Modernizing a 97-year old dim sum parlor while retaining its old-school character and historical roots is not an easy feat, especially when our forward-looking foodie culture often values trendiness over tradition. But for owner Wilson Tang, revamping Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan's Chinatown didn't turn into a total overhaul, but a respectful restoration of its vitality as an institution with a more accessible, well-oiled operation. So when he started to get the itch to try something that felt innovative and new, it wasn't a question that he'd have to look beyond the walls of Nom Wah. With fortuitous timing on his side, he was able to start a new restaurant venture to "push the envelope" in Chinese-American cooking: Fung Tu. In honor of the Chinese New Year, we spoke to Wilson and his chef-partner Jonathan Wu about how they honor their Chinese-American heritage in the most authentic way they know how - through the flavors of memory, family, and Chinatown in both food and space at Fung Tu.
At what point did you feel ready to open a new restaurant of your own that would be less traditional than Nom Wah Tea Parlor?
WT: Fung Tu came together in a very serendipitous way. I met my business partner and chef, Jonathan Wu, at the right time for both of us. He’s also Chinese-American, grew up in the Bronx, and after years as a private chef and spending some time at Per Se, he started a pop-up concept called “Wu Pops Up” to explore his take on Chinese-American food. Meanwhile, I was looking to do something a little different than Nom Wah, which is very old-school and tied to a rich history – our chef there has been with my family for over 30 years. I wanted to try something new where I could be more creative with the vision of the restaurant and the menu. Mutual friends introduced me to Jonathan, and we hit it off right away. I’d also just signed a lease for what’s now the location of Nom Wah Nolita, where I was already incubating food concepts. I invited Jonathan to do his pop-ups in that space for two months, and afterwards, we realized we both wanted to open our own restaurant that would push the envelope in Chinese-American cooking. Everything else fell into place. We went to Chinatown and found this space, which used to be a noodle factory, so it was already set up to be a restaurant – with a walk-in refrigerator, tiled floors, a gas hook up, and a hood vent. So we were like, “Perfect, we’ll take it.” We designed and built the rest of it, and we opened Fung Tu in November of 2013.
What did you envision when you designed Fung Tu?
WT: We wanted a modern, sleek look, and we wanted the restaurant and decor to evoke the food. We decided that the toon leaf would be the common theme throughout the restaurant, and the core of our overall design and branding. The sharp, angular lines from the toon leaf echo everywhere – our custom red and white wallpaper, our ceiling lamps (designed by Jonathan’s wife, Jane D’Arensbourg), the Fung Tu logo, the wallpaper in our bathroom, our wine shelves, and our plates, which we sourced from Chinatown. That’s part of the Fung Tu story that not many people know – everything around us literally represents the toon leaf.
JW: We chose the toon leaf because my grandmother planted a toon tree in her backyard in Yonkers in the ‘50s, and it still grows there. So the toon leaf represents family and Chinese food. It is a very Chinese ingredient that’s not seen in New York or the States, but it’s very special – it has an incredible flavor that’s garlicky, mineral-y, and earthy. It's a special vegetable that my grandmother used to serve with eggs.
Nearly all the decor and design of Fung Tu integrate the lines and angles of a toon leaf, from their logo to the tiled bathroom walls.
Are your purveyors primarily in Chinatown?
WT: We source a lot of ingredients from Chinatown, especially the mom-and-pop markets. We like working with people who are local. Our fish and seafood comes from Aqua Best – Jonathan just walked there to grab some fish this morning. We're close with the two second-generation sons who run it now, and their mom, who works as the cashier. We also source ingredients from the Po Wing Hong market, which is also a family-run business that we’re friendly with. I grew up in Chinatown, so I know a lot of the faces behind the places around here.
JW: I’ve learned so much from Chinatown, from getting to see the inside of an old school soy beanery, to the wide rice noodle factories, beef jerky shops, and so many artisanal purveyors. I’ve learned how to work with black moss, mock shark fin, Chinese dates, goji berries… I saw some of these ingredients at my grandparents’ house, but my mom didn’t have them in our own pantry. Discovery has been a really fun and rewarding part of this journey.
Chef Jonathan prepares dishes from their upcoming Chinese New Year tasting menu, using new techniques and ingredients such as black moss and mock shark fin.
What does "authentic" Chinese-American food mean to you?
WT: We’re both Chinese-American, so it’s what we know as authentic to us and not anyone else. A lot of the items on our menu stem from personal memories. The “Chinaquiles” dish, for instance, is a nod to the steamed eggs my mother would make for me. That was a very typical dish for me to have growing up – she would steam some eggs, sprinkle some scallions, add a drizzle of soy sauce, and I’d eat it with rice. So Jonathan incorporated my memory of those steamed eggs into his riff on chilaquiles, which was a favorite food memory of his from L.A.. So he developed our "Chinaquiles" dish, which is a steamed egg custard topped with crispy yucca chips instead of tortilla chips, a spicy mapo tofu ground pork sauce, garnished with scallions and cilantro. Our egg roll is another item that integrates our histories – it’s an homage to Nom Wah’s egg roll that my uncle has been making for decades.
JW: The original egg roll at Nom Wah is very special – there’s nowhere else I’ve ever seen where the actual wrapper for the egg roll is made out egg. So when Wilson asked if I wanted to riff on anything from Nom Wah, I immediately thought of the egg roll as an opportunity to combine olives and pork – something I’ve always wanted to do. That comes from my mom, who always snacked on Chinese olives that were flavored with chili or star anise. Spices from Western China like cumin, coriander, and chili work really well with olives. So we rub pork belly with those spices, braise it, fold in olives with cilantro and leeks, and batter and fry the roll. It’s one of the most popular items on our menu.
The meaning of culinary authenticity at Fung Tu seems deeply tied to personal memories and stories from the past.
WT: Right, it’s authentic to me. Because those steamed eggs are what I remember my mom making for me growing up. Maybe she got the recipe from a magazine and did her version of it, but it’s still authentic to me.
JW: And no one can ever undermine that authenticity for Wilson. I think that connection between memory and authenticity is very real. We have many diners who will eat the Chinaquiles and tell us how wowed they are by how much it reminds them of their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking. That makes me so happy. That means that we're doing what we set out to do. There are many layers behind every dish that can be traced to memories of family, historical Chinese food, and technique in my own culinary journey. We’re probably the only restaurant in NYC doing smoked and fried dates. A diner might wonder, “What the hell, are smoked dates Chinese?” But that dish was inspired by my uncle who grew up in Shanghai, pre-cultural revolution. When I asked him about the foods of his youth, he told me about black Chinese jujubes that were stuffed with red bean paste, coated in beaten egg, and fried. So my interpretation uses medjool dates that get poached, pitted and peeled, stuffed with shredded duck leg, battered and fried. It might not be a traditional or familiar Chinese dish to someone else, but it’s authentic to me.
How did you come up with the dishes for your upcoming Chinese New Year tasting menus?
JW: the whole menu is symbolic. One dish is a lettuce cup with a fried oyster and black moss, known as “fa cai” in Chinese (pronounced "fat-choy"). Black moss symbolizes wealth, and is considered an auspicious ingredient that’ll bring you good fortune if you eat it at Chinese New Year. It's usually cooked with dried oysters, so we braise it in our in-house clam stock to reinforce that traditional shellfish flavor. We’re also serving rectangular red wontons dyed with beet juice and filled with scallops to symbolize the red envelopes of money that are handed out at Chinese New Year. To reinforce the symbolism of gold ingots, we cut up golden beets from Union Square Greenmarket as little gold coins, and we put those and the wontons in a superior broth made from pig’s feet, shrimp shells, and dried ham.
We’re also doing a black chicken with goji berries, walnuts, and ginseng. The seeds represent fertility, and the walnuts are meant to be good for your brain – something that stems from the Chinese cooking philosophy that “like begets like”. I learned to use a technique called water velveting to flavor and tenderize the chicken cubes in a broth of goji, ginseng, and ginger. Actual black chickens are very scrawny and are better for soups, so we use regular chicken thigh meat that we stir fry, toss in a black powder made from wakame and truffles, and garnish with goji berries and candied walnuts. These dishes aren’t traditional in appearance, but the menu has many nods to historical Chinese cooking, symbolic New Year foods and ingredients, and our Chinatown community.
Are there any Chinese New Year traditions you have?
WT: As a restaurant owner, I stay close to my businesses especially during busy holidays. So I'm sticking around here, and will take my kids to go watch the Chinese New Year parade, for the lion dance and all of that. I do have an ongoing ritual on Sundays, when my son goes to Chinese school in the morning. We go to one of the oldest bakeries in Chinatown and I’ll get a cup of coffee and he’ll have a bun. I remind him that it’s where I used to go when I was a child.
In what ways do you culivate your own lifestyle outside Nom Wah and Fung Tu?
WT: As a modern family, we dine out a lot. I’m working constantly, so we like to take the kids out and try new restaurants on the weekends. Because I’m entrepreneurial and I’m in the industry – I like to get the most out of every time that we do. I don't see it as just a way to feed my kids, but to expose them to new experiences and teach them about places where I grew up eating. It also lets me see the way things work at different restaurants – like what proteins they’re using for their dumplings, what machines they're using in the kitchen, which POS system they have, and so on. I like to maximize how much my family and I learn and take away from each place that we eat at.
What’s the best part about running your own restaurants?
WT: I love being able to give opportunity for people to grow – whether they're my family, employees, or managers. I always encourage everyone to try new things and not be afraid of making mistakes – to just focus on figuring it out on your own. There’s stuff you just can’t teach in this business and I’m very adamant about getting your hands in and trying new things, making mistakes and learning from them. Being able to coach, inspire, mentor, give opportunity – those are all things I’m proud of. The good, the bad, the ugly – we can learn from it all and make better decisions in the future.
Kitchen Snapshot – Wilson Tang
Meals for guests: We like to invite guests over to our communal rooftop grill in the summertime. I’ll marinate and grill ribs and chicken wings with Chinese seasonings, along with summer vegetables. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the summer.
Food quirk: My quirk is good and bad. I grew up very poor so when I eat, even if it tastes horrible, I have to finish it. I can’t stand wasting food, whether I’m out at a restaurant or at home, even if I’m really, really full. On the rare occasion that I do take it to go, I make sure the server packs all the leftovers in a single box – even if the flavors don’t belong together, because I don’t want to see packaging go to waste either. I just hate seeing things go to waste.
I can’t live without: a standard steel blade, to do anything and everything. A knife is mandatory.
I never use: our salad spinner. That thing is so big and clunky. I'm always thinking about efficiency, and not only does it take up a lot of room, but there’s no other purpose for it besides pumping and spinning vegetables!
Photography by Anne Z. Chen unless otherwise specified.