In 1973, Ed Schoenfeld found himself “in a tuxedo at the front door of one of New York’s first Hunan restaurants,” welcoming guests as maître d’. To most New Yorkers back then, Chinese food meant greasy egg rolls and tangles of chow mein. But at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, pioneering restaurateur David Keh—who first introduced locals to the fiery nuances of Sichuan cuisine—began spreading the gospel of crispy beef and other Hunanese dishes. For Schoenfeld, who had also served as Keh’s assistant, helping establish such an important restaurant was his “big break.”
The Brooklyn-bred owner of Red Farm and Decoy—restaurants that have given a nouveau-New York spin to dim sum and Peking duck, respectively—has a life-long love affair with food. As a child, he would wander the gourmet department of A&S, where the overpowering scent of “stinky cheese was repulsive to me.” Later, he dined at the finest restaurants with his friend Arthur, on Arthur’s parents’ dime. “Really good restaurants were a turn-on, and I loved reading the New York Times food section,” says Schoenfeld. “I thought, wouldn’t it be nice making a career out of what [restaurant critic] Craig Claiborne does? By the time I graduated high school, that was my goal.” The heady era at Uncle Tai’s, however, convinced him to work in restaurants “rather than being an observer.”
A big part of the story of Chinese food in the 20th century is China becoming communist.
He also had a knack for cooking and was eager to replicate the recipes that thrilled him when he went out to eat. He attributes this culinary proclivity to his grandmother, Goldie, “the matriarch of my mother’s family who was a great European-style home cook.” A young widow forced to care for a motley brood of her own children, stepchildren, and siblings, she made from-scratch noodles, gefilte fish, and pies for 25 people twice a day.
Soon, Schoenfeld’s interest in food led him to the city’s Chinese expats, including some of the country’s most talented chefs who made their way to New York in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s reign. They came armed with a trove of distinct, regional recipes that fascinated Schoenfeld—so much so that he organized banquets in their restaurants. “I went back repeatedly when I found a really good chef and learned about their repertoires from the perspective of the patron—well, a poor, young one—and eventually started learning some recipes, too,” he says. Many of these dishes had been obscured amid the political upheaval, and now Schoenfeld was showing the rest of the country that lobster and quail were just as much a part of the Chinese culinary canon as General Tso’s chicken and beef with broccoli. “A big part of the story of Chinese food in the 20th century is China becoming communist,” he adds.
Through the decades, Schoenfeld’s knack for dreaming up restaurant concepts spawned such institutions as Auntie Yuan, Pig Heaven, and Chinatown Brasserie. But it’s Red Farm, which he opened with chef-partner, Joe Ng, that best articulates his vision for modern, playful Chinese cooking. Here, there are “Pac-Man” dumplings, crab-topped eggplant bruschetta, and egg rolls stuffed with Katz’s pastrami. Below the West Village location is Decoy, home to juicy, made-to-order Peking Duck. “Is it about things being fun and delicious? Yes. Absolute authenticity? No. It’s like an artist. When they have good technique they can be creative,” Schoenfeld explains.
Fulfilling an adolescent promise to himself, Schoenfeld still cooks almost every day in his Newark home. From fresh blintz wrappers he mastered with his grandmother, to the beef with hoisin sauce he wooed his teenage girlfriend with, here are 10 of the dishes that have fueled Schoenfeld’s culinary curiosity through the years.
On Friday afternoons we got out of school at 1pm, and 90 percent of the time I’d go to my grandmother Goldie’s house in East New York to help her cook the so-called Shabbat dinner. I never liked cheese as a kid, but she made blintzes, maybe with a little sour cream and raisins, and I became especially proficient at making the little crepes she used for the wrappers. She had an old six-burner chamber stove and, at 10 years old, I was using five or six pans at once, greasing them with cloth, pouring the batter in, swirling it around, pouring the extra off, and cooking the wrapper. As a kid that age, I loved eating. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Mrs. Fan’s Cabbage
David Keh stole me back with a new restaurant, Auntie Yuan. There were a lot of things that dictated this restaurant be fancy: the wooden floor we bleached white, the black-lacquer walls, all the calligraphy. In France, they were known for la cuisine de grand-mere—personal, home-style cooking—and we tried to evoke that same spirit in the Chinese way with our female chefs. Auntie Yuan was maybe the first restaurant to introduce a banquet-style menu of small, sequenced tastes. One of our signature dishes, famous in the industry, was Mrs. Fan’s Cabbage: shredded Napa cabbage with minced garlic and flavored with powdered dried shrimp, sesame oil, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and salt, with chopped up scallions and cilantro. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Beef with Hoisin Sauce
By the time I was 15, my idea of a hot date was to go to Shun Lee Palace with my girlfriend. The dish I fell for was chef Wang’s beef with hoisin sauce. As a teenager I decided I would be a food writer and that I would cook every day. I took classes from a famous lady, Grace Chu, who had worked for the Chinese Embassy and taught at her home on the Upper West Side and the China Institute. She had a big staff at the embassy and knew how beef with hoisin sauce should taste, but did she know the secret to making it ethereal? No. I knew both chefs Chu and Wang were using the same cut of flank steak, the same brand of hoisin sauce, and the same shiitake mushrooms, but one dish was pretty good and one was the sexiest thing ever. Why is that? What does he know that she doesn’t, I wondered. That was a big motivator in my life, and it made me realize there was a chunk of knowledge I wasn’t getting from chef Chu. If I really wanted to be a top professional in my field, I needed to go deeper. (Photo: Shun Lee Palace)
Albert Grossman—who once stiffed me six seats at one of my banquets—was the man who created and owned musicians like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and the Band. I moved in with him in Woodstock to help open the Little Bear, which still exists today. I had a woman, Janeen Darrah, come work for me—a freckle-faced, redhead Southerner married to a famous studio musician, and she taught me her family recipe for potato salad. We started making it and I’ve been famous for it ever since. I take a hard-boiled egg, separate the whites and yolks, and pulverize the yolks. There’s sugar, pickles, and fresh handfuls of dill and parsley. For the last 15 years every home I’ve had came with outdoor space, so I’m always making this for barbecues with things like spare ribs. My whole life I’ve been entertaining. (Photo: Suvir Saran)
In China, the best cooks didn’t work in restaurants—they worked for government officials and royal kitchens. After 1949, there was a great diaspora of fine chefs. They simply weren’t able to stay in communist China, and so some went to Taiwan or Hong Kong. A group of them came to New York and set up shop on Broadway, on the Upper West Side, and that’s when we first started getting Sichuan restaurants. It was by coincidence that the banquets I started setting up at 17 and 18 turned out to be with some of China’s best 20th-century chefs. The preeminent Chinese painter, Chang Ta-chien, was the Picasso of China. His chef, Lo Huey Yen, went to live with him in Brazil, and when the U.S. opened up he found his way here. Danny Kaye, the actor of my mother’s era, became a chef because “Uncle Lou” was his teacher, just as he was mine. I later found out that when he wasn’t cooking for me, “Uncle Lou” was cooking for David Rockefeller, and when he wasn’t cooking for David Rockefeller, he was cooking for I.M. Pei. Ta-chien Chicken, named for the artist, is spicy, braised chicken in a rich, shiitake-flavored brown sauce. I learned to savor it as a young person, and then, of course, learned how to cook it. (Photo: Village Voice)
Chicken El Parador
I would go to restaurants, fall in love with the dishes, and want to know how to cook them. A suave, debonair restaurateur named Carlos opened a Mexican restaurant in Murray Hill, El Parador Café, and one of the famous dishes was the chicken. It took a long time to make, but it made me understand a lot about cooking. They marinated it with garlic and red wine vinegar, then breaded and fried it. Before it got completely cooked, they took it out of the oil and put it in a clean pan with a big onion in the center and minced garlic on top. They covered the pan and sweated it until the crispy chicken soaked up the onion juice. Craig Claiborne published the recipe and then I played with it. I was a single dad for a lot of my kids’ youth and one of the things I cooked regularly was this chicken. It became part of my repertoire. (Photo: El Parador)
Chicken soup is just so fundamental to cooking. There’s always homemade stock in my refrigerator. From Grandma, Goldie I learned how to make a delicious, Jewish-style soup with parsnips, carrots, and celery tops. But if I want to make a Chinese one, it would have ginger, scallions, and maybe a piece of ham or dried mushroom. In Newark, I can buy chicken for 69 cents a pound and have stock for a month. (Photo: Daily Unadventures in Cooking)
Uncle Tai’s was a copy of a restaurant in Taiwan, which was opened by chef Peng, who invented General Tso’s chicken. Independently, Shun Lee also copied this model. Each owner had gone back to Taiwan looking for the next new thing, and in the beginning of 1973, New York saw its first two Hunan-style restaurants. One of the dishes was for crispy walnuts, and because Uncle Tai wanted the superior version, the recipe was hidden from its employees. After the staff went home, he blanched the walnuts and cooked them in sugar syrup overnight; in the morning, he deep-fried them before the staff showed up. I quietly observed, and to this day, I still make them for holidays. They package beautifully and my mother used to dote on them. I recently went to the Uncle Tai’s, which still exists in Boca Raton, and they sent me out some. (Photo: The Suitcase Chef)
I like to cook Thanksgiving dinner. In the last 40 years, I’ve probably made it for 35 of them. I’m not sure where the recipe came from—maybe Julia Child—but this apple-beet-celery salad looks particularly nice with a lot of frisée and crunchy apples with good texture. You cook the beets, peel them, dice them to the same shape as the apple, and then you mix them together. I’ll usually make a honey-mustard dressing with really good Dijon and olive oil, emulsify it until it’s creamy, and then sweeten it up with honey and tart it up with lime juice. To dress the greens, I’ll use those same candied walnuts, or maybe diced celery, and then take a potato ricer to a couple of hard-boiled eggs and separate the white from the yellow. Now you have the greens, the purples, and the burnished mahogany of the nuts with a sprinkle of bright yellow and white. It’s very festive. It goes with the ham, it goes with the baked chicken, it goes with the roast beef—anything simple. It’s a little sweet, a little crunchy, a little fruity, and it’s good eating. It just speaks the holidays to me, and it’s the one thing you can count on me making. (Photo: Food Network)
Steamed Salmon with Black Bean Sauce
During one of my phases of teaching myself about food, I did a lot of steaming. The average Chinese chef, when steaming a whole fish, will probably season it with salt, maybe with a little ginger and scallion, put it on a plate, and then put it in a steamer. After it cooks through, they will typically take the plate out, hold the hot fish, pour the liquid condensed on the plate, and then put a soy-based sauce on the fish before bringing it to the table. I played around with salmon and started putting an overly strong sauce on the fish—it was designed to dilute with water released during cooking so that it would be just right when the fish was ready. I also developed a technique where I took a salmon steak, cut it in half, moved the center bone and split it in half so it was still attached along the edge, and butterflied it. When it came out if you did it the right way, you’d get it to look like a little fish. So, I turned this salmon steak into two fish-shaped filets and made a great black bean sauce to sit over them. When you take a very fat piece of salmon like that and steam it quickly, it gets the most delicious texture. The cooking time? Three minutes. This grew organically out of my experimenting. To this day, if I see salmon on the menu in a Chinese restaurant, I get it. (Photo: Trip Advisor)