Bringing the Heat: Chef Peter Chang

Squire Fox
by Dean King - December 2012/January 2013

The South's roving master of real Chinese has finally found a home 

When I ask Peter Chang, the wiry forty-nine-year-old—now famous—Chinese chef, about peppers, and his business partner, Gen Lee, a retired Chinese chef with an auspicious Southern name, translates, a smile comes to Chang’s calm face and crow’s feet form around his eyes. This is a question he likes.

We are sitting in his new restaurant, Peter Chang China Café, in Richmond, Virginia, and I have just devoured the staff lunch—asparagus and the chicken parts that won’t be served later in a delicious brown sauce—as well as some of my favorite Chang dishes: flaky fried bamboo fish and dry-fried eggplant. Both are rubbed in cumin, specked with fiery hot red peppers, and served with cooling cilantro. Chang barks out some orders in Mandarin, and soon peppers start coming my way from the kitchen. There are Thai peppers, Thai pickled green chiles in brine, Korean hot peppers, dried prickly ash, hot pepper powder, and a ten-by-sixteen-inch shrink-wrapped brick of Szechuan peppers, which are used in oils and pastes mixed with tomatoes. As if this were not enough, Lee, who does the hiring, firing, and shopping, adds that they go through eighty pounds of jalapeños a month. 

Chang is a master of peppers, no matter where they come from. He is also arguably the best Chinese chef in America and without a doubt the most intriguing one. For the better part of a decade, he crisscrossed the South, like an itinerant preacher seeding his gospel of scorching Szechuan fare. Chang would show up at a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, hang his shingle on the wall, and transform the place almost overnight into, well, a madhouse. Diners came from far and wide, causing traffic jams in strip-mall parking lots and long lines out the door. When it all got too crazy, he and his family would disappear, often in the middle of the night.

Now Chang is set to become a permanent fixture of the South, a place where he feels comfortable. “Southern people are friendly and have similar taste buds to the Chinese,” says the chef, who is a fan of spicy Southern staples like blackened catfish and peppery barbecue. He has teamed up with Lee to open three restaurants in Virginia—Peter Chang’s China Grill, in Charlottesville, the Peter Chang China Café in Richmond, and, most recently, another one in Williamsburg. The pair have an additional restaurant on the drawing board—a flagship in downtown Richmond—but their sights are set even higher: They want to go national. 

Lee believes if anyone can do that, it is Chang. “Peter’s the best Chinese chef anywhere,” he says. And he’s hardly the only convert. “He throws all these numbing chiles, incredible spices, and crazy heat at you, and you can still taste the flavor profile of the food,” says Walter Bundy, the executive chef at Richmond’s Lemaire restaurant, at the Jefferson Hotel. “It’s fantastic. I’m willing to try anything in his hands.”

Chang and his wife, Lisa, also a chef, and their then thirteen-year-old daughter, Lydia, arrived in the United States in 2001, when Chang was posted for two years as the private chef to the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C. His dizzying career since then took him from Fairfax and Alexandria in Northern Virginia to Marietta, Georgia. Stops in Knoxville, Charlottesville, and Atlanta followed. 

It was during a brief stint in 2010 at a place called Taste of China, in Charlottesville, that Chang met his future partner. Taste of China sat next to a Li’l Dino Subs, which happened to be run by Lee, who had retired to Charlottes-
ville in 2004. Trained at a culinary school in Taiwan, Lee, who is sixty-five, had moved to the United States in 1972 before going on to work as a corporate chef for AIG, Donald Trump, and Orion Pictures. He and his wife, Mary, ran the Li’l Dino just to stay busy.

Lisa, who creates the appetizers and seasonal specials for Chang, began taking Mary Lee bowls of tofu skin, her favorite. The couples grew close, and Lee became like a horse whisperer to Chang, the wild stallion. Or as the garrulous Lee, who happily defers to Chang as the superior chef, likes to put it, “He is Elvis Presley, and I am the Colonel.”