How often are you at the market getting food for yourself at home?
We go to the market 3 times a week for the restaurant, so I usually end up picking up food for my wife and myself when I am there. At the same time, I find that when I’m grocery shopping for myself, I buy things that I can also try for new menu ideas. On my days off, all I really want to eat are things I don’t cook at the restaurant. Salad is one of them- I’m always on the hunt for lettuce.
So how does prepping for a meal at home begin for you- do you have a recipe in mind or do you go by what inspires you at the market?
I usually approach a meal at home the same way I do at the restaurant- by picking an ingredient that is at its peak and tastes great right now.
So when people come to my restaurant, a part of what they are paying for is…the fact that there are a lot of dedicated and talented people thinking very hard about how to make something delicious for them. At home, it’s about not having to think at all, and just reacting what you think is going to be delicious at that very moment.
Right- no pressure, freedom to act creatively without an audience. I take for granted how nice that is. So what are your go-to grocery markets?
Rainbow, Bi-Rite, and on the weekend Berkeley Farmers Market. One thing that I have been talking a lot about lately is trying to start our own small farm to grow for the restaurant. For now, I’ve been giving some local farmers seeds so they can grow Chinese vegetables for the restaurant. Bok choy, mustard greens, and Chinese cabbages…
What are the main reasons for starting your own farm, versus utilizing farmers already growing these vegetables?
Right now it’s just a supply and demand thing. It’s hard to get farmers to grow the amount that I need on a consistent basis. We are getting busier and busier, so we are thinking it might just be easier to grow the exact amount that we need, and we can harvest it when we need and so on.
Was there a moment that you can remember when you thought you liked cooking or preparing food more than the average person?
When I think back on it, it kind of started when I was a kid and would come home from school. I was so excited to have the kitchen all to myself. I was able to experiment with anything I wanted. To be honest it was mostly like, “I’m going to take this frozen chimichanga out of the freezer, and use this hot sauce with this cheese.” That’s the level I was working on back then, but I remember it being really fun for me.
So when did it become something real for you, where you knew it was the path you were going to follow?
I started cooking in both Italy and Shanghai. What I really took away from both them was their pride in regionality, and a true sense of maintaining tradition.
When I was in Shanghai 9 years ago, I was working with farmers to teach them about organics. It was something people just saw as a luxury item. A lot of people didn’t really understand what it was they were buying. For them it was a status symbol to buy expensive vegetables, so I was helping to educate them on what it actually meant. There was also not much of a certification process to ensure that the vegetables were grown organically. Out of the 20 farms I worked with, only 2 of them were actually farming organically.
“I want to dispel the idea that if you’re going to eat Chinese food, it’s going to be cheap and greasy. It goes back to what the real value of food actually is. People expect Chinese food to be cheap. That is why I specifically note on the menu where our items are from.”
Back to what you said about being drawn to maintaining tradition- can you speak a little to that since you are cooking Chinese food in San Francisco?
I want to dispel the idea that if you’re going to eat Chinese food, it’s going to be cheap and greasy. It goes back to what the real value of food actually is. People expect Chinese food to be cheap. That is why I specifically note on the menu where our items are from. We buy quail from the same people who put quail on Chez Panisse’s menu!
Also, the city is giving very little support to small restaurants, so I think it’s very important that chefs stick together as much as possible, share notes, and help each other. I think we have to think creatively on how to build restaurants now. It’s like cracking a code to figure out how we can manage to run this kind of food operation and still pay our people the way they deserve to be paid.
So how is it to work with your wife in the same restaurant? I know sometimes it can go one way or the other. What are your experiences so far?
When I was a line cook, I saw the amount of stress in the kitchen, the effect that it had on the chefs, and how it really took a toll on their personal life. So I made a promise to both of us that I wasn’t going to let this restaurant get between us. It helps that she also keeps things very light- very chill.
Do you have a cooking guru? Someone who you feel was really important to your education as a chef?
Judy Rodgers (of the renowned Zuni Cafe). She is an everyday inspiration and her palate was incredible.
“I think this generation is so obsessed with trying to create something brand new all of the time. It ends up giving us very little time to actually master things.”
Judy taught me- through her cookbook- how to make the best Caesar salad. Just because I’m such a fan of hers, I’ll be a bit nosy… What was something you learned from her that you still repeat in your head when you cook today?
She taught me how complicated simple food can be. That sounds really weird but what Judy did was amazing. Even though it was a simple dish, the utmost detail and minutia went into each part…all the textures and flavors, portions… Her food was so special were because of her attention to the details. When I say she made simple food complicated, it was in a very good way. I think that is a big divide between what’s happening now and the chefs of her era. They were trying to master recipes, and I think this generation is so obsessed with trying to create something brand new all of the time. It ends up giving us very little time to actually master things.
Do you think that customers are responsible for a lot of that change?
It’s a lot of things. I also think it’s very easy to share food experiences today, so people want to impress people visually with their food more so than ever.
Since Mister Jiu’s meals are banquet-style, how do you explain your dishes to newcomers at the restaurant?
30 minutes before we open, we make every dish we are serving that night, and we taste everything in it’s final stage so that way we are all on the same page. It’s great for everyone in the restaurant, but especially great for the servers, who can help guide the customers on what to eat since they have tried things first hand.
“That’s the beauty of cooking. I can go home and make a Caesar salad and think about Judy. It’s a way to remember people, places, and good times.”
Was there a meal that you remember having that really had an impact on you as a chef?
When I think back on important moments in my life that have to do with food, they’re mostly just important to me because of the way food brings people together.
When I think about what I’m trying create each night, it’s a lot about those memories I had as a kid, and of the memories of making and sharing food with people.
That’s the beauty of cooking. I can go home and make a Caesar salad and think about Judy. It’s a way to remember people, places, and good times.