Very few things about prize-winning Szechuan chef Peter Chang are absolutely clear. He has a Wikipedia page, for instance, but it doesn’t list a birthday. Stanley Tucci is reportedly making a film about his life, but until it comes out, every story about him will likely continue to contain words like ‘elusive.’ In the meantime, we have his food, and at least occasionally in Charlottesville, his smiling face.
Last Thursday at Peter Chang’s China Grill, an invite-only event brought together a few folks from the chef’s past and a number of others from his most recent endeavors, a mixture of restaurant regulars, media types, and food industry people. Chang’s personal attention has mainly been focused on his new West Broad Street Richmond location. His model, now as before, has been to set up a kitchen, get it running smoothly, and move on. Amidst the chaos of the kitchen, Chang said through his translator, “Tonight is a thank you to customers who have given us so much in the last two years.”
Organized by his Charlottesville business partners Gen and Mary Lee, the dinner was a social function, but it was also a showcase for Chang’s cooking. Watching him put together a banquet with his wife Lisa working alongside him is to understand what makes the couple tick. They are humble, gracious, and devoted to their food. The food is classic Szechuan fare, heavily spiced, oily, and delicious, integrating the black peppercorn when appropriate.
Appetizers for the evening included stir-fried chicken wontons with XO sauce, Szechuan hot chili beef, cumin shrimp kabobs, and a cucumber stuffed with a pine nut mixture. Dinner courses came one on top of the other: a diced sea bass with hot chili peppers, braised beef shank in wine sauce, and duck breast with shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots.
By far the star of the show were the hand thrown Han Zhong style stir-fried noodles, a spicy appetizer served table side, the glutinous noodles soaking up the oily sauce and just the right amount of heat. Moments earlier, Chang and his kitchen mates had stood on crates in order to stretch them to the appropriate length. Not an everyday item for a high-volume restaurant in the U.S., but heavenly.
Chef Chang has never been short of press, allure, or adulation. Still, the event got a message across from him and the Lees to the people of Charlottesville. He still cares about the food that comes out of that kitchen as much as he ever did. And the response from his customers? The photos tell the story…–Justin Ide