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Peter Chang the enigmatic chef

Chef Peter Chang posing by accolades

Chef Peter Chang posing by accolades

Some of you demanded to know what was going on with the elusive chef Peter Chang ever since we posted this weekend’s event notification of his new restaurant venture, Peter Chang’s. Currently working out the kinks at the new digs, Chang and company are finally slated to open his namesake eatery off Powers Ferry Road. But some of you are skeptical about this restaurant actually being his place (at least for the long term), and naturally I don’t blame you.

Chef Chang is a slippery sucker isn’t he? Several years ago he landed at Marietta’s Tasty China’s kitchen and seduced your senses like Jake Ryan did to Samantha Baker’s libido in Sixteen Candles. But then in the morning, chef Chang was gone; he didn’t even leave a note on the bedside table. Wandering habits persisted and Chang-smitten towns from Virginia to Tennessee were left in a fury like scorned lovers. His propensity to swoop in, swoon over legions of devotees and then leave town is well known.

Earlier this year, writer Calvin Trillin wrote a personal opus to Chef Chang in The New Yorker. So did Todd Kliman in The Oxford American. Their themes were part self-reflection on their Deadhead-like devotion on following Chang around the country, and part obsession towards Chang’s craft — specifically how his cooking was spellbindingly quixotic to the authors. And apparently, it’s not that far off of a description for residents in and around metro Atlanta who continue to wax religiously about Chang via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and local food forums.

That is the power of Peter Chang. Even when we were certain he wasn’t in Atlanta last year, Creative Loafing still awarded his dust trail four out of five stars. Chang was gone, but his cooking techniques and recipes that were being executed by trained cooks were still that good to all of us.

For now he’s back here in metro Atlanta, and opening his namesake restaurant this weekend. I was at the new location last night. I observed fresh pavement in the restaurant’s parking lot, and did a quick walkabout in his new kitchen. To the hundreds or maybe thousands of scorned mistresses of his gastronomic prowess, Chang has not left the building.

Peter ChangI sat down with Peter Chang at his soon-to-be-open restaurant, and with Emily Head – the restaurant’s manager who acted as our translator. I wanted to see if I could get to the bottom of his enigmatic habits and long term plans. Chef Chang in person is more meek in stature than he is grandiose but make no mistake, he is proud of what he has accomplished.

During the interview, I pressed in some areas but pulled back in others. I asked specific questions regarding rumored involvement in a Charlottesville, Virginia restaurant. But ultimately, I let Chang be Chang (whoever he is). After all, he is a person entitled to privacy just like any of us.

Otherwise, Merry Christmas my fellow Changians.

Q: How did you get into cooking? Did you always want to do it?

A: When I graduated from high school, I went to cooking school in Wuhan, Hubei, where I am from. Around then (1981), there were only two top level cooking schools. After my training, I knew I wanted to be a top level chef. My father is a doctor – a Chinese traditional doctor where the medicine is a bit different from conventional medicine. In Chinese words, “cook” and “doctor” combine to make people’s bodies healthy. And that’s why I decided to go to cooking school – to become a top chef. After graduating from the cooking school, I moved all over to study regional cooking styles. Sichuan province in the southwest, Guangdong in the south, Shanghai to the east, and north in Beijing. I feel that to be a good chef, I had to travel a lot – to observe the best stuff from the local regions. China is big. Different places have different food.

Q: So what brought you to America?

A: A job with the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. (in 2001). I took all kinds of tests to get the job. It was a big deal for Chinese people to come to America and serve the embassy. I threw national parties for Chinese presidents, American presidents and high level officers from all over the world.

Q: Are your long term intentions to stay here in Georgia?

A: The long term goal for me here is to open three more restaurants in metro Atlanta.

Q: So what is it about Atlanta that makes you want to settle down for now?

A: A bigger restaurant can show better chef skills. I think that good Chinese restaurants around the Atlanta area are lacking. I want to have several festivals for Chinese food. If I have a small restaurant, I couldn’t do it. If I have a big one, it can be a big party and I can invite everybody. I already have several festivals in mind and what the theme/food will be. One festival is called Yunnan (after a province in China, directly south of Sichuan) and another, Sānxiá (Three Gorges in Hubei province), an area near Yangtze River known for delicious snacks and appetizers. I hope to throw these types of parties/festivals once every three or four months.

Q: What are your menu plans for this Grand Opening party this Saturday, December 18?

A: Seventy percent of the dishes will be from the new menu. The remaining I will decide the day of, and they will be off the menu.

Q: How much day to day involvement will you have here? At Tasty China?

A: I will be here full time, but I will always give technical support to Tasty China.

Q: What is your involvement with this restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia that is circulating around the internet?

A: I will open a new restaurant in Charlottesville with a friend. It’s not the restaurant from your picture (Asian buffet from previous link) but another place. I was at that location (points to the picture from the print out I brought with me) a year ago. I will not physically be in Charlottesville, but consult student chefs there and impart techniques to them. I will go there several times a year to consult.

Q: Do you have a financial or business relationship with this Charlottesville venture?

A: I have some financial involvement. I will not be putting money into it but only lending technical support.

Q: Is the name of this place going to be Peter Chang’s China Grill or just China Grill? And when is it opening?

A: The name hasn’t been decided. We are shooting for the end of January, beginning of February – the Chinese Spring festival.

Q: Is your family here?

A: My wife is here, but my daughter, 22, is studying in England.

Q: So it sounds like you want to stay in the Atlanta area for a while at least?

A: I decided to stay here.

And with those last words, chef Chang smiles reassuringly from ear to ear and chuckles..

Peter Chang’s, Regularly open for business starting Sunday, December 19. 11 a.m.-10 p.m Mondays-Sundays (these hours are tentative and are subject to change), 6450 Powers Ferry Road, Sandy Springs, 678-766-8765.

Gene-Lee-Tagline- by Gene Lee, Food and More blog

– Gene Lee writes about International Cuisine for the AJC Dining Team. He also publishes his own blog, Eat, Drink, Man… A Food Journal.

33 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by GL and Todd Kliman, Atlanta Daily. Atlanta Daily said: Peter Chang the enigmatic chef – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) http://bit.ly/hOtpCW [...]

jimmy

December 15th, 2010
9:04 am

Gene – awesome work!

You really nailed him down on specifics, when it seems many could not.

Edward

December 15th, 2010
9:09 am

I love good, authentic Chinese food. I wasn’t that impressed with Tasty China, however. It isn’t bad, it is acceptable for sure, but it isn’t worth driving from Midtown. There are places on Buford Hwy (Man Chun Hong, for instance) that are far superior to Tasty China. I’ll be interested in trying this new venture from Chang, I hope it won’t be all hype and no substance.

Ted Striker

December 15th, 2010
9:53 am

Nice interview and nice read. Thank you very much.

Sam

December 15th, 2010
9:53 am

ATasty China is fantastic, glad to see he’s sticking around Atlanta (at least for now anyway), and hope he keeps the food hot and numbing (and delicious).

A

December 15th, 2010
9:53 am

I hope one of this other Atlanta restaurants will be on the northside somewhere!

RK

December 15th, 2010
10:09 am

Edward, what did you have?

Bitter that the opening wasn’t announced earlier; now I can’t go until Sunday for lunch…I hope the 90-second walk will be worth it.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Todd Ginsberg, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Peter Chang the enigmatic chef http://bit.ly/f4NoW2 [...]

Gregory

December 15th, 2010
10:31 am

I have not eaten at a Chinese Food Restaurant in Atlanta or surrounding areas that are any good. Most make bland rice with missing ingredients like sprouts and scallions. The sauces…mostly made from what tastes like tangy ketchup. Alot of dishes are purely American ( I get it) however these restaurants do not compare to what you get in a “Chinatown” area. For instance, in my travels to NY, Boston and San Fransisco….the food is out of this world. In Atlanta, its weird overly sweet and missing garlic, ginger and 5 spice.

What really is strange is that the only Chinese Restaurant that I have tried that comes close to NY, Boston and San Fran…is PF CHANGS in Buford. (Mall of GA)

If anyone has eaten Chinese in the mentioned cities and has eaten in and around ATL and found food that matches these areas…please let me know.

I hope Chef Changs place is more like out of town than in an around ATL.

BuHi

December 15th, 2010
11:02 am

Thanks for the clarification, Gene.

Sorry, Gregory – but if your idea of good Chinese food is PF Chang’s, you’re going to be sorely disappointed in Peter Chang’s cooking (i.e., don’t confuse Peter Chang with PF Chang). I can tell you that Atlanta has some of the best Chinese food you will find this side of San Francisco. Try looking a bit harder.

I am curious about the rice with “missing ingredients”. Steamed white rice, if it’s quality rice, should never be “bland” – the sprouts & scallions thing I don’t think I understand… You should note that not every “Chinese” dish includes garlic, ginger and 5-spice, but I would like to know where you’re eating that the sauces taste like ketchup – mall food courts?

RK

December 15th, 2010
11:44 am

Gregory, don’t worry, it isn’t Americanized Chinese (although there are some listed on the menu as “American”).

Hope he has the dry-fried mushrooms.

JBS

December 15th, 2010
12:40 pm

I am so there next week. can’ f-ing wait!!

Gregory

December 15th, 2010
12:55 pm

BuHi….

White rice is bland. I am talking about fried rice. In places like Boston, NY and San Fran…I’ve noticed that the Fried Rice has scallions and bean sprouts along with green onions, a little egg and meat or shrimp.

Also, I was not suggesting that everything should have garlic, 5 spice or ginger..however, Orange Chicken with ketchup sweet ketchup sauce?
And no ….this is not what I’ve gotten from a mall.(ie Panda Express).this is restaurant food. (ie Green Tea, Lins Bistro, Golden Palace Lawrenceville or Lavender in Snellville)

BuHi…my point about PF Chang..(and yes part of the PF initials is an American guy if I am not mistaken) is that so call Chinese Restaurants run by Asians (again where I have eaten) make food that is not better than this chain restaurant (most times worse), which is sad. It seems many use the same ingredients and pass it off as Chinese Food.

BuHi…please let me know the name of some of the places that you conisder really good. I am dying to find that one good place that is not a chain.

James

December 15th, 2010
1:25 pm

Nicely done, Gene. Great investigative reporting!

And this looks like very good news for the Atlanta dining scene.

Super Frankie

December 15th, 2010
2:13 pm

This is similar to when I turned on the tellie hoping to see the Chinese wunderkid and Schalke #7, Hao Junmin. #7 was playing up top, getting about the pitch and giving the backline fits. Only later did I realize Hao had given up the #7 kit to that muppet Raul. Hao’s a tough one to pin down too!

RK

December 15th, 2010
2:24 pm

The missing ingredient that is found at Peter Chang’s? Umami seasoning.

Super Frankie, I actually understood what you wrote.

Frank

December 15th, 2010
2:36 pm

Gregory, you should try The Real Chow Baby. It’s authentic Mongolian BBQ. Local celeb chefs created signature dishes, so it must be good! Whatever you do, do not go to Ming’s, Chef Liu’s, Northern China Eatery, China Delight, Happy Valley, Oriental Pearl, BoBo Garden, Cafe 101 or Royal China. They don’t put bean sprouts in their fried rice. But I heard Chin Chin’s does a bang up job on their’s. Happy eating!

Food Near Snellville

December 15th, 2010
4:26 pm

Gene,

I had to read this after the third or fourth retweet. Glad I did. Kudos are deserved here. Hard to compete with the likes of the New Yorker.

Gregory,

Atlanta’s Chinatown Food Court is pretty good. So is the Chinese menu at Canton Cooks. My brother-in-law lives in San Francisco, my sister-in-law in San Jose, so I’ve been to the SF Chinatown plenty. There is good Chinese in this city. Sorry if you don’t agree. Not easy to find? Probably. Here? yes.

FnS.

[...] the original post here: Peter Chang the enigmatic chef | Food and More with John Kessler Uncategorized atlanta, better-chef, bit-different, chinese, medicine, only-two, [...]

Jay Son

December 15th, 2010
11:56 pm

Gene -

A huge “thank you” for this article. I’m very impressed that you listened to the readers and quickly responded with not just an article but an interview with the man himself. And the questions you asked and answers you got really cleared things up for me. I’m really liking this “review team” concept which gets us, the readers, more focused coverage than any one reviewer would have time to provide.

As soon as Mr. Chang opens his new place, I’m there, and I expect I’ll show up at the special dinners too.

Gregory – dude – is your last name “Troll?” PF Changs? I’ve lived or spent extensive time in all the other cities you mention. For you to mention PF Changs in the same breath with the best Asian restaurants in those cities is absurd, and for you to imply that PF Changs is the best Asian food you’ve had in Atlanta is equally absurd. I’ve got to think you are just having some fun at others’ expense.

alan

December 16th, 2010
9:40 am

Gregory, I lived in both NYC and Boston most of my life and fried rice was always a served seperate. With a meal came white steamed rice only. I began eating Sichan food back in the 1970’s at a place called Shicuan Taste in Chatham Sq in ny, Cantones at Hong Fat in chinatown etc. In Boston the old Golden Gate and some of the others in Bostons Chinatown. I have some credentials I believe in eating. Fried rice was never served with a meal until I moved to ATL

alan

December 16th, 2010
9:50 am

By the way John very good interview with Mr. Chang. We began to eat theere several months ago and feel that we lost a couple of years searching for very good food. I do enjoy the Fried dry eggplant and most of the other dishes there mthat we’ve tried. I ate PF Changs once and it was no better than that panda place but more expensive. I have a gift card from there so I will go back. Good Luck Mr. Chang on your new restaurant. I understand the restaurant business somewhat as my Father dated a woman who opened several Italian restaurants in Brooklyn years ago and sell them after a year or so, when they became popular. It’s hard work, especially to keep the quality.

Gregory

December 16th, 2010
5:56 pm

I am actually very serious. Not a troll. Most Chinese food that I have eaten at so called “Asian” restaurants is terrible. I think its because many combine, Thai, Japanese and Chinese.

As for fried rice…you can order chinese fried rice with dinner. I am not sure what you are talking about Alan. Yes, order beef and broccoli and white rice comes with it. Most places I’ve eaten, the Fried Rice is horrible.

My father owned a garment business in Downtown Boston’s Chinatown. Most of the people who worked for him were Chinese. Therefore, when I worked for him as a teenager his employees always made me food right from their kitchen. I think I can judge really good Chinese Food from the farce food made in and around Atlanta. Dynasty – Downtown, The old out of business Weylu’s- Saugus,MA and Chinatown in Canton, MA are some of the best.

Again…for me to say that PF CHANGS is the best to me IS TERRIBLE!!!

I am just trying to find out where the best Chinese Food is served as I have not found any that is good.

I’ve recently read about Chinatown in Chamblee. Hopefully we can find some good Chinese Food there.

Other than Chef Changs…were are some other good places?

Edward

December 16th, 2010
11:36 pm

Gregory, you simply haven’t looked very hard. If all you do is look for the “American” Chinese places, then you’re going to get the overly-sweet swill. Try Man Chun Hong on Buford Hwy, or the new Top Chef stall in the food court at Great Wall Supermarket in Duluth (yes, in a supermarket, the former chef from Cafe 101 is now cooking there). The aforementioned food court at the Chinatown Mall in Chamblee is also an excellent source of authentic food.

Edward

December 16th, 2010
11:39 pm

RK: at Tasty China I was simply disappointed that the food was so “one note”. Yes, it certainly has the heat, but there just isn’t any depth to the flavors. In contrast, Man Chun Hong’s food not only has the heat but that heat carries flavors that really delight. The Hot and Numbing Beef is sublime. Be sure to ask that the food is prepared “normal” and not toned-down, because they assume us Caucasians can’t handle the real thing. :-)

Funky Friday |

December 17th, 2010
7:32 am

[...] Last night we had an amazing dinner at Peter Chang’s new restaurant in Sandy Springs.  He has a cult like following with good reason.  This is a completely new kind of Chinese restaurant that I highly recommend you try.  Read about why so many people are excited about this in John Kessler’s (love JK) awesome article about Peter. [...]

[...] Last night we had an amazing dinner at Peter Chang’s new restaurant in Sandy Springs.  He has a cult like following with good reason.  This is a completely new kind of Chinese restaurant that I highly recommend you try.  Read about why so many people are excited about this in John Kessler’s (love JK) awesome article about Peter. [...]

Gregory

December 17th, 2010
1:15 pm

Thanks Edward!

I will give these places a shot!

Aaron

December 18th, 2010
10:22 am

Man Chun Hong is one of my favorite restaurants, but I wouldn’t go there if I were you because you proclaim you don’t like any cross-ethnicity stuff… Man Chun Hong has Korean owners (I believe) so a lot of their dishes are Korean influenced. Still, Buford Hwy is a goldmine for Chinese restaurants (and Korean, Vietnamese, etc), and if you say Atlanta has no good Chinese without even going to CHINATOWN that’s a shame. You wouldn’t judge San Fran’s Chinese without going to their Chinatown..?

RK

December 19th, 2010
3:58 pm

Ate…too…much…

PJ

December 20th, 2010
9:12 am

Wow, wow & wow. Peter Chang’s restaurant is off the charts awesome. Dinner there last night was incredible. I can’t wait to go back & work my way through the expansive menu.

Gregory

December 21st, 2010
8:46 am

Edward…I know you said try Top Chef…however..I tried the other restaurant in the Great Wall. Wow…now that was some really good chinese food!

We are going back to try Top Chef after the holidays. Thanks for the tip!

[...] which was some of the better Chinese food that was around Atlanta many years ago. Frank Ma was like the Peter Chang of the early 2000’s and would vanish and resurface just as frequently. The last place he [...]