When Philip Chiang was a young man, his mother opened an upscale Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, called the Mandarin. Within just a few years, she was the most famous Chinese restaurateur in the city, finally expanding to Beverly Hills as well.
“I had finished art school in LA and things were slow in the art field, so I took over operations at the Mandarin,” says the cofounder of American-Chinese restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s and the man behind the brand. Little did he know it would change his destiny: “I caught the restaurant bug.”
The rest, as they say, is history. “I then opened my own, more casual restaurant called Mandarette, where we simplified Chinese food and attracted the younger crowds. We took out the filler, made it cleaner and fresher, with lots of small plates. This is where I met Paul Fleming, we partnered and opened P.F. Chang’s in 1993.”
With an outlet in the Central Kitchens on Level G at The Galleria Al Maryah, Chiang tells us about his relationship with food:
What’s your earliest food memory?
My mother, Cecilia Chiang, was a fantastic cook and many of the dishes at P.F. Chang’s today are inspired by her original recipes and style of cooking. Food actually was a strong connection between us; ever since I was a child, I enjoyed watching her cook and enjoyed tasting new dishes.
Where I grew up in Japan, the Lunar New Year was always a special occasion. I have fond memories of all the children making dumplings together and celebrating with a three-day hometown feast where we ate hearty home-cooked meals together.
Professional kitchens are renowned as stressful environments. How do you handle the pressure?
It does get very busy in the kitchen and our style of cooking is labour-intensive. We are very particular about using traditional methods of cooking, where each dish is prepared from scratch, completely handmade and cooked in a wok. When we say that everything is cooked from scratch, we mean that everything you eat at P.F. Chang's is made to order — the dim sums are hand-rolled every single day, and the meats and vegetables are painstakingly sliced and chopped by hand every day, in each one of our restaurants.
Pressure is a pleasure — prep well and do it with a smile. It is kind of meditative. As long as you love your job and the people around you, you’ll be okay.
How often do you cook outside the workplace?
I actually don’t cook a lot. And I never cook Asian food at home because it requires a lot of preparation and particular tools. I eat out a lot and I am lucky because Los Angeles, where I used to live, and now Tokyo both offer cuisines from all over the world, so I enjoy many varied cuisines and I enjoy trying new dishes.
Gathering around food is sacred. It strengthens ties; creates beautiful memories. The act of making a nutritious and delicious meal for your loved ones is an often-overlooked form of love.
What’s the best restaurant you’ve eaten at and what made it memorable?
That’s one difficult question… But one restaurant I would name would be Botin in Madrid, the world’s oldest restaurant.
Conversely, what would you never eat again?
I am quite adventurous when it comes to food. I cannot think of something now and name it without offending anyone.
What’s your top life hack for the layman in the kitchen?
Don’t use more than three ingredients. Keep it simple and do the simple things really well.
What’s your one indispensable kitchen implement? The wok. We’re one of the very few restaurants that still use the traditional method of wok cooking, ever since we started in 1993. We use the same method across all of our branches globally even today, and this ensures consistency. Some of the staples on our menu have been there since we started out, and they can only taste the same if cooked in a wok.
What new trends are you seeing? We’re seeing a lot of people opt for healthier lifestyles, and though we don’t try to incorporate trends into our menus, we are one of the few restaurant chains worldwide that have such excellence in food prepping and making. All our food at P.F. Chang’s is freshly prepped, cooked to order with a precision like no other. In this way, we can take care of any specification that a guest might have — taste preferences, food restrictions or any allergies, etc. We also have vegetarian and healthier choices, like brown rice.
Who’d you invite to your ideal dinner table? The Dalai Lama… For me, it is anyone who loves to gather around food and discuss art and culture.
If you could choose your final meal, what would it be? Sashimi fresh from a sailor’s rack. I love street food.
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