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Fortune Cookie: A Reversal of Fortune

Talking with Fung Lam and David Rossi, the guys behind new restaurant Fortune Cookie. Chinese food with American characteristics inside.
2013-07-24 18:17:02

Some would say the Chinese food that they eat in the U.S. isn't truly Chinese. With its thick, sweet sauces, boneless meats and penchant for all things batter-fried it is, indeed, as American as an expanding waistline. Still, there is something about this cuisine that is so seemingly inseparable from the Chinese immigrant experience in America that it's short-sighted to label it "un-Chinese." Follow the "authenticity" argument far back enough and you'll eventually realize that every recipe is borrowed, every ingredient shared. It's why the Italians eat pasta. It's why Americans eat pizza. It's why the English eat curry. Even Chinese food owes some of its more distinctive dishes to outside influence. Sichuan, after all, would never have had chilies if it weren't for the Columbian exchange. American Chinese cuisine is only one more chapter in the story of Chinese cuisine as it has migrated out of China. But Fung Lam and David Rossi of recently-opened Fortune Cookie are bringing it back to China.

A first-generation American, Fung Lam was born in New York City. His father, a native of Fujian, and his mother, a native of Hong Kong, have been in the Chinese restaurant business for 40 years, opening take-away counters and sit down restaurants everywhere from Brooklyn and New Jersey to Texas and Arizona. He was surrounded by it. By the time he was old enough to see over the cash register he would help out in his father's restaurant, Kum Kau Kitchen in Brooklyn, while all of his other friends were out at keggers.

In spite of this his father never wanted him to go into the restaurant industry. "My parents were always at the restaurant," he says. "They would work seriously long hours. I would actually never see them... and they told us over and over: 'Do not. Do not. Do not open a restaurant. It's just too hard."

He didn't listen. He ultimately ended up at Cornell University's school of hotel management, where he and Rossi became fast friends. After getting their degrees, they parted ways with a handshake agreement to eventually open a restaurant together.

Lam got hired to work as a manager for Houston's, a restaurant chain infamous for its almost militaristic training regimen: six months of every possible menial task in the restaurant -- from the dish pit and to the fry vat -- before you could even don a necktie and a name tag.

Rossi moved on to Nevada where he worked as a guest relations manager in a casino. In a place where large quantities of money and alcohol flow so freely this tends to be a 24-hour gig. So they put him up in a room connected to the lobby. "I was the guy who you came to when something went wrong at 3am," he tells me. "I had two queen beds. I slept in one, and I always had a change of clothes on the other. I kept my hair cut really short, so I wouldn't have to worry about fixing my hair." That way he could be dressed, sans bedhead, smile on his face and ready to deal to a disgruntled guest in two minutes flat. True to the spirit of a casino, his staff used to bet on his sleeping positions judging from the slopes and contours of his hair.

Jump cut to three and a half years later. Lam phoned up Rossi, ready to move onto a new project together. Without a second thought, Rossi put in his notice. The original plan was Phoenix, Arizona, a city named after a bird that, coincidentally, plays prominently in Chinese mythology. Their first restaurant idea was something they had cooked up while at Cornell, a dim sum-tapas crossover.

But after a two-week holiday in China Lam and Rossi had an abrupt change in plans. They saw the juggernaut economy in action. "Dave took one look at all of the cranes in the sky out here," Lam says, "and he's like 'Fung, I've got a crazy idea. Why don't we ditch Phoenix and open up something out here?'" Rossi, whose family is in the construction industry, was amazed. "I was, like, 'You just don't see this anywhere!'" It took some coaxing, but Lam was finally on board.

The idea of Western-style Asian cuisine just seemed like an obvious non-starter. So they scrapped it. Then they batted a few ideas about before Lam finally noticed an opportunity in the market. They had been fueling their gym regimens with Wagas, Element Fresh and Organic Kitchen. Before long, Lam thought to himself, "There's got to be more than just this, or at least there is room for more." So they came up with an idea -- wait for it -- "Shanghai's first healthy eatery / salad bar." Unfortunately, as we all know now, they weren't the only ones. "We were a month or two late on a good idea," says Rossi. Back to square one.

"After feeling down and out and totally burned, the one thing I was missing was just stuffing my face with lo mein and chicken and broccoli, and I was a half a world away from any of that," says Lam. "That's when it occurred to me that maybe we should just go back to something like the idea that we rejected in the first place."

American-style Chinese food in, of all places, China. It was a risky proposition to say the least. It's been tried here before at places like the short-lived Henry's Brewery & Grill, but it played second fiddle to the beer they brewed there. Fields offers a limited menu, but it's not the grocery delivery service's main event.

Many Chinese people in America will tell you that what you get in a Chinese restaurant there bears little resemblance to what they eat in their own homes. Restaurants in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco are even known to offer separate menus featuring more familiar dishes for their Chinese clientele. Purists label it as junk food, an image further reinforced by fast food joints like Panda Express and the cheap all-you-can-eat buffets that you see in every suburban strip mall in America.

As an American who's come to love the food in China, I've found myself taking sides with this camp over the years, too. But I have to admit, the few dishes I've had at Fortune Cookie just might convert me. There is something so irresistibly comforting about sinking your chopsticks into a mound of orange chicken here. Its tender chunks of chicken breast, slivers of bittersweet dried orange peel and chopped dried chilies all glistening in a fragrant, amber-colored glaze. And I'd almost forgotten how simple and satisfying a pleasure beef and broccoli can be. Even the white cardboard carry-out boxes bearing the words "Thank You" in that kitschy chopsticks font have a profound nostalgia-inducing effect. I've seen what it does to other diners here, too. They're Americans (presumably). Treating their homesickness in China. With Chinese food.

Ironically, Lam and Rossi tell me that they've encountered a lot of the same obstacles that any other restaurant trying to serve "authentic" foreign cuisine have to contend with here. Some of the basic building blocks of the menu were problematic at the outset. They were running menu trials in the kitchen for weeks, doing everything by the book, but nothing was cooking to the right consistency, Lam tells me. Colors and textures were off. "I finally discovered that our cooks were using wheat starch instead of corn starch. They all refer to it by the same name here: fen, or powder." Their cooks made no distinction. But, apparently it makes all the difference in the world.

Sourcing ingredients caused another stumble out of the gate. Heinz ketchup, for instance, is necessary for several sauces. Go figure. The cream cheese in the crab Rangoon is Philadelphia brand. "It doesn't taste right with other brands we've tried," he insists. They have to buy Mott's brand applesauce off the shelves at City Shop at full retail price, just like everyone else. They wouldn't delve much deeper into their sauces with me, incidentally. They're all jealously-guarded recipes kept within the family (Fung's father made an unprecedented exception for Rossi). That's a time-honored Chinese chef tradition if I ever saw one. Lam tells me that several times a week, they have to build the sauce bases out of view of any kitchen staff.

Of course, seeking approval from a few homesick Americans is one thing. Appealing to the wider Shanghainese market is entirely another. In the end that's all that really counts. I think there's potential. Shanghainese tastes are more similar to Americans' than they'd probably like to admit. Don't believe me? Look no further than the treacly, calorie-rich sauce in a pot of hongshao rou or the savory, finger-licking goodness of cong you bing. I'm not saying it'll be easy. Crab Rangoon will be a hard sell. Imagine trying to explain to the uninitiated why a crab dish contains little, if any, crab meat, is named after a city that's not even in China and why its key ingredient is cream cheese.

Still, when I ask if they've received any complaints from local patrons, Lam can only think of one so far: "They tell me the portions are too big." I suppose there are worse grievances.

For a listing of Fortune Coookie click here