It's a familiar story: A small boy becomes obsessed at a young age, then rises through the ranks to become a world-class chef. And indeed, that's what happened to Feng – when he left China he was at the top of his career. Now, seven years later, he's a cook at a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall in suburban Atlanta.
Despite its appearance, Tasty China is not an average Chinese restaurant. Owner Yang Da He planned since he took over the business in mid-2006 to bring authentic and unbridled flavors of Szechuan cuisine to Atlanta. "I thought that Americans were ready for real Chinese food, real Szechuan food," Yang says. And so he sought out the best Szechuan cooks. With the promise of allowing these chefs the opportunity to cook their true cuisine with few restrictions and no dumbing down, Yang was able to get the very best talent. Feng was recommended to Yang through some mutual friends in mainland China who remembered his cooking and knew him to be living in the United States.
Feng's career began when, at age 21, he got a job at one of the best restaurants in Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan province. "I learned from the back of the kitchen; I did everything," he says. But soon, his bosses saw he had inherent talent and sent him to a professional cooking school. After completing his education, he eventually rose to the position of chef at one of Chengdu's five-star restaurants.
It's hard to understand why Feng, a chef who had been at the top of his career in China, would want to live in America in relative anonymity, and he admits that this country is not at all what he expected. When I asked him why he came, he said, "I think in the world every other culture thinks America is the best. I wanted to learn the American culture and find out if Americans could take Chinese food seriously." What he found was a culture that thought of Chinese food primarily in terms of takeout and buffets. "But after I really worked here and showed my talent, I found I could make a life of it."
Tasty China is certainly being taken seriously by the Atlanta food world. Despite having recently lost chef Peter Chang, who gained notoriety in the DC area for his unapologetically bold Szechuan cooking, the restaurant has continued to thrive, mainly because Yang stocked his kitchen with every talented Szechuan cook he could find.
Feng is only one in a continually changing cast of cooks who contribute to the menu and its 140-plus dishes. It seems to have paid off. Tasty China has become a destination both for American food enthusiasts and for the Chinese population.
For the uninitiated, eating at Tasty China can be revelatory. Dishes can be startlingly spicy, but also balanced. The use of Szechuan peppercorns, which actually numb the tongue, adds to the exotic nature of the food, as do unthinkable amounts of cilantro, garlic and chili peppers.
At one point during my interview with Feng, the translator told me, "I'm Chinese; I lived in China for 20 years. When I come here to eat I close my eyes, taste the food and I feel like I'm at home."
Feng explains what makes Szechuan cooking so unique. "The Northern people have different tastes because of the weather, hills, the water, the environment. Szechuan food is very famous in China because the food is not only hot or spicy, it has that numbing, that refresh, that special type of taste. It's really different from any other type of Chinese food." He believes that someday Chinese cuisine will have the same respect in America that French or Italian food has now.
Feng admits he misses China. His family is still there, although relatives do come to visit occasionally. When I ask him if he'll stay in the United States, he replies, "It's hard to say." But he takes his job here, of introducing people to his native cuisine, seriously. "Every single dish I put my heart, mind, myself into. I use my unique technical skill to make it special for every guest who walks in. They can tell it's real Chinese food."
Tasty China's Chinese Basil Chicken
1 1/2 cups skinned boneless chicken breasts, cut into square-inch pieces
1/8 cup basil
1/4 cup leeks, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2-3 green scallions, chopped
1/4 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
1/2 tablespoon fresh garlic, chopped
1/4 tablespoon salt
1/4 tablespoon soy sauce
1/8 tablespoon MSG
Heat vegetable oil to 275 degrees. Stir-fry green scallions, ginger and garlic until fragrant and tender but not brown or burnt. Add leeks; stir-fry about 1-2 minutes. Add chicken breast and basil, and stir-fry until the chicken is cooked thoroughly. Add soy sauce, salt and MSG. Stir-fry an additional 30 seconds to mix thoroughly.
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