words and photography Ryan Mo
I remember my first trip to Los Angeles’ Chinatown with my parents. I remember the painful ordeal of getting a cavity filled at the dentist on Ord Street, and I remember stepping out in the afternoon, shadowed by the building while the gutters aired out. Those worn sidewalks and weathered business signs gave away Chinatown’s age. There were makeshift shops selling novelty fireworks, knock-off purses, and sundry goods. Obviously out-of-state tourists gawked at the shopkeepers and their wares. That’s what I knew Chinatown to be: a tourist spot.
The ethnoburbs of San Gabriel Valley are different. They’re not cut-copies of modern Asian cities, and they’re definitely nothing like Chinatown. Conveniently removed from metropolitan influence, the valley’s residents admire Los Angeles from a distance. There are tourists here, but they are usually out-of-country, not out-of-state. On any given day you’re apt to see at least one Maserati Ghibli driven by a young Chinese adult — Mercedes Benz lessees are a dime a dozen around here. Developers and investors build up plazas, condos, and jewelry stores as affluent professionals, prim newlyweds, and foreign exchange students move in every year. But it wasn’t always like this.
Brother Dragon wasn’t always a chef. He tells me as he’s lighting a cigarette behind 888 Seafood Restaurant: cooking wasn’t his passion. Nor was living in America a dream. They were both circumstances. As we talked, I drew connection from his life to my parents’ — like them, he settled for what he could and made the best out of what he had. But Brother Dragon’s story isn’t just about settling — his work ethic and humility is an example of many Asian Americans in the ‘80s who have come to realize the American Dream. Persistence afforded them a better life for their children, and their growing presence in the valley shaped it into something more than a Chinatown-derivative.
What was life like before you moved to America?
When I lived in China, I graduated high school and found a job working for the government. I didn’t go to university but I was a quick thinker with exceptional skills in math. Things were good — there was job security, and I settled down to marry. Soon after, my wife told me that she wanted to move to America. Faced with this decision, I decided to leave my job and go with her, moving to San Francisco in 1983.
How did you grow to become a dim sum chef?
It was all circumstance. When I first arrived, I could only find a job as a construction worker because I didn’t speak English and had no marketable skills. At one point I even worked in sewing factory. Later on a friend told me that there was a new restaurant opening with a position for kitchen helper. This is when I started learning to cook — I had absolutely no experience before that.
With hard work, the head chef noticed and took me under his wing. I worked under him for four years. Now, in 1985 there were a lot of Hong Kong investment groups that opened restaurants in America. Lots of people moved over here. In 1987, the head chef told me that a new restaurant had opened and that I should try to apply for it. I was hesitant because I wasn’t very confident of my skills, but he reassured me. From that point, I went on to work at several different restaurants, learning and perfecting the craft of cooking. I had a will to learn so I learned from my head chefs, and I would buy books and study the recipes. But most of these restaurants didn’t really serve dim sum food — I learned to cook a lot of different kinds of Chinese cuisine, though.
And you eventually made your way to Los Angeles?
One day I went to visit the head chef of Harbor Village in San Francisco. That’s where I learned the art of dim sum. After a couple months working there I rose to become sous chef. The head chef told me that they were opening a branch in Los Angeles, and asked me to move down to help. That’s how I came to Los Angeles. After helping them for some time, another owner asked me to work for his restaurant in 1992 called Princess Garden (now Royal Seafood Restaurant). But in November 1993, 888 Seafood Restaurant opened and I went to work for them. I’ve been working for them ever since.
In the time you’ve cooked here you’ve also featured a lot of new dishes that can’t be found anywhere else in China or America. What’s your cooking philosophy?
The ingredients for dim sum are pretty basic — the skill lies in how you combine the ingredients. Making the dishes bigger doesn’t make them better. Traditionally dim sum dishes are small in portion so that you can try a variety of tastes without getting full very quickly, and the tea selection is important, too. If you keep this in mind, you can create innovative recipes. Usually I follow the traditional rules, but every once in a while I’ll step outside the box.
For example, I prepared a variant of the White Sugar Sponge Cake that uses green tea for color and flavor. Usually when I create new dishes, I’ll first prepare them for myself, then I’ll prepare some for the kitchen and wait staff to get their criticisms. But it isn’t just a matter of creating new dishes; I also need feedback from our patrons to refine these dishes.
Sometimes, a traditional recipe might call for an ingredient that isn’t readily available here. In those cases, I have to improvise and use ingredients similar in texture or flavor to mimic these recipes.
888 Seafood Restaurant is located on 8450 E Valley Blvd #121, Rosemead, CA 91770. It serves dim sum from 9:00 AM til 2:00 PM.
You can check out more essays from Ryan at: monaryst.tumblr.com
Posted on August 17, 2015
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