Later, Gen Lee provided an even more detailed picture of the chef’s sometimes baffling journeys. He hinted at Chinese American restaurant owners who knew they could take advantage of a slight, slightly diffident chef, who clearly had mastered the kitchen but seemed at a loss in a world that required more than limited English language skills.
“Before, they were all looking at the ‘Now!’ ” Chang said later via interpreter, referring to his previous employers. “How we make more money? They don’t really care about my dreams.”
It seems his former bosses never fully understood that Chang harbored a larger goal than satisfying the short-term profit motives that drive so many strip-center restaurateurs. Chang has a broader vision: to bring authentic Chinese food to an America still dominated by gloppy, soy-heavy dishes foisted off as the genuine article.
The Peter Chang Cafe, in other words, is not just the latest restaurant to stake a claim to the chef’s spicy-and-numbing style of Sichuan cooking. It is, in essence, a prototype for a potential chain of Peter Chang Cafes. Think P.F. Chang’s, only a zillion times better. The budding partnership is also scouting locations for a return to the Washington area, where Chang first courted a flock of devoted diners.
“I’m his partner, but I’m his guider. I make his dreams come true,” Lee said. “He’s a big dreamer.”
To some, this relationship might smack uncomfortably of Col. Tom Parker and Elvis Presley — particularly as Lee advises Chang on a potential movie deal. But Lee has years of experience in corporate cooking, as a consultant for Donald Trump’s Atlantic City properties and as a corporate chef for insurance giant AIG. Lee knows how to create systems that will lend themselves to replication.
“It’s just God’s gift for us to be paired together,” Chang said.
The new partners may need a bit more divine providence. Peter Chang Cafe opened with barely a peep in the Richmond area. The first two days of business attracted only dozens of diners, not hundreds. Lee was not worried, though, on Wednesday night. He said he felt certain that queues would form. He expected a line of diners flowing into the parking lot the very next day, almost the minute the restaurant opened at 11 a.m.
But on Thursday morning at 11, no line had formed.