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….