“Country Food” for City People: Restaurateur Tony Hu injects authentic Chinese flavor into Chinatown

It began with his first taste of Smoked Tea Duck. The crispy fried skin, seasoned and infused with flavors of Sichuan pepper, camphor leaves, and black tea, created an urge to ask for a duck to go; he had to have more. Charlie Chaplin, in the company of the notable former Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhou Enlai, decided that Smoked Tea Duck was a truly unforgettable dish–delicious to the marrow of every bone. And that day at the 1954 World Peace Conference in Geneva, Chaplin brought fame to Sichuan cuisine; Smoked Tea Duck became a Sichuan cuisine classic.

Thirty-five years later, Tony Hu, the chef and owner of three restaurants in Chinatown, read this story–the tale of the famous mime’s affinity for the Sichuan delicacy–in an advertisement for the Sichuan Culinary Institute in his hometown of Cheng Du. Having recently graduated from high school, Hu had little idea about what to do next. And the possibility of preparing dishes for celebrities–iconic American celebrities–was inspiring. Hu decided he wanted to become a chef.

Hu, at first look, does not strike you as a typical chef. He is unassuming and quiet, and possesses a rather mild temperament for the type of commanding work he does. His stature is unobtrusive and typical. And yet, he moves about his restaurants in an almost antithetical manner. Hu works at an amazing speed, undertaking the role of a certain culinary superhero, bulleting between his three restaurants–Lao Szechuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Shanghai–overseeing his chefs’ rapid work at fiery stoves and weaving through tables to greet customers. With his raspy, hushed voice, Hu controls a growing empire of restaurants with a fierce whisper. And much like the man who inspired him to cook in the first place, Hu resembles a silent-movie star, moving between frames of work at a whirring pace. Blink, and he’s already across the room or behind the swinging kitchen doors, attending to something equally as important as his previous task. Hu’s commitment to his restaurants is undeniable, and his drive to establish himself as a premier chef is as steadfast as the heat of a perfectly tuned wok.

After graduating from the Sichuan Culinary Institute, Hu found his way to Chicago, cooking for Houston Kou’s Szechuan House Group and various hotels in the city. Identified for his talent and skill for nailing Sichuan cuisine’s authentic flavor on the head, Hu was quickly encouraged to open his own restaurant. But for Hu, it wasn’t the growing praise that compelled him to open his first restaurant, Lao Szechuan; it was his homesickness and desire to recreate the food he remembered eating in Cheng Du. As Hu explains, “You know, I am from Sichuan. I’m homesick. I miss my country. I miss my country food. If I feel this way, I feel everybody does, who are from China. So I created my new restaurants.” Hu wanted to bring the authentic cuisine he grew up eating–numbingly spicy dishes that distracted you from the summer heat, with complex balances of sweet, savory, and spicy–to the comparably humid climate of the Midwest. Hu wanted to “change the Chinese food history in Chicago” by bringing the authentic flavors of Sichuan cuisine to the city.

With this clear motivation, Hu set to produce the most authentic Sichuan dishes possible. And he found that this would only be achievable with the use of authentic ingredients. But to his surprise, Hu found it impossible to find the ingredients fundamental to Sichuan cuisine in Chicago. The peppercorns (han yuan), Sichuan pickles (yi bing ya cai), chili bean paste, and chili peppers were all domestically grown in the States or imported from areas other than the Sichuan province. He discovered that peppercorns were imported from Taiwan, chilies were imported from Mexico, and chili bean paste and Sichuan pickles were imported from various regions in China or produced in the United States. To Hu, this was unacceptable and he set out to get the real ingredients he needed. Hu identifies the authenticity of any cuisine in its consistency: “No matter how you make your food, I want the food flavor [to be the] same [as] what you had in China, your hometown. That’s why it’s most important to use ingredients, like basic ingredients, major ingredients [like] the ones you use in China.” For this reason, finding ingredients from the Sichuan province was imperative. So, Hu traveled to his hometown and identified suppliers for his restaurant before he got started. Within a few years, Hu secured producers to import the ingredients he needed. In effect, he increased the quality of ingredients, changing the face of grocery store aisles in the Chicagoland area. Hu brought a new diversity, but at the same time, a very old feeling back to the Chinese market.

In his experience cooking in Chicago, Hu observes that the problem with “Americanized Chinese food” lies in chefs’ compromise of culinary details, like the cornerstone ingredients necessary for authentic preparations of Chinese food. Hu explains, “One must keep the good ways [of] China. We cannot just want to be fast. Lose the flavor, no. You cannot lose the flavors.” And in many ways, the “Americaniz[ation]” of Chinese food in general has caused some critical failures. While he himself indulges the palates of customers–with about “fifteen or twenty percent” of his menu dedicated to familiar “Americanized” favorites, like Kung Pao Chicken, Broccoli Beef, or Mongolian Beef–Hu refuses to cook certain dishes, dishes that he describes as “Chop-Suey stuff.” Hu doesn’t display any particular methodology in selecting dishes he deems especially offensive to authentic Chinese cuisine. He simply protests making Chop-Suey and Egg Foo Young because he “[doesn’t] want to ruin Chinese food. [He doesn’t] want to ruin [its] image.” It is probably the unrecognizable aspect of these foods when compared with the “country food” he finds in China; these dishes aren’t identifiable as Chinese dishes by their flavors, but rather, by the consequence of being on a menu from a Chinese restaurant.

“Lao,” Hu explains, means “old.” , Hu chose this word to name his restaurants in order to illustrate this Old-World feeling of Chinese cuisine. Lao Szechuan is “old Szechuan style,” Lao Beijing is the gluttonous and saucy old Beijing style, and Lao Shanghai is the light and sweet style of old Shanghai. Hu means to exemplify Chinese cuisine by emphasizing the defining characteristics of each major region’s cuisine. He explains, “I am Chinese. I love my country. My dream is to show you guys how wonderful Chinese food, Chinese culture [is]. I feel like this is my job. I work so hard at this point.” Hu, in a certain way, functions as a cultural broker; he brings familiar “country food” to those who miss it like he himself does, but he also brings unfamiliar “country food” to those who have never had it before. In an effort to remedy his own homesickness, Hu has found a community of faithful sympathizers. On a busy weekend, look through the windows of any of his restaurants and find a heterogeneous crowd of customers who share Hu’s passion for authentic flavors. These flavors, determined by a certain nostalgic quality, remind everyone that a memory may be inspired and satisfied with something as simple as the crispy flesh of a Smoked Tea Duck. You, like Hu, may find “your country, your relatives, your people” in the shared emotions provoked by a familiar–not to mention delectable–food.

Photos by Ellis Calvin

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