In the early 1970s, Ed Schoenfeld would have appeared an unlikely candidate to become one of the country’s leading authorities in Chinese gastronomy. He was just starting out then, or trying to — just another college dropout from Brooklyn, driving taxis around New York City. His big break came when he met restaurateur David Keh, who hired him as his assistant and the maitre’d at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, one of the first restaurants ever to include a dish called General Tso’s chicken on its menu. After a string of successful ventures with Keh, Schoenfeld moved out on his own; today, his two-restaurant outpost — RedFarm and Decoy — in Manhattan’s West Village (with a second RedFarm location farther uptown) is serving up what Zagat calls the best Chinese food and dim sum in the city.
Do you want me to cook you a dish that’s Asian Italian, or Italian Asian?
I shake Schoenfeld’s hand inside his home in Bellevelle, New Jersey. He sports a thick white beard with eyeglasses that match the hue of his sea-green shirt and looks comfortable and relaxed inside his kitchen. He calls this “his room”, having conquered it from his wife, Elsa. The pair moved here in 2012 after falling for the Georgian architecture of this century-old house and the neighborhood feel of its surroundings. “Coming here was a really nice change”, he says. It’s obvious he’s sentimental about the “Mom and Pop” shops that are back in his life. He reaches for a white paper bag on the counter and pulls out a half-loaf of Italian bread. “This is from the baker just down the street. When it’s fresh it’s just awesome.” This one, however, has gone stale, so he says he’ll just throw it into a food processor later to make bread crumbs.
He’s invited me for lunch. “Do you want me to cook you a dish that’s Asian Italian, or Italian Asian?” I wrap my head halfway around the question, and tell him the first is fine, not fully sure I understand the difference. “Okay”, he says, “come with me.”
Schoenfeld’s pantry is a small walk-in corner of the house with yellow walls that lack insulation due to age. The temperature’s dropped some 20 degrees in here, and the soft light reflects in off the snow outside through a small window. Largely, it’s what you’d expect from any home pantry: a collage of dried pastas, salsas and cat food, with intricacies woven in — dried shiitake mushrooms and German curry ketchup — that take a moment to decipher. There’s different stock powders and a package of mail-order honeybell oranges on the floor. He also keeps a jug of spring water here, chilled by the room.
Ed moves silently, examining different sections as if they’re all part of one long-term project. He reaches for the very top-shelf, grabbing a thin, empty bottle with Japanese writing on its label. It’s a sake bottle, he says, almost in a whisper. He fell in love with it at a dinner some years before and just couldn’t let go. Behind us are more shelves, painted green, filled with of old china and tableware that he inherited from his mother.
Schoenfeld says that he’s been inspired by Italian flavors lately, nodding toward a beautifully packaged box of ribbed paccheri noodles. He grabs it and motions back toward the kitchen, stopping at his fridge on the way to the sink. He pulls out a two-foot sausage link and hangs it above his head in admiration. “My butcher makes these. They’re not the best, but they’re still excellent — costs me four bucks a pound.”
In a classic bait-and-switch, Schoenfeld says he’s self-taught when it comes to navigating his way through dishes before bringing up his teacher, Grace Chiu, who’s been heralded as de-facto godmother of Chinese-American cuisine. He clarifies. “She didn’t teach me how to cook. She taught me the opposite”, inspiring him to delve deeper into Chinese flavors with his own ideas and interpretations. “My food is not authentic or traditional, but it is based on fine Chinese cooking”, he says. This tidbit of insight isn’t surprising coming from the restaurateur, who currently champions inauthenticity as a high road to knockout dishes at RedFarm, run alongside chef Joe Ng. Favorites there include “Pac Man” dumplings (resembling ghosts from the popular ‘80s arcade game) and egg rolls filled with pastrami from the Lower East Side institution Katz’s Delicatessen, a play on New York’s Chinese-Jewish tradition.
My food is not authentic or traditional, but it is based on fine Chinese cooking.
He reaches for a thick copper wok hanging above his counter. “The inside of this is tin, similar to a fine French or Italian pan”, Schoenfeld says. “It was made by the most famous maker of pots and pans in Europe.” He’s referring to Cesare Mazzetti of Rinomata Rameria Mazzetti, a three-centuries-running family business, who makes all of his copperware in the basement of a church in Tuscany. “He made it for me”, he says.
He goes to work. The pasta’s thrown into boiling water and the sausage is suddenly out of its casing and placed on the stove. The crackle’s starting and the aroma builds. Schoenfeld’s cat Cocoa joins us, unnoticed by Schoenfeld, who pulls out a cleaver, chops up the onions, celery and a red bell pepper at a free-standing island. I focus on my camera to take a picture of the cat and Schoenfeld is back at the stove when I glance back.
He’s moving like he’s choreographed this dish before. “The first thing Chinese cooks do is set [a dish’s] texture. Then they flavor it”, he says, taking a piece of pasta out of the water and squeezing it before throwing it back. After creating florets from a head of broccoli, he heats up a small pool of soybean oil and throws them into a symphony of sizzle, straining through a metal colander a quick 15 seconds later. The technique is called “passing through oil,” he says, commonly used for hard vegetables and animal proteins in Chinese stir-frys. It cooks them faster, preserving their texture better than blanching in water would. Next he dumps all the vegetables into the wok with the pasta and sausage.
Back at his counter, Schoenfeld blends two types of soy sauce — one light, one dark — with sugar and a few gloppy shakes of oyster sauce to “balance out the soy”. He throws in a dash of rice wine vinegar and pours it on the noodles, which send off a sharp hiss. “Now this is a Western thing to do”, he says. He cuts off a healthy chunk of butter, which emulsifies into a sauce with the glaze and juices from the pork. The heat’s off and he works in a few tablespoons of sesame oil, which gives the whole thing a glossy sheen.
Schoenfeld escapes back into his pantry, pulling out a plate with fishes and shrimp emblazoned into a pattern around the rim. “I don’t think I’ve used this plate in ten years”, he says. “I just happened to be looking at it before, and thought, well, ‘these [antiques] are my friends, you know.’” He’s grinning like a man who just won the lottery, his eyes on the plate as if it’s his winning ticket. It becomes clear that this dish isn’t about the food, or at least, not all about the food. It’s about the ceremony, bringing all the elements together and presenting it to me in a way that he hopes I will appreciate. It’s about connecting.
He plates the pasta and there’s a quick dash to sprinkle freshly chopped scallions on top. It smells divine, and I’m grinning too.