Chinese restaurants typically have a whole crew of chefs who work interchangeably, so you cannot predict which one is going to stir-fry your chicken or steam your fish. Given your choice, you would of course want the head chef -- the master chef -- himself to attend to your dinner. But generally you have to take pot luck.
There is, however, one way to ensure that the top chef personally prepares your meal. It's the way the Chinese dine out in China: They order a banquet. You usually need 10 in your party and have to give the restaurant at least a couple days' notice. The price will be variable, but not necessarily more than ordering a la carte.
The banquet is a challenge for the chef. It requires techniques beyond what an ordinary cook knows. Thus, not only is a banquet likely to be prepared by the top chef himself, it is also "more exciting and there are more unusual dishes," explained Michael Tong, owner of Shun Lee restaurant in New York. "That means more variety -- meat, poultry, seafood, sharks' fins, duck. You can not only have saute'ed dishes, you can also have braised dishes, red-cooked dishes, steamed dishes. In restaurants we mostly order quick-saute'ed dishes, so you have only one kind of experience. At banquets we can try other styles of cooking." And a banquet's ingredients can be as exotic as price will allow, including turtle, deer or bear paw.
Tong should know, as his restaurant produces a banquet far more ambitious than any other I have seen in this country. The first time he presented this particular banquet was last winter, to some French chefs, including Paul Bocuse, who were in New York to prepare a gala banquet themselves. He reproduced it for a private group in March to honor the Year of the Ox, and makes it available to the public in his restaurant at $50 a person with at least two days' notice and a minimum of 10 people.
This banquet consists of 12 courses, with poetic names such as Lovers in the Mist (hot-sweet fried beef and stewed lemon beef garnished with doll faces constructed of shrimp paste with seaweed hair and sesame eyes). Roast suckling pig is basted with honey and cornstarch and dried under a fan for eight hours because when it is cooked, "you have to hear the skin."
Roast squab are acquired live when possible, to ensure their juicy, gamy freshness; the Chinese prefer their meats fresh rather than aged. They are then steeped in honey, sherry, vinegar and scallions, then hung under a fan for a day to dry the skin so it crisps in the frying as the pig does in its roasting. South Sea Turtle might be on the menu, red-cooked with rock candy, black mushrooms and garlic, garnished with its hard shell and a carved fisherman. Beggar's chicken is wrapped in lotus leaf, foil and clay for its baking. Snake Soup with Herbs turns out to be eel. The Catch of the Day is the likes of steamed carp with black vinegar sauce.
And dishes are garnished with such fancies as carrots carved into pagodas and turnips carved into cranes. Few Chinese restaurants in or outside of China could prepare so elaborate a banquet.
You can, however, find banquet facilities in many major cities -- San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and New York in particular, said Tong. And you can find out whether a Chinese kitchen is really equipped to do banquets by asking a few questions.
First, said Tong, ask if the restaurant has a banquet menu. Having a written menu implies that the restaurant is serious about banquets; if it is in Chinese as well, all the better. Then look over the list of dishes themselves. Is the banquet balanced with duck, beef, pork, chicken, seafood and vegetables? Are the flavors varied? Is there a balance between mild and spicy? Are different cooking methods used rather than just stir-frying?
"The most important way to judge whether they are serious about banquets," confided Tong, "is whether they have cold cuts." He means the Chinese cold plate, which is marinated or cured cold cooked meats such as anise beef or Yunnan ham, sliced and formed into food-pictures, perhaps a peacock in full feather. It is high culinary art, and it always starts a banquet in China. "It means the chef knows what he is doing," said Tong. Hot appetizers like egg rolls and fried won tons are street food in China, not banquet hors d'oeuvres.
And soup? Certainly. But not at the beginning. The soup is likely to come in the middle, or at the end. And in China if there are leftovers for you to take home you won't get them in white cardboard boxes or wrapped in foil swans. Instead, you'd run home and bring your own pots to fill. Tabletalk
For years people have been asking where they could get dim sum for dinner, and since they couldn't, why not? Chinese restaurants just don't serve dim sum for dinner, simply because it is strictly midday food in China. Finally, though, the appetizer craze has been felt in Chinese restaurants; Yank Sing in San Francisco has begun offering these assorted dumplings and little dishes in the evening as well as lunch, and Michael Tong has planned to follow suit with the Shun Lee Cafe' in New York. The hit dish at the American Institute of Wine and Food conference in Boston last month was white chocolate ravioli. No, it was not a main dish but a dessert, and yes, the pasta itself was white chocolate, filled with chocolate and raspberry mousses. The beautiful indulgence was invented by Jimmy Schmidt, formerly of Detroit's London Chop House and next of Denver's Rattlesnake Club. I've known of restaurants with unlisted phone numbers, but a hotel without any rooms was new to me. It is a 40-bedroom hotel in a provincial town in England, and it exists only on computer. It was "built" by England's Caterer and Hotelkeeper and Optim Computer Group, as a background for a competition between hotel management teams; they have been competing by running this electronic hotel, deciding on prices, budgets, staffing, marketing and even redecoration. The qualification for entering the final round: accumulating more than 20 percent profit. SHUN LEE BEAN CURD (4 servings)
1 pound soft bean curd
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese sesame oil
1 tablespoon szechuan pepper paste (optional)
1/2 teaspoon szechuan peppercorns, crushed
2 teaspoons chopped scallion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons vinegar
1/2 teaspoon rice wine
2 teaspoons minced parsley
Optional garnishes: chopped peanuts, "thousand-year-old" eggs
Combine all ingredients except garnishes and mash with a spoon. Transfer to a pretty bowl and serve as an appetizer, garnished with chopped peanuts on top or surrounded by thousand-year-old eggs cut in eight pieces, if desired. At Shun Lee it is eaten with chopsticks or spoon; it could also serve as a spread or dip.