Chinese Food in the US

8 Sep

This was previously posted as part of my review of Jiang-Nan Chun in Singapore, but I felt it would work better as a stand-alone piece. Filed under the Editorials Section.

In 3 years living in the States, I have not come across a single Chinese fine-dining restaurant on her shores.  Since I have not been long enough to Beijing or Shanghai to really understand their Chinese fine-dining scenes, I shall confine the following speculations to just Cantonese fine-dining. Classic Chinese fine-dining seems to be concentrated in the Cantonese cuisine, which is geographically in South China. This explains the numbers of Chinese fine-dining restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore, and to lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia.

My 4 hypotheses for why Cantonese fine-dining doesn’t exist in the US (correct me if I am wrong please!) are the following:

  1. Ingredient Conservatism. Cantonese fine-dining restaurants prize ingredient quality, and they have been reluctant to experiment with North American ingredients, or indeed most European ingredients in general until the Michelin Guide came to Hong Kong and gave Lung King Heen three stars for experimenting with foie gras and truffles.
  2. Existing fine-dining institutions are Western. Many talented Asian chefs (e.g. David Chang of Momofuku Ko) tend to apprentice in French/Italian kitchens, due to the existing global prestige of these kitchens (again, the Michelin Guide, and Top 50 Restaurant List).
  3. More subtle to appreciate. Cantonese fine-dining involves a dizzying array of soups, in which the skill involved is more subtle to appreciate than a fatty slab of foie gras blowtorched to perfection.
  4. Where the Money is. Fine dining concepts spread by the international travels of a moneyed class, and a restaurant is sustained by a stable base of moneyed regulars. The large number of French and Italian restaurants in the world reflect the travels of international financiers in the post-WWII reconstruction era. As a corollary, the emergence of New American fine-dining restaurants is concentrated geographically in California and the Northeast US, which are the two richest regions in the US today. Similarly, the regular clientele for Chinese fine-dining is almost exclusively Chinese tycoons, which tended to be concentrated in Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Singapore up to the 80s (when mainland China was still modernising under Deng Xiaoping from almost 3 decades of Mao rule). These HK and Singapore tycoons, having found their economic base in the region often on networks of patronage and influence, almost never emigrated to the US. This is why Chinese fine-dining today still seems to be an East Asian phenomenon, from the eastern seaboard of China to the heart of Southeast Asia.

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