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.
I 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.
- 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.