Drewno, 36, is executive chef at the Source by Wolfgang Puck, the Asian-fusion restaurant in Washington. He has cooked Chinese food for most of his 15-year career, including at Chinois in Las Vegas and at Ruby Foo’s and Vong in New York. But he knew that his trip last month to mainland China — his first — would yield secrets and menu changes back home.
Navigating amid the traffic in the major cities was revelatory for him as well.
“The chaos sort of surprised me,” Drewno says, recalling his first sighting of a motorbike carrying five passengers, none of whom wore helmets. “But it’s synchronized chaos. At first we thought there’s no method to the madness.”
He toured for two weeks with two constant companions: his high school sweetheart-turned-wife, Allison Maggart Drewno, and a small leather-bound notebook in which he jotted “chicken-scratch” notes about every bit of food he saw and ate, complete with circled items and exclamation points. On the itinerary: Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xian and finally Beijing.
“I never had a hot pot meal like I had in Xian,” Drewno said as the couple relaxed at the Tiandi Yijia restaurant, next to the Forbidden City. “We’ve been eating together for 20 years, so to eat something different is really exciting.”
The hot-pot restaurant had three floors. It was packed by 7 p.m., he said.
“You sit at a table with a burner and large stockpot sunken in the middle,” he said. “You’re doing all the cooking, almost like a fondue. The pot’s divided down the middle; on one side, there’s the kind of stock you picked and on the other, the kind of flavored oil. You can order from a big menu: chicken meatballs, pork slices, fresh noodles — all raw. We had a big bowl of steaming pig trotters to go with our pig-trotter stock, and lots of roasted chilies.”
Drewno said he won’t be asking Source customers to don an apron-style bib like the ones hot-pot diners wore in Xian, but he understands why they were standard issue: “You’re slurping noodles, dipping things in oil. You need the bib.”
The chef was on vacation, but his goal was to hone a cooking style that has been evolving since he first decided to give up criminal-justice pursuits to enter the kitchen full time. The professional move into Asian cooking was not necessarily a natural. He grew up in the small village of Penn Yan, in the “meat-and-potatoes” Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, where he remembers there was just one Chinese restaurant in the vicinity.
He worked at steakhouses and Italian restaurants before landing a spot as a line chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in Las Vegas. But the whole time he was sending out plates of Asian-fusion food, he never got to taste the real thing in mainland China.