A Beard House dinner before the glitterati of the New York food scene is an important milestone for chefs seeking national prominence. Chang’s appearance has been so highly anticipated that the Jan. 30 dinner sold out two weeks in advance; it falls during the two weeks that lead up to the Lantern Festival of the Chinese New Year.
Also on the marquee: Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards, who will tackle the challenging task of pairing wines with Chang’s spicy Sichuan cuisine.
Why Virginia wines? “Because we are from Virginia, and they make good wines here,” says Gen Lee, Chang’s business partner at Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville and a new restaurant, Peter Chang Cafe, set to open next month in downtown Richmond. Lee says he chose Jefferson because of its history. Parts of the winery’s vineyards near Monticello are on the same site where Thomas Jefferson planted European grape varieties. But the choice also sends a message that the famously migratory Chang is, at last, planning to settle down and call Virginia home.
Chang, 49, a native of Hubei province, was considered one of the top-ranked chefs in China when he landed the head chef job at his country’s embassy in Washington in 2001. He became
something of a sensation in America seven years ago, not just because of his complex, spicy Sichuan cuisine but also because as soon as he developed a following at any one restaurant (China Star and Szechuan Boy in Fairfax, TemptAsian in Alexandria, among them) he would leave, only to turn up manning a wok at another place a few weeks later.
His dishes and his whereabouts were avidly dissected on food Web sites such as Chowhound and DonRockwell.com. Aficionados followed him from Northern Virginia to as far afield as Knoxville, Tenn., and Atlanta, with each sighting sparking rumors and hopes — often dashed — that he might settle down and cook for a while. Chang’s restlessness and the devotion of his followers inspired major magazine profiles by the likes of New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin, and Lee says a movie about the chef is in the works.
For the past year, Chang has been splitting his time between the restaurant in Charlottesville and another, called simply Peter Chang, in Atlanta. (The two restaurants have different ownerships, though Chang has an interest in each.) With Lee acting as interpreter, Chang said he is relocating to Richmond to make the new Peter Chang Cafe his base, a place to train chefs in authentic Sichuan cuisine. He and Lee, himself a retired corporate chef, hope to open a second, larger place in Richmond later this year, and Northern Virginia is high on their list for a budding Peter Chang restaurant empire.
But what to drink with this addictive cuisine? Chinese food is usually considered a difficult partner for Western grape wines, primarily because a typical meal features several dishes and flavors at once without the usual orderly progression of courses easily matched by wines. Sichuan cuisine adds the factor of spice, or “ma la.” Ma means numb and refers to the mouth-tingling effects of Sichuan peppercorns, the aromatic, somewhat medicinal tasting spice of Sichuan cuisine. Ma balances the la, which means spicy, or hot, as in the heat of peppers. Chang explained to me how he uses two types of fresh jalapenos, plus two “mountain chilies” imported from China. In the restaurant’s kitchen, Lee pointed out a large bin that had held the day’s allotment of dried tien tsin peppers. Many of these were now in a large stockpot steeping in oil, while two cooks chopped another pile of them to use in cooking.