An immigrant couple’s China Dream - Creating the “Apple” of Chinese cuisine in America
(Credit: Vogue article here Photography by Peter Ash Lee)
Xian (left), a former technology consultant and counterparty risk manager , experienced the ups and downs of the financial market from 2007 to 2011. Yiming(right), a former financial analyst, is a creative mind and had her heart calling to pursue art and design. The brainchild of the two capable hands is a Manhattan midtown gem - Cafe China.
In 2011,this husband-and-wife duo hand-crafted the michelin-starred hot spot Cafe Chinaon 37th and 5th ave. Besides its high quality and fresh Szechuan style food, Cafe China is on its way to redefine and create a new era of Chinese cuisine in America. For perhaps the first time, guests of Cafe China can enjoy an overall experience of Chinese cuisine that combines authentic food with an amiable ambience infused with Chinese culture elements and superior attention to details.
(Credit: Natalie Tse, back corner of Cafe China. notice the wooden table, vintage lamps, book shelf with tea jars and novels, as well as posters of 1930s Shanghai, featuring Shanghai diva Zhou Xuan, and a typewriter for comments )
1. Cafe China - The New Era of Chinese food
(Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times)
Cafe China is a quaint yet buzzling Chinese establishment tucked in on the 5th Avenue of Manhattan. At the door, the bamboo leaves (photo above) wave along the mid-spring breeze. Inside, gold, blue (ceramic containers), light green wall paint, and maroon (wooden table) dominates the color palate, enhanced by the dim-lighting and hip music, creating a relaxing yet lively atmosphere. Gold feels royale, yet balanced by the elegant blue Chinese ceramic vase and containers.
A bar with culturally-rooted cocktails, such as Chungking Express (inspired by movies by film director Wong Kar-wai ) welcomes the guests. Looking up is a vintage bird cage; on the bar counter displays a 1930s gold-color dial-pad telephone, and a book shelf filled with aged books and a typewriter located on the right.
(photos of the cocktails)
(Photo shows a corner of the bar - the menu and business card cover are designed by Yiming. Don’t you want to try the food after looking at these images? )
2. Embedding Chinese elements - 1930s Shanghai ambience & Sichuan food
At Cafe China, guests live vicariously in 1930s Shanghai, a period of prosperity and multi-culture before the late 1930s war that destructed the region. During 1920s and 30s, citizens from all over the countries moved to Shanghai to live and work – creating China’s melting pot. Jewish group was very active in China then, and even now, Jewish people are known for their obsession with Chinese cuisine (See episode 5 Chinese New Year).
(Credit: Cafe China http://cafechinanyc.com/)
On the roughly painted light green walls, posters of girls wearing traditional Chinese dresses (qipao) can be spotted.
One poster at the back wall features famous Shanghai diva, Zhou Xuan, others include movie star Butterfly Wu . Besides posters, owner Yiming can be seen walking around the restaurant with her elegant qipao.
I love going into Cafe China - because I feel it is a world itself once I step into the door. which I later discovered in Cafe China’s statement on their website ( see screenshot below. “But Wait, this is not New York. The intricate patterns on the panel screens are clearly oriental… This is Shanghai. It is the place where the East is embracing the West for the first time.)
(Photo: business card cover designed by owner Yiming. screenshot from Cafe China website）
Some guests may be confused by why a restaurant with 1930s Shanghai decor carries the spicy and numbing Sichuan food. The old shanghai embodies the height of Chinese prosperity and a melting pot of the West meeting the East - a Shanghai dream (上海梦，上海情怀) for many. See above background of Cafe China by the owners.
To convey the historical context of multi-culture, Sichuan cuisine is spot-on as its century long history and culinary mastery known for the tingling sichuan peppercorns) that fits tastebuds of people from all walks of life. In an interview with Vogue.it, Yiming emphasized that Sichuan food
“represents the Chinese spirit at its finest. It’s a varied cuisine, filled with spices and chili, very popular everywhere, even in the north of the country, where I come from. And even though it has found a home in New York for over a decade, a handful of red chili peppers is certainly not enough to offer a real specialty”.
For background, Sichuan province is also the home to pandas, famed for good Chinese liquor, and beautiful scenery and girls.
After deciding on Sichuan food, Yiming and Xian recruited Sichuan native Chef He, who apprenticed under his mother who worked at a famous joint in Sichuan. Together, they reached an agreement (a business decision) to not use MSG in cooking and ensure highest food freshness. This rule poses even more challenges to deliver superior taste that can compete with other Sichuan restaurants that do use MSG. The team also hand-picked 80 dishes out of 300 sichuan dishes.
I was fortunate to meet Chef He and thus the photo below.
3. Details matter
Not only am I captivated by thethoughtfully crafted business card and take-out menu, the amount of details at Cafe China keeps surprising and pleasing the artist-side of me.
3.1 immersed in technology
Cafe China is well stocked with technology, which comes as no surprise given Xian’s technology background. Cafe China is one of the few michelin star restaurants in Manhattan to be found on Seamless and Grubhub (as of this week they merged!) .
In addition, a QR code is present for easy access on mobile phone. This decision signals an understanding of technology and mobile user trend.
3.2 economical and user-friendly containers - bowl-plate hybrid
Given the small table space and the Chinese custom of drinking soup with food, Yiming innovated by using ceramic bowl-plate hybrid, which can serve soup before a meal (see annotation below)
(photo featuring $9 lunch special of Sweet& Sour Baby Ribs & Shredded Pork in Garlic Sauce)
Yiming smiled when I mentioned to her the details I noticed, she felt some “fulfillment”.
3.3 the vintage type-writer for customer feedback
Gathering customer feedback is essential for any product or service. However, motivating customers to fill feedback can be an art itself. Cafe China has a vintage typewriter that customers can type up notes. For those of us who are so used to our smart devices, the touch of the keyboard and the sound of typing can be extremely memorable. By making the feedback process fun and refreshing, customers are not only willing to write comments, but also enjoying the process.
(Photo: vintage bookshelf with typewriter and displays. There are 2 other typewriters at the front and the back of the restaurant)
3.4 Other details
The bathroom is not without thoughtful decorations. Here behind the door is a 1930s Shanghai art deco poster for Harumoto Soap Factory.
Near the mirror is a poster about the importance of hand sanitation. This immediately brought me back to elementary school years when my peers and I were reading passages like this. Again, what is so special about Cafe China to me is I feel a sense of what is deeply rooted in me. I see vivid images of myself during my childhood years.
4. My Encounter with Cafe China - Why I write this post
I have a mole on my chin - growing up I was told it’s called 好吃痣 (people who love to eat). Indeed, I love exploring and discovering neighborhood gems. More importantly, with a pair of eyes born to search for delight in life, I pay particular attention to the decoration and details of any restaurant I visit.
The attention to detail and the efforts in ambience are signs of serious attitude of doing great things. I love writing stories that inspire me and make me a better person. The storyteller side of me grants me a curious mind and diligent habit of sharing stories of entrepreneurs of any kind.
After living in the U.S. for 7 years, I have grown tired of a menu full of brocoli with chicken and shrimp, or General Tsao’s chicken. (on a side note, “naked broccoli” cauliflower is more widely used in China) I have long craved for a Chinese establishment that put a bit more emphasis on the overall experience ( see Japanese restaurants for their branding).
Luckily, I discovered Cafe China - at first glance, the name “Cafe China” did not immediately capture my attention, but its Chinese name “Qing Cheng” did. Qing Cheng is part of the book title of a famous Shanghai author Zhang AiLing.
Not until I ordered Five Spice Beef on Seamless did I fall in love - a nostalgic experience that tapped into my emotion and memory of childhood. I felt being transported back to childhood when my dad often brought me to the Old Deng’s beef stand to have tendon slice take-outs. I have never tasted something so similar to home in the last 7 years. That’s my love at first taste with Cafe China.
(Photo: Left: Celery with savory tofu; Right: mouth watering chicken)
(Photo: steamed fish)
This has quickly turned into my favorite Chinese restaurant in Manhattan - one that embodies what my foodie friends from China and I have envisioned about bringing authentic Chinese cuisine experience to America. A Chinese restaurant that shifts its focus from cooking dishes that cater to Americans’ tastebud, to placing value on decor and ambience - an important component missing from many Chinese restaurants. The best sign for an authentic Chinese place is frequent appearance of native Chinese faces. As predicted, there is no shortage of native Chinese at Cafe China.
After contacting the owners via Cafe China Facebook page, I was fortunate to sit down with both Xian and Yiming to learn about their stories and vision.
5. Getting to know the owners
5.1 Xian Zhang - the aspiring Steve Jobs of Chinese cuisine
(Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times)
When Xian speaks, I feel energized by his immense passion and a focused vision to redefine Chinese cuisine in America. As a former technology consultant and risk manager in finance, Xian has a logical mind and strong execution skills, that are self-evident in the operations of Cafe China.
Xian is a restaurant owner, but he also reminds me of the entrepreneurs that I have interviewed before. Two words that stand out for me “serious” and “products”.
“Be serious about product - the eaters will get inspired by the spirit.”
Xian Zhang praised Jason Wang, the owner of Xi’An Famous Food (a popular western Chinese street food chain in NYC). Xi’an Famous Food offers “authentic fast food”. Besides authenticity of Chinese food, Xian also highlighted the chain’s serious attitude.
“Authenticity of food is not sufficient, but how SERIOUS are you about your product” Are you trying to do good thing ? Or are you trying to get by?”
Xian commented that Chinese food has no competition in the US. The chefs repeately cook the popular dishes that cater to Americans’ taste and thus do not feel the urge to innovate. While in China, as Xian pointed out new and refreshing dishes come out frequently.
Xian elaborated that there is a misunderstanding about American food - American does have its “cuisine” - Fusion. As a melting pot with food choices from all over the world, many people regard America as not having its own cuisine.
Xian gave an example of Mission Chinese - some people like and others may criticize. Xian notes “As long as they are serious about creating good food, it’s applaudable.If they can re-create General Tsao, am open minded. ” (Personally, I am a fan of Mission Chinese and only wish the wait time is not that long. I set my expectation right before dining there - I was not expecting authentic Chinese, but fusion. Mission Chinese fusion is different than many self-claimed fusion, in my opinion. )
When commenting on the price of dishes, Xian compared pricing based vs value based dishes. Xian opted for later - “Focus on creating good product. Price will come.” Most generic Chinese restaurants seem to fall into the “trap” of short term gain vs. long term vision.
Perhaps, short term is what appears practical for survival. However, people who do big things and whose vision is to fundamentally change something, their plan is more long term and requires constant innovation. Yes, it may require a bit more patience and Xian is prepared for that.
On the bright side, Xian is hopeful as he sees that a growing number of young Chinese are getting into cooking and culinary.
I hear Xian’s strong conviction, passion, and seriousness in building product, and an image emerged in my mind - Steve Jobs. Perhaps Xian will become the Steve Jobs of Chinese Food in the U.S.
Xian’s comments also remind me of the lessons I learned from tech entrepreneurs. For example, Jenn Hyman of Rent The Runway explained toa group of students from the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club that the biggest competitor of RTR is the inertia of people. Similarly, the biggest competition of Chinese food is the inertia away from staying agile and innovating.
5.2 Yiming Wang - a restaurateur with design and culture at heart
Born in Harbin - the “ice city” located in northern China, Yiming first studied in Singapore and received master in accounting in Chicago. Her finance degree prepared her well first in a corporate treasury role at New York Times, and later as an asset manager at several finance firms.
Deep at her heart, Yiming craves for an outlet and ultimately finance is not for this born designer whose passion aligns more with visualization, photography, and design. While still in finance, Yiming participated in an interior design competition and got featured in a book. With this vote of confidence, she ventured into interior design and continued for 1/2 years. It was not easy.
Yiming had ideas constantly popping up in her mind, and itched for a container to hold all the creativity. By coincidence, Cafe China turned out to be a physical embodiment of her multifold creative ideas. All the floor designs, decoration & displays, posters, the type of bowls are all part of it.
According to Yiming, she aims to create a “fresh” dining experience that has both fresh food supply & ingredients, but also a refreshing atmosphere. Few restaurant owners may be as focused on the “freshness” of food supply as Yiming - reflecting the perfectionist side of her. Setting up a high standard from the start helps build an enduring brand and enjoyable customer experience that travels far via word-of-mouth.
Advice for Young Professionals - “Experience is a plus, but momentum and passion are drivers. “
When asked about her advice for the aspiring restauranteur-to-be, Yming said humbly ”all the experiences add up and one needs to feel ready”.
At the same time, Yiming also highlighted the importance of courage and energy. She said it is important to not miss the momentum. 冲动很可贵. Even if one cannot pursue passion full time at first, it is crucial to find ways to stay engaged and true to who he/she is.
Thus, Yiming urges the young professionals to keep a wide range of interests - be multi-dimensional, but focused when delivering.
Last but not least, Yiming shares her motto that ” People don’t regret about what have been tried, instead they regret about what have not been tried”. 不会后悔你做过什么，而不是后悔没有做过。 Why not give a try if you hear an inner voice deep at heart?
Xian - Focus on good products
Yiming - Open a 2nd restaurant, more upscale. Yiming is also starting some projects in reviving qipao dresses as a fashion. On her next project, Yiming is optimistic “After you did it once, it becomes easier. “
This is my encounter with Cafe China and I hope you enjoyed my writings. I welcome any feedback and will continue to improve.
Xian and Yiming - thank you for creating Cafe China, a restaurant that has given me hope about Chinese food in America and brought me back to childhood years with its decoration and visuals.
Showing the Chile Who’s Boss (NYTimes) : http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/dining/reviews/cafe-china-in-midtown.html?pagewanted=all
Background the of the famous 1930 Shanghai poster Butterfly Wu:
This black and white movie advertisement poster features the most famous movie star of the time in Shanghai 1930. Her name is Butterfly Wu (“Hu Die” in putonghua romanization), and she was a true screen phenomenon. Born in Shanghai to a Cantonese family in 1908 (some sources say 1906), and raised in northern China, Butterfly was fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, which proved a career boon when the Chinese motion pictures learned to talk.When Butterfly made her debut in 1924, though, the cinema was still silent. She quickly became a star, and in 1928 signed a contract with Star. She starred in the first Chinese talking picture and went on to a career that embraced Cantonese and Mandarin movies in pre- and post-World War II Shanghai and Hong Kong