Stainless steel was everywhere. The whirring of the industrial refrigerator produced a white noise, only broken by the Ovaltine machine’s intermittent grinding fan and the short snippets of conversation between coworkers. Fresh dumplings were being stuffed and rolled in the far back of the kitchen. At the front, papers and discarded tasting dishes surrounded Doron Wong while he worked on the final preparations for the launch of Northern Tiger, his new restaurant.
Located across the street from 1 World Trade Center in New York’s newest mall, Brookfield Place, Northern Tiger is finally set to open in Mid-March after Department of Building delays caused the original opening date in November to be postponed. But Doron Wong, executive chef and owner of the Northern Tiger, is undaunted. His mission is to produce really good food in a very fast environment and expects to educate New Yorkers about Chinese cuisine in the process.
“We’re trying to be more trendsetters than trend followers,” Wong said. He plans to start with staple dishes, like dumplings, to drive interest in the restaurant, then evolve to include new dishes that are more quintessentially Chinese. “I think that a very important part of what we do is introduce new things to people and have them experience it in a pleasurable way.”
Wong and his business partner, Erika Chou, started their venture to introduce new kinds of Chinese cuisine to New Yorkers in SoHo’s Yunnan Kitchen. Under the collaboration of Chou as owner and Wong as head chef, Yunnan Kitchen found success by focusing on the foods from the Yunnan Provence in China. Yunnan Kitchen has received four stars from New York Magazine, a one-star review from The New York Times and two consecutive years of the Michelin Bib Gourmand. It has been open for about three years, which in an industry where most restaurants barely last two years, is an exciting feat. This is especially true for a restaurant with such a focused style of cooking.
“Yunnan cooking is kind of like the California cuisine of China,” Wong said, describing the food as lighter and cleaner than the Cantonese style of cooking mostly present in Chinatown. Wong said that the tendency toward Cantonese cooking has to do with trends in immigration. “Before World War II, there were a lot of Cantonese people coming and that’s why you see a lot of Chinese-American food, what I call the ghetto Chinese takeout,” Wong said, smiling. “It’s very Cantonese-style with American flairs. Now it’s different. You have the mainlanders coming in.” Wong plans to capitalize on this change.
Wong’s new restaurant, Northern Tiger, will have a more vague focus on cuisine from Northern China. As executive chef and part-owner, Wong plans on introducing the regions flour and grain based foods, cuisine that many New Yorkers have never before been introduced, like Chinese pasta.
Wong, 39, is a first-generation American, born in Boston to two Chinese parents. His mother is an immigrant from Hong Kong and his father, while born in the United States, lived in China from the time he was an infant until he was 17-years-old. Wong considers himself a first-generation American because of his father’s childhood in China and felt such a strong connection to his Chinese heritage that he chose to focus his talents on Eastern cooking techniques.
“I don’t think my family wanted me to cook,” Wong said with a laugh. “Like every other Chinese family they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, things that are supposed to make money. But my father always told me: you have to do what you want to do in order to do well at it. He always supported me regardless of what I did.”
His cousin, Jess Wong, lives in New York and has kept up with Doron’s successes. She agrees with him about the family’s perception of his profession. “I do think that being a chef is looked down on in our family,” she said. “It’s not one of the mainstream jobs that people of the Chinese culture would want their kids to do.” But she said the family is still very proud of his accomplishments. “He’s like a big time chef right now. In the past year, he’s gained a lot of fame in the chef world,” she said.
Doron Wong has always been interested in food. When he got a part-time job answering phones at a pizza shop at 14-years-old, he became intensely curious about the chemistry of cooking. Following his passion, Wong attended Newbury College for culinary school. There, he learned Western culinary techniques, which largely descend from France. After graduation, Wong moved to New York to work in a more challenging environment.
In New York, he started off working under celebrity chef David Burke, who Wong considers to be “one of the hardest chefs ever.” In Burke’s kitchen, Wong learned discipline. “I actually struggled for the first couple of months because I couldn’t keep up,” Wong said. “The pace was different. Coming into New York, it was like you’re fighting every day just to keep up and after a while you get a little better at it, but at the same time you know that the person next to you could be a famous chef one day. So you just kept on going.”
Despite the difficult environment, Wong excelled. David Burke spoke highly of Wong’s abilities as a chef in a LinkedIn recommendation. “Doron Wong worked for me for many, many years,” wrote Burke. “I highly recommend him both in a culinary capacity as well as a management capacity. He is extremely talented and I am proud to have worked with him.”
But Wong always felt a nagging need to understand the food from his family’s culture. So he left Burke’s apprenticeship and travelled to China to study Eastern cuisine in a real, authentic way. He worked in Hong Kong for a year and then travelled to Singapore where he met Susur Lee, who became his mentor for Eastern techniques. The hot sticky climate of Singapore infused that Eastern style of cooking, and Wong learned techniques that were completely dissident from the ones he learned in culinary school. But while he loved the four years he spent in Asia, he did face difficulties as an American.
“I had a yellow face but I was the kid from America,” Wong said. “A lot of the tickets were in Chinese and I was trying to understand, but at the same time cook.” The language barrier was the most difficult part of assimilating to the work experience for Wong. “Chinese is normal to me,” he said. “I can listen to it, but there’s more advanced types of Chinese. There’s slang that I don’t understand and when they used to talk, it was all slang. That was tough for me.” Reflecting upon his identity as a Chinese-American, Wong wishes he knew more about Chinese culture and doesn’t want his son, now two-years-old, to be limited by language barriers. Wong expects to send his son to travel overseas and learn about China first-hand, like he and his father had.
Overall, while his experience in Asia reaffirmed his passion for Chinese inspired cuisine, his favorite part was living with his grandmother in Hong Kong.
“Every morning she would go shopping because their refrigerators were really small,” Wong said. “So they bought what they were going to eat the day of and it was always alive. If it was frogs, eels, chickens, it was right there. Experiencing that part of the culture was great.”
The idea of using fresh ingredients from local farmers stuck with Wong. As a result, Northern Tiger seeks to distinguish themselves from other Chinese restaurants through the quality of their food and commitment to fresh ingredients. “We won’t compromise on the ingredients or the food itself,” said Chou, a vigorous supporter of local farmers.
Also a first generation American from Chinese parents, Chou grew up eating Chinese food and loved it. “I think it’s always good to do what you know best,” Chou said. “Chinese food is underrepresented and misrepresented in the United States. So, I thought it would be a good niche to go into.”
With this in mind, Wong and Chou hope to educate their customers throughout New York, and eventually across the United States, about Chinese traditions and customs through the appropriation, creation and launch of restaurants that feature food from different regions of China. It’s a venture that Wong hopes will help preserve Chinese culture in America for years to come, something that is deeply important to him. “People don’t really understand what Eastern cooking is,” said Wong. “That’s our mission, to make sure everyone understands it a little bit better.”