantro instead of chopping it all. The dish got so much better. Very, very simple. And that’s what you’re saying. Took a step back, understood the dish, tweaked it out, a lot better. That happened a lot.
Now, he’s officially chef de cuisine?
From the go?
From the go. When we started doing the pop‑ups, it was the egg roll that hooked him. He was like, “Wow! The egg role is insane. If the cuisine is going to be like this egg roll, I’m in. I have some money, put it in, and let’s go. Let’s do this.”
Early on here, you guys went through a bit of a trajectory in critical reception. A little bit hot and cold at the beginning. Even Pete Wells, in his two-star review this May, alluded to earlier disappointments. Can you just talk to me about that? When that was happening: (a) were you in disagreement with what certain people felt? Did you take anything from it? And then how does that affect you, Matt John, your team, when you’re not quite getting the notices you wished you got early on?
The first thing is there was never any doubt about the food and the ideas behind the food. The belief never wavered that it’s interesting and something special. We’re working on a special project. The execution, it’s true: It was inconsistent and we hadn’t quite developed it all.
So you think it was an execution issue early on?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, many [dishes] evolved while we were a live restaurant. It wasn’t like that all happened in a seven‑day menu development.
I’m proud of the fact that this is a very original restaurant. And the whole package with the wine, the space, service, and the food, but especially the food. I’m comfortable saying that there’s no other place doing this kind of cuisine. That said, there’s no template for it. And many of these things are original recipes that took a lot of time to get right… it was a bummer to me that we weren’t executing at a great level to begin with, but it’s what happens. We went in with this challenging style of food because it was new and we were figuring it all out on top of tweaking the recipes. We were figuring the space out. How are we going to set the line up?
How would you deal with the troops when that would happen? Morale can take a hit after a not-great review.
It didn’t take that much rallying. We kept working hard.
What was the moment like when you got the Times review?
It made me very happy. I think we were all very, very happy that people are starting to get it. It was hard. I felt like we were doing something interesting and special, and that people were starting to get it … finally! It made me happy. What has buoyed us the whole way through, regardless of the press, has been industry, from the get-go. Industry people.
Cooks, wine people have enjoyed this restaurant.
Been very supportive, like it, glad you’re here?
Yeah. I think it has to do with they understand the layers and they can see the contexts.
In terms of the future for you, is there anything you can talk about?
I’m still totally focused on Fung Tu. I would like to have more balance in life, spend more time with my family.
You have one son?
Mm‑hmm. I have a four year‑old.
That’s tough in your business.
It’s brutal. That would be the immediate priority. And if there were to be something else, I would like to do something that has less variables in terms of a full-service restaurant. Something that’s more easy to execute. But I can’t do something that does not have some sort of soul, some sort of meaning to me.