Ed Schoenfeld is a restaurateur with an expertise on Asian food. He shares some insights and gives us a preview of his new, upcoming project, Red Farm. Meet Ed tomorrow at Asian Fusion Confusion tomorrow at 1:45.
What does it mean for you to be a part of the Asian Feastival?
It’s a good form for me to talk about an area that I’m very knowledgeable about and share that with people in the community who have a mutual set of interests and concern. It’s a field that I’ve worked in for many years at this point, it’s kind of in my heart and it’s something that I love. I just find that simple. Just sharing knowledge and interacting with people who have similar tastes that they’re very knowledgeable and excited about.
You will be discussing Asian fusion at the festival. What is your definition of Asian fusion and why do you think there is such confusion regarding the term?
In some parts of Asia, fusion food has been the norm. In Hong Kong for years there has been a whole variety of cultures there. The Chinese diaspora has created all kinds of mixes of Chinese food. In Malaysia there is Malay Chinese food. In Brooklyn, you can find West Indian Chinese food, not to mention in the West Indies. You can’t say one is good or one is bad because it’s a mix of flavors, a mix of techniques. I don’t know how interesting the topic of fusion food is. I’m more interested in talking about how good someone’s cooking is. In reality, anyone who cooks on a regular basis has probably been influenced by a variety of experiences. Just because we say someone has been influenced by Indian food and Malaysian food and Cantonese food and we call that fusion – is that so different than someone who has been influenced by Spanish food and French food and Italian food? There’s a lot of crossover in this world, so I think the term fusion is useful only to a very limited extent. It describes a mixture of cuisines. After that, what’s being mixed? How well do they cook? Someone is a pretty terrific cook whether he’s cooking straight up Cantonese food or something else. I care about the technique they use to cook. How good is the texture? How good is the flavor? How can they make money selling it? Can it create excitement? All that factors into it when you look at it from a business point of view. Fusion is a word that describes a mixing of styles, but it can have so many meanings. It can be good or bad, and at a certain point it becomes a little on the silly side. We talk about NYC being a melting pot – do we have fusion food here? I have a more existential viewpoint. It is what it is.
As a well known NYC restaurateur, what is the main thing that you are looking for when you are creating and imagining new restaurants?
Success. Restaurants are businesses. They are complex living and breathing entities because of the people who have to work together. There’s a different group of people involved in putting together and creating a new restaurant and there’s a separate group of people involved in operating a restaurant. When I put projects together, I look to create a lot of synergy between the concept and the look and the cooking and the hospitality and the marketing. It’s when restaurants are thought through, coordinated on those levels and hit the market the right way that they are most successful. So when I work on a project, I work for different types of clients and different situations. Typically each client has a set of strings that they bring to the table. It varies greatly from one client to the next. Some are very experienced restaurateurs, but maybe don’t know very much about Asian food. I may have Asian clients who are the reverse of that – who know a great deal about the cuisine they’re selling and the business they’re in, but not so much about how to market it or how to create a restaurant that is effective in terms of creating sales and building regular business and repeat customers. It’s understanding what the client brings to the table and understanding what their needs are, kind of creatively approaching each individual situation and making an assessment of what the goal of the client is, what constitutes success in the particular situation, understanding what strengths the client has in place already, and what needs the client has that I can analyze and understand, and supply.
You’re known to have a vast knowledge of Chinese food. What do you enjoy most about Chinese food? Do you have a favorite Chinese dish? Is there any Chinese food that you do not like?
There are definitely foods that I don’t like. I’m about to go to Taiwan tomorrow, and one of the main street foods there, Stinky Doufu, I really don’t like that. It smells putrid to me. The smell is enough to get me walking two blocks away. The first time I encountered it, it made me ill to smell it. Not unlike maybe someone with a durian or something, it was really a bad taste. Not even a bad taste, the smell was overwhelming for me. I know how you could eat it, I haven’t eaten it in a long time. The smell is overwhelming. Fermented doufu is not something I really like.
As far as a favorite, it would be hard to say. I like many, many things. As years have gone by in the business and I’m exposed to more and more food, my taste tends to be simpler. There’s not one dish that I crave all the time – it’s more that I crave for terrific cooking. Of course, being interested in Chinese food, I’m interested in textures. I do like a variety of textures in my food. I appreciate a lot of the subtle textures or not so subtle – very pronounced textures that you encounter in Chinese cooking.
Out of the Chinese regional dishes, which one is your favorite?
I don’t have one. As I get older, I can’t eat spicy food as much, so I wouldn’t be as excited eating a Sichuan dinner. My mouth doesn’t handle it so well. To me, it’s really a question of who cooks well. These days, I’ve been working with dim sum chef Joe Ng. I set up a kitchen a few years ago called Chinatown Brasserie which is a pretty Caucasian restaurant in terms of clientele, but Joe’s dim sum work is superb.
What sorts of innovations do you think are happening in the Asian food scene?
In the Chinese food scene, things have changed in mainland China so much. Once we have the change in the daily life of the people there and the cultural revolution winding down – that period of history had a large effect on Chinese cooking. Not a great effect, I don’t think. The best chefs couldn’t practice for decades, if they remained in China. Recently, China has risen so dramatically and has grown richer, there’s a corresponding growth in the culinary scene. The amount of worldliness that Chinese chefs have experienced. Suddenly we have a generation of chefs that are cooking for Chinese customers that are excited about the food and proud of their cultural heritage. At the same time have possibly had a chance to travel or experience other cuisines from different parts of the world that they might not have done a generation earlier. There’s more variety of products being used and just less of a provincial view. As long ago as six or seven years ago when I was in Beijing, I saw chefs cooking with saffron and goose liver – kinds of foods they might not have normally integrated into their cooking, but that’s all happening now. The world is smaller. If you’re a chef in NYC, chances are you have to cook some Cantonese food and some Americanized and some authentic Sichuan food. It’s changed and different. There’s more crossover. You go into a Chinese restaurant and there are dishes that resemble Vietnamese Pho or you go into a Vietnamese restaurant and they have dishes that have a very heavy Chinese influence. The world is just a small place in that sense. I think in China it’s very exciting because there’s more wealth, and more investment in the restaurant business. There’s more disposable income, so there’s more money for people in the industry. Competition begets creativity. When there’s competition, suddenly there’s better product, better design. It’s an interesting cuisine.
Tell us more about your new project, “Red Farm”.
I’m opening up a new business in partnership with chef Joe Ng. Joe is going to continue to oversee the kitchen there. He and I are working full time on a business called Red Farm. In the immediate future, we’re opening up two locations. Our primary location that we operate is a small restaurant on Hudson street, a contemporary Asian restaurant rooted in Cantonese and Chinese cooking. It’s not striving to be authentic, nor is it shying away from fusion. We may have a mixture of cultures there. We’re just interested in serving very delicious, very sensible, seasonable, sustainable Asian food made with better quality ingredients – especially made with Joe’s superior technique. The idea is just to make delicious and flavorful food. Red Farm is going to be a small restaurant that Joe is going to cook in full time. It’s going to feature some of Joe’s strengths which clearly would be dim sum and dumpling production. I think you’re going to find some really fun stuff there. It’s going to be open in the middle of November.
Interviewed by Jin Li of MSG Food Blog.