Peter Chang is not your typical big-name chef.
Despite the James Beard award nomination, the profiles in major publications and success from his multiple restaurants, he seems to prefer the anonymity found in the kitchen.
On Tuesday, the chef emerged multiple times from the back of his namesake Arlington restaurant to check on a table of invited guests, smiling as they gave him compliments. He struck an unassuming figure, wearing a black and red-striped shirt with black shorts and brown loafers.
And even though he’ll soon have an 8,000-square-foot flagship restaurant on East West Highway in downtown Bethesda to add to his resume, Chang said Tuesday he’s most excited about the opportunity to share his techniques with other chefs. Chang, who doesn’t speak English well, spoke through his business partner Gen Lee, who was translating Chang’s Mandarin Chinese for a reporter.
Chang said the goal of the restaurant is to preserve a style of Chinese cooking he learned while cooking on a riverboat in China that has been distorted through decades of fusion with other types of cuisine, especially in the United States.
“That’s the dream,” Chang said. “The culture has changed and I want other chefs to come to my restaurant to learn and exchange techniques.”
Lee has been helping Chang grow his restaurant business since meeting him nearly seven years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lee, who had worked for decades as a corporate chef—including a stint working for Donald Trump—had retired with his wife, Mary, to Charlottesville, where they owned a small sandwich shop. Next door, a Japanese restaurant had gone out of business and a Chinese man approached the Lees to ask about the property.
“Was it a good location? Were there other Chinese restaurants nearby?” the man asked.
It was Peter Chang.
Mary Lee took Chang to other restaurants that were for sale in the area, but ultimately Chang decided on the spot next to the Lees. Soon, Chang was explaining to Gen Lee behind their restaurants during downtime about what his goals and dreams were—mostly, Lee says, Chang wanted to bring authentic Chinese to America. The chef wanted people to like the spicy Sichuan dishes he created, many of which Lee says involve 10 to 15 spices and are flash-cooked for about a minute in a scorching hot wok.
After trying Chang’s food, Lee says he told the chef, “I will promise you, wherever you want to go, I will take you there.”
Since then the two have stampeded through the Mid-Atlantic dining scene, opening restaurants in Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Arlington and Rockville.
On Tuesday, Chang served his specialties—dry fried eggplant, crispy pork belly and bubble scallion pancakes to a group of Lee’s friends, who were visiting from Taiwan. Other courses, however, were items Chang doesn’t list on the menus of his half-dozen restaurants. There was a boiled fish mousse served with scallions; a whole tilapia topped with chili oil, carrots and peas; a curry hot pot filled with shrimp and scallops; and lightly fried eggplant stuffed with cheese.
Chang said he’s hoping to serve some of the dishes at the new Bethesda restaurant, which is scheduled to open sometime in the spring and will be Chang’s most ambitious—it will include a craft bar, modern Chinese design and be much larger in size than the others. Also, this restaurant will be financed only by Chang’s family, unlike the others which were financed by outside investors.
Lee said the chef plans to spend a significant amount—he wouldn’t provide an exact figure—building out the space on the ground floor of a glass-enclosed office building at 4500 East West Highway. A tasting menu is in the works for a private dining room in the new restaurant and Lee said it may be priced around $120 per person. That’s about half the price of chef Aaron Silverman’s new tasting menu at Pineapple and Pearls in Washington, D.C. Silverman, also the owner of Rose’s Luxury, recently beat out Chang and others for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Chang, who lives above his Rockville Town Square restaurant, is also planning to move to Bethesda once his lease expires in November. He said he’s looking forward to having a home restaurant as he currently drives more than 200 miles per day to check on his other restaurants.
Peter Chang inside his Rockville restaurant holding a plate of crispy pork belly. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Lee said they’re planning to hire a corporate chef to manage the other locations while Chang oversees the kitchen at the Bethesda restaurant, called Qijiang, which means flagship in Mandarin.
Change hopes the restaurant will provide him with the opportunity to stop traveling constantly—which he had done since coming to work at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., around 2001. The decision to flee the embassy a few years later sent him on a journey with his wife, Lisa, a pastry chef, and daughter, Lydia, that included working for years in anonymity at several restaurants in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. His travels during that time eventually shot him to fame when Calvin Trillin profiled him in the New Yorker. Now Lee says he and Chang are in negotiations with filmmakers to turn Trillin’s story into a movie.
Whether that happens or not, Chang said the new restaurant will help him achieve his dream of showcasing authentic Chinese food and sharing his love of it with diners and other chefs.
“I’m very, very happy to get where I am,” Chang said.