In Off the Menu: Asian America, we meet Chef Jonathan Wu and his business partner, Wilson Tang, who open a new Asian fusion restaurant in New York City. Fung Tu, the name of their restaurant, translated literally means “wind” and “earth” but means local or hometown flavors. The restaurant is critically acclaimed, receiving a two-star review in the New York Times in 2015. Wu’s thoughtfulness about cooking Asian-inspired cuisine—food that harks back to flavors from his childhood but completely original creations shows that there are many ways to be authentic. Below, Wu shares more about himself, his mom’s cooking, and the idea of “authenticity.”
Who or what are your food influences?
This biggest influence is my Mom’s cooking. I’m influenced by the cooking of relatives—the actual food and also the stories surrounding the food. I’m influenced by all the places that I’ve worked and by places that I’ve travelled. I’m influenced by people that I’ve worked with. My cooking is the sum of all of these experiences.
I gain inspiration by reading—especially historical Chinese cookbooks.
Did you grow up eating Asian food? What are some of your earliest food memories?
Yes, I grew up eating Asian food—home-cooked Chinese food. I remember my Mom’s mom, PoPo, bringing steamed flounder to the dinner table at her house in Queens. I remember PoPo’s cucumbers stuffed with minced pork. I remember seeing my Mom’s dad’s, Gong Gong’s, bottles of Beefeater Vodka with bits of Chinese herbs floating in it. This was all at the house in Queens in the early 80s.
My mom worked full time and still made us home-cooked meals. Beef and broccoli or romaine lettuce with oyster sauce. Stews of pig trotters, pressed tofu, rolled tofu sheet, hard boiled eggs, seasoned with soy sauce and star anise. Rice porridge with preserved mustard greens, 1,000 year-old eggs and pork floss. Steamed eggs made with chicken stock and soy sauce. Garlic chive turnovers, crisped up in a pan. Dumplings stuffed with ground pork, mung bean sprouts, spinach, and garlic chives. Stir-fried soy bean sprouts with bacon and black vinegar. Stir-fried greens with mashed fermented tofu. I was very lucky to eat well growing up—it is all because of my mom.
How old were you when you started cooking, or became interested in food and cooking?
I started cooking as a kid—I came home from school and was hungry and made food to eat. I’ve been interested in food and cooking from the beginning—I’ve always loved to eat. I was a big, round Buddha-shaped baby!
“Authenticity” is something that came up in the documentary—do you think about this as a chef?
My cooking in not authentic, in that I’m not exactingly recreating classic or canonical dishes. I do strongly believe that my cooking is authentic “in spirit.” Many times diners with familiarity with Chinese food tell me that a dish that they ate at Fung Tu brought them back to a memory from childhood, while at the same time felt completely new or different.
Do you hope to pass on these stories and traditions around food to the younger generation?
Yes, I hope to pass knowledge on to the younger generation. It’s a lot of fun teaching the cooks the recipes and telling them related backstories.
For more on Jonathan Wu, see his steamed fish recipe.