New Chef on the Block

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Smart cookie, that Jen Lin-Liu. The 31-year-old knows the world loves a good cook, especially one who feeds a hunger for Chinese culture.

Eight years ago, the American-born Fulbright scholar moved to Beijing to write about travel and food. She earned a culinary certificate and apprenticed in restaurant kitchens. Stern teachers became friends and colleagues, sharing their histories and helping Lin-Liu open a cozy cooking school for foreigners.

Today she's giving the likes of 30-something Fuchsia Dunlop, Britain's It Girl of Sichuan cuisine, a run for her money. Lin-Liu's credits include a new memoir with winning recipes and her first gig as jet-setting restaurant consultant. One can see her following a path like Faith Heller Willinger's in Italy, learning regional cuisines from master cooks and sharing lessons with expats.

"It's crazy what's happening now," she said last week during a brief book tour stop in Washington. "It's not where my parents thought I would be," making a life in the country they fled long ago. The sentiment is expressed with respectfulness, not regret, by someone who looks young enough to pass for a recent college graduate.

It's clear that Beijing suits Lin-Liu. Her memoir, "Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China" (Harcourt), chronicles her year of culinary training in the north and south, ending with the promise of a happy future with Craig Simons, the Asia bureau chief for Cox newspapers. (The couple plan to marry in San Diego next month.)

The book was published shortly before the Summer Olympics, as tens of thousands of internationals poured into Beijing. Lin-Liu was distressed that her city failed to show some of its true character, as she described in an Aug. 4 op-ed in the New York Times. But she tried to do her part: Good timing and good publicity landed her three cooking spots on the "Today" show during the Games. She says it was "exhausting and stressful," but she was poised and photogenic.

Her Black Sesame Kitchen was booked for weeks over the summer and will start up again in November. It is one of a handful of cooking schools that cater to foreigners in Beijing, Lin-Liu says. She and her fellow chefs teach small groups of students on Saturdays in a hutong dwelling that also houses six families, and they hold communal dinners on alternate Friday evenings. It's a one-block commute for Lin-Liu, which is a welcome upgrade from the crosstown bus and taxi rides she had to take during her cooking internships.

She has renovated a two-room space as one large room with a double sink, two burners, a refrigerator and a freezer. The latter two appliances were not typically found in Chinese kitchens before the mid-1980s, but the free-standing work space she installed drew the most comments from Beijingers: The concept of an island in a home kitchen is nonexistent there, she says.

Her classes cost a reasonable $40, but the airfare to Beijing is steep. Lin-Liu agreed to a private lesson at The Post instead. Out came the compact Chinese cleaver that took her several months to wield masterfully. "I've found that it's much easier to balance" than a chef's knife, she says. "There are no Cuisinarts in China."

With her knuckles positioned against the wide blade, Lin-Liu began by shredding the classic triumvirate of Chinese cooking: garlic, leek and ginger root. She didn't strike and chop at quite the warp speed of veteran chef Martin Yan (whom Lin-Liu has met and describes as a sharp businessman). But her prep for three dishes featured in her book was efficient and organized. By holding the cleaver horizontally, she conveyed food to a hot oiled wok without a single spill.

It can take years for a cooking teacher to acquire the skill of working and talking simultaneously. Lin-Liu seemed to have it down pat.

The knife work prompted tales of sharpening tradesmen who roam Beijing neighborhoods on bicycles, clinking to announce their presence. The cabbage she prepped for Dongbei Salad elicited stories, included in her book, of the staple vegetable sold in massive stacks on street corners, then stored through the winter outside private homes.

And, like a good instructor, Lin-Liu knew how to listen and inquire: "Do you use a vegetable wash in America? We do, or at least the foreigners do. We're pretty afraid of the pesticides."

She was pleased to see that the broadbean paste purchased at Kam Sam in Rockville was the same brand she uses in Beijing, but the tall bottle of black vinegar did not pass muster when she sampled it before using it in a salad dressing. "It doesn't taste sour enough," she said, and so would not be a worthy foil for the sweetness of roasted peanuts and pinch of sugar.

Lin-Liu tasted and adjusted, then scraped up minced garlic and tossed it into the dressed salad. That did the trick. "It needed a little kick," she said, acknowledging the Chinese tendency to cook without following the exact amounts of a recipe.

The two stir-fries she made showcased different treatments for tofu. One of them had earned a special nod from the owner of a Shanghai restaurant named Yin, known for its take on Shanghainese food. When she interned there, the chef challenged her to make the owner's favorite lunch, Home-Style Tofu. The effort was so successful, she said, that the owner was incredulous: "You -- you made it?"

Once the stir-fries were finished and quickly devoured, Lin-Liu helped clean up, repacked her cleaver and made a gift of pickled vegetables and true Sichuan peppercorns she had brought from China. In those small acts, she was gracious and culturally astute. Smart cookie, good fortune, bright future.

To see photos and learn more about Lin-Liu's cooking school, go to

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