For years after he left the Chinese Embassy, Peter Chang seemed more ghost than chef, hiding in Fairfax and Alexandria kitchens under assumed names, often quick to flee when his cooking generated too much attention. He’d rarely, if ever, leave a forwarding address.
The pursuit of Chang soon became an all-consuming story among exotic-food hunters: a tale of obsession, devotion and love for one chef’s authentic Chinese fare. The chase narrative transformed a Hubei province farm boy with minimal English language skills into an American cult figure, an image that, years later, still clings to the chef despite his restaurant chain that keeps expanding year after year.
As he steers his late-model Mercedes SUV, the chef acts oblivious to any labels attached to him. On a cold Friday in late February, Chang, 52, has assumed the role of delivery man, among other job titles for the day. He and his wife, Lisa, a decorated pastry chef, have plotted a course from their apartment in Rockville Town Square, site of the chef’s next restaurant, to several other Peter Chang eateries already in operation. The agenda? Drop off newly printed menus as well as a cook from the company’s culinary innovation team, whom Chang will first pick up in Fredericksburg.
These are the mundane tasks of a businessman who long ago shed his reputation as a chef seemingly afraid to reap the rewards of his enormous talent, moving from one restaurant to another every time his loyal fans and the media rediscovered him. Today, Chang’s food is available in and around Virginia cities including Richmond, Williamsburg and Charlottesville. The chef has come full circle with the recent opening of Peter Chang in Arlington, bringing his cuisine back to Northern Virginia, where he first drove diners and critics crazy with his erratic wanderings in the mid-2000s.
Chang’s triumphal return to Northern Virginia generated so much excitement that Changians — as his devoted pack members call themselves — briefly crashed the Arlington restaurant’s Web site before the place could open its doors last Friday. For a guy who apparently once feared success, Chang has found a lot of it lately: six restaurants (soon to be seven with Rockville’s April launch), a planned fast-casual concept called Peter Chang Wok set to debut in Virginia Beach (where he already has a full-service restaurant) and a promised fine-dining restaurant in the District, designed to be the chef’s flagship.
How is it that Chang, cult figure, so quickly became Chang, serial restaurateur? Or perhaps that’s the wrong question altogether. Could it be that Peter Chang was misunderstood and mislabeled from the start?
As he navigates his SUV toward Williamsburg, one hand clutching the steering wheel and the other within reach of dried sweet potato sticks, which he snacks on to keep awake during long drives, Chang has a captive audience: a reporter and a Mandarin interpreter. Off and on for the next 13 hours, the chef and his wife will lay out their life story — and attempt to explain the many moves that have mystified followers for almost a decade.
One of the fundamental misconceptions about Chang is this: Contrary to some reports, he is not a Sichuan master chef. He is a Hubei master chef, as a native of that east-central province, known for its river fish and steamed meats and vegetables. “Master chef” is a title the government bestows on a small number of chefs from each province after they have passed exhaustive, multi-level examinations.
“This title, Sichuan master chef, was given to me by the American media after I came to the United States,” Chang says through the interpreter. “They don’t know how to pronounce the Hubei province and identify that region, so they just lumped me into Sichuan cuisine and Sichuan masters.”
Chang was born in 1963 in a small mountain village in Hubei. The oldest of three children, Chang says his father practiced traditional Chinese medicine and his mother worked as a farmer. Under the government’s hukou system, Chang and his family were registered as rural workers, which restricted them to collective farms that grew rice, sweet potatoes and a limited number of other products. It also restricted their ability to improve their status in Chinese society.
When he turned 10, Chang was put to work on the village “production team” to help maintain the family’s meager subsistence living. Like other boys, he could spend the entire day, from morning till night, pulling weeds and loosening soil around the plants. For his efforts, he would earn less than 10 cents a day. As a teenager, Chang would transplant crops.
“It was very hard work,” Chang recalls. “If you’re a country man, your face is always facing the yellow earth and your back is always facing the sky.”
Life at home offered little break from the toil. He grew up without electricity, television or a telephone. Every couple of months, a roving government team would arrive in the village and screen a state propaganda film. “That was the highlight for children,” Chang says.
To an outsider, rural Communist life might sound like a Dickensian story set in China. But Chang’s memories are not covered in dirt and resentment. “The water was clean,” he remembers. “The mountain was beautiful, and children played around, running around. It’s a beautiful life.”
Chang might have carried on the family’s agricultural line of work if not for China’s decision to loosen its hukou system and give rural residents access to the cities, where expanding business markets demanded more workers. In 1981, Chang took a college entrance exam. He wanted to become an accountant. The government had other ideas: It dumped him into a culinary school in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei. Chang was crushed; cooks ranked at the bottom of old Chinese society, along with actors, fortune tellers and foot doctors.
“I did not learn anything” my first semester, Chang recalls of culinary school. “I was very unhappy because I consider myself a scholar, and I thought that by going to college I would improve my status in society.”
When Chang returned home after his first semester, he faced another crisis: His paternal grandmother was dying just as the family was reuniting for the Chinese New Year, that annual celebration of rebirth and renewal. As if pulled from the script of some maudlin made-for-TV movie, the grandmother had words of wisdom for Chang on her deathbed. She told him that to succeed, he needed a skill, any skill. Culinary school would give him one.
She told her grandson that “you should not just think about yourself, whether you’re happy or not,” Chang recalls. “You have to consider that you’re the eldest son of this family. On your shoulders, there are your parents and your younger siblings, and you have to think for them.”
Chang would return to culinary school and graduate at the top of his class.
After culinary school, Chang was assigned to work on a luxury cruise line that transported international tourists up and down the Yangtze River. The Hubei chef fell in love with two things while touring that river for 14 years: his future wife, Lisa, a fellow chef on the boat, and Sichuan cuisine. As part of its route, the ship would chug upstream to Chongqing, a former Sichuan city that later became an independent municipality. Chang would use Chongqing as a kind of master classroom, seeking out the Sichuan chefs there.
“Because I had this opportunity to learn from the Sichuan chefs, I mastered Sichuan cooking,” Chang says. He supplemented his lessons in Chongqing with trips to the country’s other gastronomic regions during the off season. He also researched and wrote dozens of magazine columns on China’s culinary history and edited a series of Chinese cookbooks.
His ambition served him well. As economic reforms swept China, Chang was quick to capitalize on the sudden need for world-class chefs. He started working in four- and five-star hotels, where his pay skyrocketed. At his last stop, at the Taiwan Hotel in Beijing, circa 2000, he was earning 8,000 yuan a month (about $1,280 by today’s exchange rate), an unfathomable sum for a boy who once made less than a dime a day. He also caught the attention of a foreign-service worker who had seen Chang on a televised cooking competition. The guy convinced Chang that he should cook in an overseas embassy.
Forever curious, Chang thought: “Why not?” So he took a mandatory foreign service cooking test, one of the hardest of his career. “If your score ranks high, they send you to a better embassy. If your score ranks low, you go to a less-better country. If you don’t pass the test, you go nowhere,” Chang says. “My test score was high, so I was sent to Washington, D.C.”
In 2001, Chang accepted a two-year contract to serve as chef to the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He figured he and his family would at least get a glimpse of life outside China and maybe find more opportunities in America, particularly for daughter Lydia, then a teenager, who might carve out a better life for herself in U.S. schools.
But to take advantage of the American system, Chang and his family would first have to outmaneuver the Chinese government with some early-morning cloak and dagger. One day in June 2003, just before his contract was up, Chang arose early and made breakfast for the ambassador, still fast asleep. The chef knew he was being watched during his final days at the embassy, so he was cautious. He, Lisa and Lydia grabbed just enough personal items to make it look as if they were going for a walk in the park.
And then they fled the embassy forever.
Their escape violated the Changs’ agreement to return to China, and it embarrassed a government that had first suggested Chang might want to see the world. So began the family’s shadow existence: hiding from Chinese bureaucrats and U.S. immigration officials while trying to piece together a life without the proper work permits (their domestic worker visas would not have helped them outside the embassy) or even passports (which the embassy had held for the chef and his wife from the moment they set foot in America).
The Chinese government reacted to their departure with predictable pressure, Lisa remembers. Someone started calling family members in China, telling them that they should persuade the Changs to return home, “otherwise there will be consequences.” The threats never amounted to anything, Lisa says, but they kept the Changs in a state of paranoia.
Before he fled, Chang had cut a deal with a man from Fujian province he met at an embassy event. The guy was planning to open an authentic Chinese restaurant, China Star, in Fairfax. Chang agreed to be his chef.
It was a strained relationship from the beginning, both Peter and Lisa say: The owner (who has since sold the restaurant and could not be reached for comment) treated them as second-class citizens, as if Fairfax were still 1950s-era China. He also understood their perilous circumstances. After all, they were spelled out right there on the wall, where Chang would hang his culinary certificates and medals. The family had photoshopped a new name on the documents, Lydia Chang says. If diners inquired about the chef’s name, management would tell them it was “Mr. Liu.”
“We were just hiding in the kitchen,” Lisa recalls. “If we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to make sure there was no one suspicious in the dining room.”
While the chef was trying to hide in the shadows, others were trying to shine a spotlight on him. Culinary thrill-seekers such as John Binkley, a retired Washington economist, and food critics such as Todd Kliman, first with Washington City Paper and later with the Washingtonian, started asking questions about Chang, and the chef sometimes answered, perhaps not understanding the virality of words on the Internet. A buzz was slowly building about this former embassy chef now cooking in a modest Northern Virginia storefront.
The attention was both flattering and frustrating to the family. It increased Chang’s profile among diners. It also, potentially, increased his profile with immigration and embassy officials. “He was kind of afraid that the embassy got a sense of who’s cooking” at China Star, remembers Lydia. “You don’t want to create trouble.”
Perhaps Chang could have negotiated his way out of the immigration troubles, but Lisa says they were also dealing with an owner who didn’t appear to respect the chef. Together, those factors proved too much. Chang left China Star for Tempt Asian in Alexandria. The pattern soon repeated itself: Chowhounds and critics rediscovered Chang; the owner and chef didn’t see eye to eye. The same thing happened at the next place, China Gourmet/Szechuan Boy in Fairfax, the next place near Atlanta, the next place in Knoxville, Tenn., and the next place in Charlottesville.
Chang has repeatedly indicated that everywhere he landed, his business partners were of limited imagination, unwilling or unable to support his ambitions. But John Rong, who worked with Chang at Taste of China in Charlottesville from late 2009 to early 2010, says the two split when the chef wanted a larger share of the business after Calvin Trillin wrote a piece about him in the New Yorker in 2010 and turned the restaurant into a destination.
“We didn’t totally say no,” says Rong, who still runs Taste of China. “But we said, ‘Not now. We’ll see.’ ” The answer apparently didn’t satisfy Chang, Rong recalls, and the chef packed his bags for the Atlanta area.
Whatever the reason for Chang’s conflicts with partners — one recurring theme is that they felt, after a while, that they could succeed without Chang — the chef couldn’t seem to find collaborators who shared his vision: to conquer America with authentic Chinese cooking.
Thin, wiry and shy around English-speaking diners, Peter Chang doesn’t immediately strike you as a future restaurant mogul. But those who know him say he’s determined, fierce and sometimes fiery in the kitchen, quick with his temper when cooks don’t follow protocols. His left hand tells you plenty about the man: The skin is inflamed, cracked, cut and peeling. It’s the kind of hand you earn from holding and shaking a blisteringly hot wok for decades. Chang clearly knows how to suffer for the cause.
So how did he get typecast as too fragile for success or fussy American diners? Look to his limited English skills (his daughter says he can understand the language better than he can speak it), which create information vacuums that others often fill with rumor and speculation. Such as: The chef doesn’t want to be famous. He’s afraid of success. He can’t stand it when Americans request watered-down versions of his dishes, so he splits for another city where they won’t make such demands.
All of those ideas are incorrect.
They are, in fact, the opposite of Chang’s goals. Almost from the start, Chang had a vision to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to the United States, and not just places packed with Sichuan and Cantonese immigrants. He wanted to introduce it to big and small towns alike, and he’d be more than happy to modify dishes for newbies.
The first person to appreciate that vision was Gen Lee, a Chinese-born chef and restaurateur who himself had cooked for some picky palates, including Donald Trump’s. Lee was operating a French sandwich shop in Charlottesville in 2010 when he met Chang, who had opened Taste of China nearby. In Chang, Lee saw not only a partner who needed his legal and financial help but also a partner who could help him create a legacy, the kind Lee could never generate while cooking for Wall Street hotshots.
“We had agreements,” says Lee. “I would help him in whatever he wanted to achieve. . . . I will take him wherever he wants to go.”
They structured the partnership of their first restaurant in 2011, Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville, to cater to each man’s needs. Because Chang had no legal status in the United States, he couldn’t own a stake, so he had a friend hold his shares; Lee, meanwhile, took 10 percent of the company, selling another 40 percent to friends. Lee wanted to spread out the risk, in case this experiment didn’t pan out.
Five years later, the men are still partners, though their roles have changed some. These days, Lee lives in semi-retirement in Las Vegas, fielding press calls, putting out fires and handling leases because Chang still hasn’t built up enough credit history. But Chang handles the day-to-day operations, with assistance from his daughter and her husband. Chang now has the ability to work in the United States, although he doesn’t have a green card. (Immigration officials declined to discuss his case, citing privacy laws.) Lee says an immigration judge in Arlington essentially gave the Changs a green light to work here indefinitely, noting that the restaurants generate a lot of tax revenue. There’s one stipulation: They can’t leave the United States.
It would seem a smart move on the government’s part. Despite his current restaurant count, Chang looks to be just warming up. He’s planning a fine-dining place, perhaps somewhere on the water near the Navy Yard, although no lease has been signed. He plans to use fine dishware from China, produce exquisitely carved and plated meals, and design a craft bar that appeals to Americans.
“Once the flagship restaurant opens, I will be the chef there, because it’s not that easy to train a chef who can do those kind of dishes,” Chang promises.
His plans for Peter Chang Wok, the fast-casual concept set to debut this summer in Virginia Beach, are even more ambitious. He envisions regional production centers that will, one day, supply all his quick-serve Chinese restaurants within a 100-mile radius. Such an operation wouldn’t require him to locate, hire and train head chefs for each location, as he does now with every full-service restaurant.
As she translates Chang’s grand plans, interpreter Janet Tan decides to pose her own question to the chef: Does he see a day when the brand Peter Chang will be as common in America as Panda Express?
“I’m not thinking about that yet,” he says.