When Peter Chang opened his restaurant in Short Pump 10 years ago, the buzz was dizzying.
The China-born chef had cooked for dignitaries in China, developed a rabid fan following for his signature Sichuan cooking and was famously stalked by Calvin Trillin in his New Yorker piece “Where’s Chang?”
Since opening Peter Chang’s China Café in Short Pump, now located at 11408 W. Broad St., Chang has opened several more restaurants in the state from Virginia Beach to Fredericksburg, including a downtown Richmond location in Scott’s Addition at 2816 W. Broad St.
This spring, Chang was named a finalist for a James Beard award for outstanding chef, a high honor reserved for only five chefs in the country.
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The 59-year-old chef has been nominated for a James Beard award before, both as a nominee and twice as a semi-finalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic.
His daughter and business partner, Lydia Chang said, “He’s pretty shocked to be in the outstanding chef category. He’s honored and excited at the same time.”
Chang is known for his Sichuan-inspired entrées with hot and numbing spices such as crispy pork belly, hot pots and dry fried eggplant, to name a few.
“Chinese food rarely has been deigned worthy of awards and recognition by the powers-that-be in the food world. This is why Peter Chang, being the only Virginia chef nominated as a finalist for a James Beard this year, is such a big deal,” Richmond Times-Dispatch restaurant critic Justin Lo said.
“The brilliance of Peter Chang is that, without doing some sort of fusion thing, he captures the nuances of a specific regional style of Chinese cooking from the Sichuan province, while also translating the cuisine for a broader American audience. His food has integrity. It’s impactful. It’s thoughtful. And it really resonates,” Lo said.
Chang doesn’t speak English, but via his daughter Lydia who translated, he said that “the Sichuan taste profile is complex and well balanced with a combination of spice, sweet, soy and acid.”
The most common spices he cooks with are red pepper, Sichuan peppercorn and white pepper, he said.
Chang is still cooking every day at Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, Md., close to his home in D.C. He also visits Mama Chang in Fairfax on a weekly basis, which celebrates the cooking of the Chang women including his mother, grandmother, wife and daughter Lydia.
As for his favorite dish at his restaurants, Chang said, “I love fish-steamed branzino with ginger and scallion or chopped fresh chili pepper. I could enjoy anytime of the day.”
When we visited Chang at his Scott’s Addition location, we were invited into the kitchen where we watched the celebrated chef cook spicy ginger duck with sliced ginger, celery, red bell pepper, garlic and cilantro in a giant wok over an open flame. Aromatic spices filled the air as a line of cooks gathered around him to watch.
As for what keeps him cooking in the kitchen, he said, “Keep doing what you love, follow your passion and stay curious.”
He also said he enjoys working with the next generation of chefs, like Simon Lam, a research chef at Peter Chang. “When we work together I show him how things are cooked classically. He then finds a way to replicate the dish using western cooking techniques,” Chang said.
He doesn’t cook in his Richmond restaurants much anymore, but said that “the local team has really outperformed themselves. They understand the standard, and are constantly improving the quality of food and service.”
Chang’s legendary story and rise to fame has inspired a whole new line of chefs.
“Growing up, I was always told not to go into the restaurant industry. There wasn’t much respect for Asian food in general,” said Vanna Hem, co-chef and co-owner of The Royal Pig, a buzzworthy Cambodian pop-up restaurant that has moved into more permanent digs in Hatch Local Food Hall at 400 Hull St.
“But looking at Peter Chang inspired me. It was like, ‘We can do this and make people think differently about our food in general,’” Hem said. “People think it’s cheap fast food. Peter Chang was the first who made it like an art. That’s been inspiring, just as a young Asian male, to have somebody to look up to and aspire to.”
Will Leung-Richardson, owner of Kudzu RVA food truck, also said that Peter Chang’s cooking opened his eyes to a whole new style of Sichuan cooking.
“Coming from a Cantonese background” — his grandparents owned the Moon Gate I restaurant in Chesterfield — “it was the first time Sichuan cooking stood out to me. It was like ‘Wow.’ His food inspired me to be more adventurous with my own cooking. His commitment to the traditions but utilizing innovations all his own, that was definitely inspiring.”
As for the James Beard award for outstanding chef, winners will be announced on June 13 at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“Thanks to Chef Chang, folks are finally coming to their senses and acknowledging that Chinese cuisine deserves to take its place alongside other cuisines that have long garnered such recognition,” Lo said.