BEIJING — It took the hands of a Chinese grandmother working 7,500 miles from his kitchen for Scott Drewno to correct the way he has been making xiao long bao.
The dumplings, a Shanghainese specialty, are served for breakfast daily in every major city in China. They seem to defy the laws of physics; filled with aromatic soup, the wrappers must be constructed with just enough elasticity to contain the hot liquid without breaking. Getting the soup inside them is another matter entirely.
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.
Drewno discovered subtle differences between what he was used to making and what he found here, such as the radish cakes, more commonly called turnip cakes in China.
“I’ve always had one on the brunch menu, but I hadn’t seen it prepared this way before,” he said. “They shred daikon and steam it, then basically fold it into a cornstarch-water mixture to make a porridge that has dried Chinese sausage and dehydrated shrimp in it. Squares of that are stir-fried with bean sprouts and egg.”
Drewno planned to rework his radish cakes at the Source as soon as he returned home — one of about 15 changes he had in mind by the time he landed in Beijing.
At 6-feet-5, the chef made for a tall, hulking presence wherever he went, including Tiandi Yijia (“Heaven and Earth”), the iconic Beijing restaurant where executive chef Zhang Shaogang is used to serving visiting American celebrities and high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party. Drewno and his wife had a lunch that included a pyramid-shaped tower of succulent pork and sea cucumber.
Through a translator, the chefs compared their respective restaurants: Tiandi has 36 cooks and 220 seats to fill; the Source has about 15 cooks on any given day and seats 200, not including a private dining room.
Drewno and Zhang also talked about the importance of sourcing; the latter explained how the pork used at Tiandi is specially transported to Beijing from the southern part of China. All of the vegetables and fruits used are organic, Zhang said.
China of late has been grappling with a spate of food-safety scandals, including pork tainted with growth hormones and additive-laden food coloring painted on steamed buns. Zhang told Drewno of the importance he attaches to sourcing.
“For customers, we have to keep it safe,” Zhang said. “We’re near the Forbidden City. We can’t do anything wrong here.”
Drewno said there is now a global food movement with an emphasis on controlling the supply chain.
“If you raise the pig with love, it shows when it goes to the kitchen,” Drewno said. At the Source, the chef receives heritage-breed pigs straight from one farm: Leaping Waters in Alleghany Springs, Va.
After the meal, Drewno explained what he saw as some of the differences between Chinese dining spots in the States and the ones he got to visit during this maiden trip to the motherland.
“There’s a lot of sweet dishes in Chinese restaurants in the United States, which we haven’t seen here at all,” Drewno said. Here in China, he added, “it’s a good balance: sweet, salty, bitter.”
Another difference: The traditional multi-course Chinese meal is a culinary excursion to be savored over several hours, usually with convivial, boisterous conversation. In America, meals are often more hurried, Drewno told Zhang.
“We take it a little bit slowly and get the whole taste,” Zhang said, nodding in agreement. “If you eat too fast, you don’t taste it. It goes straight down to your stomach. You have to enjoy it.”
Of all the lessons learned on the trip, Drewno seemed most enthused about the dumpling class he and Allison took in Shanghai. The chef had been struggling to perfect his version of xiao long bao for the Source’s dim sum brunch. In fact, it was a New Year’s resolution to learn how to make them properly.
“I teach dumpling classes at the restaurant, but this would be like Dumplings 301,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to get down. You’re filling a dumpling skin with soup. We ate this almost every morning here. But I found out a secret about it.”
That secret was chicken feet, revealed via the Chinese grandmother who taught the private class.
“They are simmered in a stock with pork skin,” Drewno said. “They both provide great natural flavor, but the feet make the stock gelatinous so that it sets up nicely when the soup is cold,” making it possible to portion and place the soup inside the dumpling wrappers. “And then the soup melts really smoothly.
“I think I’ve got it down,” he said.
Expect proper xiao long bao to appear soon at the Source.
Bonnie S. Benwick contributed to this story.