I just had the opportunity to be interviewed for an upcoming documentary series on the current state of Chinese cuisine in North America titled "The Way of the Wok." This six part series is being produced by Lucent Media of Canada, in conjunction with New Tang Dynasty, a Chinese language television network in Canada. The producer hopes to also distribute the series also to public television stations in the US and Canada. The six part series consists of an overview of Chinese food in North America, and separate shows on what are sometimes referred to as the five great cuisines of China--Cantonese, Huiyang, Shandong, Dongbei and Sichuan, and their current status in North America.
Like other interview requests, this one was attributed to the publicity I've received as the 6,000 Chinese restaurant diner. In this regard, I really didn't read the fine print about the program's content until I arrived at the filming site, Chua Ren Bai Wei Restaurant, a newly opened restaurant in Temple City on the site of the former Beijing Duck House. When I arrived there the film crew had also just arrived as was setting up. It turns out there were 6 of them--the production assistant Carmen Poon, who was my contact, the producer Theresa Kowall-Shipp, the hostess Christine Cushing, a well known Canadian chef who had her own self-named cooking show on Food TV Canada, two cameramen and one sound technician. At this point in time I started to panic a little, particularly when I heard them talking about "Lu" cuisine which I never heard of, and when I realized that the series was focused on the intricacies of Chinese regional cuisines, which as a non-foodie I never paid particular attention to. Fortunately it took them 45 minutes to set up, so I used the time to do a little background reading on my Blackberry on regional cuisines. In addition I had also brought a print-out of my restaurant list for potential use as a prop, so while they were setting up I went to my car to check the list for when the various regional cuisines made their first appearance in the US.
As it turns out, we shot three separate segments for the show, for the overview of Chinese food in North America, on Shandong cuisine (which includes Peking Duck and which is a specialty of the restaurant) and on Sichuan cuisine, which is the main focus of Chua Ren Bai Wei. We started with the overview segment and immediately Christine started asking about my restaurant list, and my motivation in visiting Chinese restaurants and in keeping the list. I talked about my initial interest in the budding ethnic studies movement of the late 1960s and how I became fascinated by the tale of Chinese American immigrants, and how visiting Chinese restaurants in my travels gave me the chance to see Chinese American communities wherever I traveled. I mentioned how two decades later going to work for a national employer and attending meetings all around the country really accelerated my ability to explore Chinese restaurants. A well placed leading question enabled me to segue into the fact that Chinese Americans and Chinese food in the US and Canada was exclusively Toishanese from 1850 until the 1960s, so what was known as Chinese food in North America during that period was really an accident of history, geography, and the enactment of Chinese exclusion laws that produced a fairly homogenous Chinese immigrant community from a single, small rural area of China. This resulted in a narrow subset of Chinese dishes to proliferate in the US and Canada, that would be unrecognizable by most residents of China. I altered my usual example to say it was as if all the Canadians in China were from some small town in Canada, where Christine volunteered that would be like if a particular obscure Canadian dish were found all over China.
We then went into the changing face of Chinese food in North America where Cantonese food is in decline, at least in relative numbers, as new Chinese restaurants are heavily dominated by Sichuan, Shandong and Northeastern styles reflecting the current immigration patterns and the rise of wealthy Chinese from these regions who are making their presence felt locally. I also commented on the blurring of regional lines in San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants due to two separate factors. One was the existing infrastructure of popular dishes, demonstrated by the very restaurant we were eating at, which while self-described as a Sichuan restaurant, also served Peking Duck and Dongbei dishes that are currently popular in the community. I also pointed out the existence of the American born "626 generation" which is much more open to regional variations than their foreign born parents which further encourages mixed regional cuisine Chinese restaurants.
I also was able to disclaim early on that I am not a foodie, pointing not only to not photographing my meals, but also avoiding large categories of dishes for dietary and personal taste reasons, and that I will even try reputedly bad restaurants just to see for myself. This disclaimer was helpful when later asked specific questions dealing with the different cuisines (Are there 8 Chinese or 5 Chinese cuisines? I said 8 just because I noticed Hunan and Fujian missing from their list. What are the popular Shandong dishes in Los Angeles? What spices are used in Sichuan cooking?) Fortunately I didn't have to pass completely on any question, but I think it made my short answers more acceptable.
The second segment focused on Shandong style food, with two pre-ordered dishes served to us, Peking Duck and braised sea cucumber. Christine asked me whether Peking Duck or Beijing Duck was the proper terminology. I said even though the name of the city officially changed decades ago, Peking Duck is still the more common usage. I also pointed out that there are East Coast and West Coast versions (like rap and the Bristol Stomp) with mantou buns used on the West Coast, pancake crepes on the East Coast. When asked about Peking Duck in China, I said they used crepes, but what I had there wasn't very good because I went with a tour group. Also when asked about the best Peking Duck I've eaten, I replied M Y China in San Francisco. Christine was happy because she knows Martin Yan and their next filming stop is San Francisco so they'll stop by there. The scene of us eating the Peking Duck was staged in that they knew I don't use chopsticks but that's all the provided me. So when Christine said to dig in I had to say I needed a fork. During the shoot the cameraman said he liked me because I was funny. I also used the sea cucumber dish to interject how texture is so important in Chinese food, in contrast to other cuisines.
The third segment dealt with Sichuan style food. This time they had us go through the restaurant menu to choose dishes. I think it was part of the plan to have me look at the menu of a restaurant that I had not eaten at previously, as after setting the venue they asked me not to go there until the interview. I had previously mentioned in a prior segment that I had typical Cantonese taste buds and couldn't take typical spicy Sichuan dishes. The restaurant's menu did not indicate how spicy individual dishes were, and the producer wanted to focus, obviously, on Sichuan dishes, so Carmen had the restaurant prepare non-spicy Sichuan dishes, double cooked pork and pork with garlic sauce. We also ordered pork and shrimp dumplings to demonstrate how today's Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles overlap cuisines.
The conversation turned to the extent to which and whether non-Chinese were beginning to appreciate authentic Sichuan (and other regional) cuisines. I gave a two part answer--when foodies talk there are a fair number of non-Chinese who seek out and appreciate these cuisines, but if you walk into a typical San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurant you will see few if any non-Asian diners at any point in time, showing what a small percentage of non-Chinese diners seek out authentic Chinese food.. I then pointed out Meizhou Gongpo's first US branch in Century City, which is largely authentic, but where they have toned down the spice level for the Westsiders. This led Christine to comment how more pragmatic Chinese chefs seem to be compared to Western chefs who are more likely to stubbornly stick to doing things the way they want. I replied that's because for most Chinese restauranteurs, it's a business proposition.
After the interview they had me film some filler scenes. They moved me and the food to a table by the window and filmed me eating. They had me go down the street, then walk into the restaurant, stop to peruse the menu, then walk all the way in. They gave me a dummy bill to pay. I ad libbed by asking the cashier whether they took credit cards.
All in all it was a pleasant experience. It took only about 3 hours of time, which was so much more efficient than the 4 hours it took to get 2 minutes of air time on KCET. There were no retakes, just pauses where the producer suggested an additional line of questioning. Since we were there from about 2 pm to 5 pm, there weren't a lot of other customers there. But I did notice one restaurant employee, and later one diner, head in our direction to take their own smartphone or iPad shots of the festivities. I guess the diner mistakenly thought I was somebody notable. The project will be complete in spring, and hopefully they can get English language distribution in Canada and the US.