Meet Fung and Dave, two Americans who opened up a Chinese-American restaurant in Shanghai, where the cooks shake their heads at dishes like crab rangoon and orange chicken and the customers don’t understand the point of fortune cookies.
If you’re a Westerner, even if the closest you’ve got to Asian culture is stumbling across the Great Wall on Google Earth, you know that Chinese people don’t crack open fortune cookies after every meal. And as a Brit living in Shanghai since a year ago, I can confirm that rather than sweet and sour chicken, most Chinese people prefer a nice pile of crispy chicken feet.
In fact, as the wonderfully named former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee pointed out in her 2008 TED Talk, most Chinese people don’t even know what chop suey actually is. Since Chinese food first began being served in the USA in the 19th century, it has had generations to evolve and suit US tastes, so much so that it’s completely disconnected to traditional dishes served in China, both now and then.
“In China they like bones, but we had the staff spend hours deboning the chicken,” says Fung. “They were saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’
Given that most Chinese people wouldn’t recognize a plate of sticky orange chicken if it was splattered in their face, it seems an odd move to open an eatery almost exclusively serving American-style Chinese food in the middle of Shanghai. But that’s what New Yorker Fung Lam and California-born Dave Rossi have done in the shape of Fortune Cookie, which opened ten months ago.
Having failed in their bid to launch a salad-based venue in Shanghai two years ago, the pair, who had quit white collar jobs and moved to China to try to launch a venue together, were craving American-Chinese comfort food and couldn’t find it in China.
“When somebody feels like they’ve broken up with their girlfriend, they don’t think, I really want a salad,” says David. “We wanted orange chicken, something fried, and cold beer. We couldn’t find it in Shanghai, so we decided to do it ourselves. When we signed the lease we thought, If this bombs, at least we can eat the food we’ve been missing for six months.”
But it didn’t bomb. Fung’s family owns 15 Chinese restaurants in the US, the first of which his grandfather set up in Brooklyn in the 60s. Fung flew his dad, who is head chef of all 15 restaurants, over to Shanghai to train up the newly hired Chinese kitchen staff.
“In China they like bones, but we had the staff spend hours deboning the chicken,” says Fung. “They were saying, ‘Why are we doing this?’ We also got them to fill wontons with cheese. They were thinking, What is going on? Some of them were eating cream cheese for the first time. They were shaking their heads.”
When Fung transferred his family’s fantastic recipes (including a rich orange chicken, Kung Pao chicken, General Tso’s beef, and tofu chop suey) to China and served them alongside imported US beers, Western expats latched on quickly. But locals needed to be won over, too—a goal that was achieved when the pair started selling themselves as providing “American food” rather than “Chinese food with an American twist.”
That’s not to say that things haven’t got lost in translation sometimes. “The first response from locals is always about portion size,” says Dave. “They think they’re huge. We had two petite women come in early on when we opened and order seven dishes. After the second one came out they just started laughing. Also, people hadn’t seen the take-out boxes we use anywhere other than on The Big Bang Theory. Our Chinese assistant just said, “‘Oh, that’s what Sheldon eats.'”
In her talk, Jennifer 8. Lee showed a video of Chinese people looking bemused as they were shown fortune cookies for the first time. (Fortune cookies actually originated from Japan.) The responses have been similar over here: “A lot of our guests are opening their first fortune cookies,” says Dave. “Some of them eat the paper or put it in their purse thinking it’s a free gift.”
Fung believes that it is quality rather than novelty that’s earned them the respect of both locals and expats, though. “We’re not finding recipes on the internet, we’re doing this for real,” he says. “Every American-Chinese family has their own recipe for orange chicken, and this is something my grandfather passed on. This food tastes like it does in New York and is legit, with 40 years of history.”
As our interview wraps up, Dave hands me a fortune cookie. I break open to reveal a paper slip bearing a message so fitting, I suspect he may have set it up: If you build it, they will come.
Don’t expect to get such poignant messages here in the near future. Fung and Dave say they wrote all the fortunes themselves (initially to replace the first batch they ordered that turned out to be written in Dutch), but have run out of ideas. Now they use suggestions written by customers and left in a collection box by the door. “They’re always something ridiculously sexual,” says Dave. “Or phone numbers with ‘For a good time call…’ next to them. And, of course, a huge amount of pictures of penises.”