(photo by Kevin Rosseel)

The San Francisco Professional Food Society, the Asia Society and the Chinese Culture Center have all joined forces to tackle a question that lingers, like a greasy smog, over Chinese restaurants:

Why is Chinese food so bad in the US?

Four experts will discuss the topic this coming week in an event geared toward saavy travelers, frustrated diners and nostalgic expats alike. Nicole Mones, author of the novels Lost in Translation as well as the more recent and relevant The Last Chinese Chef, will join Martin Yan, that infamous TV chef, who is now atoning for his can-cook approach by establishing an eponymous Culinary Arts Center in the Middle Kingdom itself. He hopes to teach American chefs how to cook real Chinese food. Rounding out the panel are Albert Cheng, former president of the Chinese Culture Center, and Alexander Ong, chef at Betelnut Restaurant. Olivia Wu will moderate what promises to be a lively discussion.

New York diners have already considered the question more deeply than we easy-going West Coasters. Nina and Tim Zagat’s opinion piece in the New York Times listed access to ingredients and immigration policies as key factors. Mones herself compared Eastern and Western culinary preferences, recipes included, in her attempt to soften the question of why Chinese food in America is still in such a sorry state. Continuing the debate, the New York Daily News suggested that a thriving economy and well-heeled diners in China means chefs can enjoy a better living by staying in their homeland rather than sweating it out. How many creative chefs want to leave their families to sling kung pao and mu shu and yet another order of potstickers when their compatriots appreciate innovative flavors and, more importantly, are willing to pay for them?

If you can’t make the event but would like to taste a bit of the controversy for yourself, visit the SFPFS event announcement: they list several restaurants in San Francisco Chinatown recommended by the speakers.

The Future of Chinese Cuisine in the U.S.
Wednesday, January 23
6:00-8:30 pm
Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco
750 Kearny Street, between Clay and Washington
Third floor, San Francisco Financial District Hilton Hotel
$25 Members (SFPFS or Asia Society)
$35 Guests

Visit the SFPFS website for details and registration.

The Future of Chinese Cuisine in the US 17 March,2008Thy Tran

  • Passionate Eater

    I love that this issue is being addressed. There is an egregious discrepancy between (1) food cooked in China and in Chinese-American homes and (2) the Chinese food popularized in mainstream America.

  • stevchipmunk

    What the… are you talking about? The BEST Chinese food is being served in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese food in China, for the most part is… meh. Except in very expensive veues. The Chinese food in America, served in NYC and LA, and San Francisco, for the most part is very good… with some exceptional cooking.
    The Chinese cooking found in restaurants, say in some backwater town in West Virginia tends to be not that good (with some notable exceptions), because the cooks in these restaurants tend not to be professionally trained, but are, for example, a bookkeeper who wanted to go into business. And anyway, what do these Old Foreigners know about Chinese food… right?
    P.F. Changs are very good looking, clean restaurants that serve… acceptable (but no where near very good) Chinese food.


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website, wanderingspoon.com, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

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