GLEN ALLEN, Va. — Peter Chang, the peripatetic chef who once served presidents at the Chinese Embassy and whose disciples follow him like gastronomic Deadheads high on Sichuan peppercorns, may have finally found a home within sniffing distance of the Beltway.
On Monday, the chef and his business partner, Gen Lee, opened Peter Chang Cafe in Glen Allen, Va., where the two men have grand plans not only to keep Chang rooted but to spread his knowledge of genuine, flame-throwing Sichuan cooking. They’re talking about using their new Virginia home as a hub for a chain of franchised restaurants with cooks trained by the master himself.
If the partners’ plan unfolds as they hope — a significant question given Chang’s recent track record and the country’s long history with tame, Americanized Chinese food — it could mark an end to a quixotic period in Chang’s career.
Just how quixotic? Chang, 49, has cooked in eight different restaurants over the course of six or so years, transforming his frustrated followers into expert sleuths to keep up with his wanderings.
“We want to spread out. But the thing is, we only have limited pennies. We only have limited everything.” Lee said. “Right now, there’s a lot of people interested to . . . back us. If they’re willing to do it, then we would be just like a consultant. That’s why we need this home base: So we can nail every dish. We got documents, recipes, books for every dish.”
A few of the chef’s dedicated fans were invited to the grand opening Wednesday night of Peter Chang’s Cafe, his second in central Virginia; he opened Peter Chang’s China Grill last year in Charlottesville. Among the well-wishers was John Binkley, the former Washingtonian whose near-obsessive pursuit of Chang was chronicled in Calvin Trillin’s March 2010 article in the New Yorker.
In a way, Wednesday’s dinner might have marked an end to Binkley’s celebrated sleuthing, a pursuit that has been mutually beneficial for chef and customer. Binkley became a sort of hero to fellow Changians, as the chef’s followers sometimes refer to themselves, and Chang has earned the official title of cult figure, which has only increased his marquee value.
Not that many diners were probably aware of the changes to come. Neither Lee nor Chang provided attendees with much detail on their expansion dreams, but Lee laid out the plans after most everyone had left. He said the pair had formed a company, Peter Chang LLC, in which the chef was the primary owner. (The clerk’s office with the Virginia State Corporation Commission confirms that Gen Lee registered the company in April 2010.)
Everything would now be legit, Lee said, evoking old, unanswered questions about immigration status that have dogged the chef in his travels. Chang would apply for a green card and settle down, Lee said. The chef and his master chef wife, Lisa Chang, have even secured a permanent address in Richmond, about a mile from the new restaurant.
Why the sudden about-face with Chang and his migratory habits?
It would appear to have everything to do with Lee and his willingness to support Chang’s plans.
James Lee, no relation to Gen Lee, is a fellow business partner in Peter Chang’s China Grill in Charlottesville. He said Chang’s peripatetic lifestyle has been driven, in large part, by past business partners who apparently failed to grasp the chef’s value to their restaurants. The formally trained Chang, a certified master chef in China, always knew he was the main attraction, James Lee said, even if previous restaurant owners didn’t, refusing to compensate the chef accordingly. Bye-bye, Chang. Hello, frustrated followers.
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.