To say there were doubters about Peter Chang’s commitment to Virginia would be an understatement. Some suggested the rogue Sichuan chef — known as much for eluding fame and his devoted fans as for his masterful cooking — would never settle down. It’s not his nature, they’d say.
The latest piece evidence would indicate otherwise. Later this month, Chang will debut his third restaurant in central Virginia. The 170-seat Peter Chang China Cafe will officially open to the public on Friday, Sept. 28, in Williamsburg.
The chef already operates Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville and the Peter Chang China Cafe in Glen Allen, outside Richmond (which Bon Appetit nominated as one of the 50 best new restaurants in America). Chang’s charge on central Virginia is deliberate, says his business partner Gen Lee.
Those markets are considerably cheaper than more urban areas such as Washington, where rents can be three times higher, Lee says. Credit is also easier to obtain, he adds. Money managers in smaller markets “don’t request a million dollars in the bank,” Lee says.
Plus, Lee notes, Chang’s restaurants in smaller markets create larger profits, in the 20- to 25-percent range, compared to about 10 percent in places like Washington. “The small towns need us more than big cities,” Lee says, “because big cities have so much more selection.”
Which is not to say Chang will never return to the Washington metro area, where he first gained fame for his complex, flame-throwing approach to Sichuan cooking.
“You want to be a great chef and a great restaurant, you must a have Washington, D.C. [restaurant],” he says. “You must have a New York City [restaurant].”
The plan, Lee says, is to generate more capital with these smaller restaurants so that Chang can eventually return to the Washington area.
The kitchen at the new Williamsburg restaurant will be run by five chefs whom Lee brought over from China. They have been training under Chang to get familiar with his lengthy menu and his approach to cooking the dishes on it. The menu will be slightly smaller in Williamsburg than in Richmond, but will allow for more specials to help give the restaurant its own feel.
As Lee told me back in February when the Glen Allen restaurant opened, this is how Chang expects to expand his empire: personally train all the chefs who will run his informal Sichuan cafes.
Lee and Chang’s next project will likely be in downtown Richmond. The business partners are close to signing a lease at the Hilton Garden Inn, where Chang hopes to open a 6,000- to 7,000-square-foot restaurant, Lee says. The place will be the chef’s showcase operation, with an open kitchen and demonstrations of how Chang makes his hand-pulled noodles.
“We want to set up a real, real Peter Chang” restaurant, Lee says.
Peter Chang China Cafe, 1203 Richmond Rd., Williamsburg.