VIA Dallas News
Kirstyn Brewer and Chih-Ming "Petey" Feng are pumped. List and grocery cart in hand, the friends and chefs chart their course through Jusgo Supermarket in Plano, giddy to get started.
It's another day of R&D for their new project, a modern Chinese-American restaurant that will take over the old Remedy and Project Pie spaces on Lower Greenville in Dallas. They often head to Asian emporiums such as Jusgo and 99 Ranch Market for inspiration. The stores are treasure-troves of ingredients that range from basic to exotic, intriguing places to explore for beginning Asian cooks and essential for practiced cooks.
Executive chef Brewer and sous chef Feng are loading up on groceries this morning, then heading back to the restaurant for some serious food play.
Brewer strikes out toward the dry storage goods aisle, piled deep with soy sauces, fish sauces, Shaoxing cooking wines, dried mushrooms, chile pastes and powders – building blocks for her nostalgia-laden menu (oh, yes – orange chicken, pupu platters and lazy Susans are coming back into your life).
Overwhelming? Maybe. To Brewer, whose culinary school training featured a scavenger hunt at 99 Ranch Market, excess is a beautiful thing. "Some people just shop for recipes. They see something on Pinterest and are off to the store. I'm inspired by ingredients instead of a recipe. I wander around and find something unusual."
By contrast, Feng's first stop is the produce aisle. His approach to the land of Asian culinary plenty is to troll the overflowing bins for the freshest and most inspiring of vegetables such as bok choy, lotus root, yamo imo, Thai eggplant or maitake mushrooms, then pick up a package of frozen dumplings or egg rolls, and boom, a meal. "There are so many choices at the stores. Just go with an idea to build a simple meal, and you will get the most out of shopping there."
The Taiwan native grew up cooking at home and moved to Dallas in 2002. He's had a number of line-cook jobs since then, including at the Grape, Charlie Palmer at the Joule, CBD Provisions and FT33, and honed his restaurant techniques preparing family meals for restaurant staff. He was recruited by Brewer and decided to take the job to grow his chef and business skills.
The two balance each other. Feng is learning the professional ropes from Brewer, and she is relying on his familiarity with Asian products and produce. Their restaurant is a project of 80/20 Hospitality – the group that owns HG Sply Co. – with Danyele McPherson (formerly the executive chef at Remedy) as culinary director. (NOTE: Shortly before this article was published, Feng left the project.)
Brewer describes herself as self-taught in Asian cooking. As the daughter of a Hispanic mom, she grew up eating Latin food at home, so meals out would naturally be Asian or Italian. During her chef's training, she often found herself in Asian neighborhoods in Los Angeles – Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Koreatown. "The food was really cheap and the restaurants were open late at night," she says. "I started identifying different tastes and trying to re-create dishes." The creativity served her well at Victor Tango's, where the Japanese-style chicken wings she developed are still on the menu. (They're dipped and fried in potato starch for a light crunch, and served with a sauce made with dark soy, brown sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar.)
As the pair move through the aisles, some of the ingredients are mysterious, even to them. Take salted duck egg yolks, squishy orange balls in a vacuum-sealed package. Brewer hasn't used them; Feng has on occasion, noting they're great for adding salt and fat to sticky rice, or grating in other dishes for added depth. "Maybe we'd make our own," Brewer muses.
Dried meat floss and shredded squid are most likely not pantry staples for American kitchens, but to the chefs they are essential for stocks and stir-fries. Fried shallots and fried garlic are perhaps more accessible to American palates, but what to do with them? "They add great crunch to salads," Brewer says.
Ah, the noodle aisle. There are packages of thick udon noodles for soups and stir-fries, lo mein and flat noodles that cling to veggies and meats, dense rice cakes you might mistake for sliced parsnip, gluten-free rice noodles, wonton wraps, rice paper for spring rolls, prettily wrapped Sichuan bundles. The store's perimeter features cold cases of dozens of fresh noodles. What's not to love? The simplest way for a beginner to conquer Asian noodles, Feng says, is to treat them as you would an Italian noodle, weighing their thickness and texture -- thick or thin, chewy or slithery, starchy or light -- as you consider a sauce.
Meanwhile, Feng is rediscovering his favorite brands. "Oh, this is a good company," Feng says, seeing a brand of soy paste made in his native Taiwan by a century-old company. He can't tell you the English name, only how it's spelled in Chinese characters. "This is the good stuff." Soy paste is akin to steak sauce, sweeter and thicker than plain soy sauce. "It has more of the taste of the barrel," Brewer says. They'll use it for dumpling fillings or, mixed with vinegar, lemon juice or Sriracha, as a shmear on the plate.
The produce aisles yield more discoveries – mushroom varieties of shiitake, enoki, oyster and beech; picturesque lotus root that's great for pickling, or adding to stews and stir-fries; yamo imo (also known as mountain yam) that purées like potatoes; giant daikon radishes, wonderful in braises or salads; pale green and white Korean radishes; myriad greens – baby bok choy, Shanghai bok choy, napa cabbage, pea leaves, long beans, yu choy, ta gu choy.
Brewer and Feng have been experimenting with fried lotus root chips served with Chinese mustard. They're using Chinese mustard greens in clay pot dishes. Gai lan, resembling broccolini, goes in the brick pizza oven, as do mammoth king trumpet mushrooms, thick and woody. Jack fruit is a trendy vegan ingredient, Brewer says, with its shredded texture resembling that of pulled pork.
Some of the fruits look other-worldly: nubby lychee, hairy rambutan, gnarly dragon fruit, crinkly bitter melon. Feng notes that the zest of pomelo, a thick-skinned native South and Southeast Asia citrus fruit that looks like a gigantic grapefruit, is tasty in brines and is a staple of the autumn moon festival. As for the others with the arresting exteriors that open to mellow insides, such as dragon fruit and rambutans, Feng says they are served simply – the better to show off their come-hither appeal. "Serving pretty platters of fruit is very common. They also use the juices for sweet ices," Feng says.
Even if you are lucky enough to stroll the aisles with professionals, shopping an Asian supermarket with confidence takes time. Many of the products do not contain English labels. Unless you are able to take Feng with you, as Brewer is, to point out favorite brands, you will have to do some research on your own. Both chefs recommend experimenting with new products by trying the smallest amounts possible. "I only trust my guts. I still need to taste and compare," Feng says.
For now, Brewer and Feng bypass the impressive array of meats and fish, which are situated near tanks of live geoducks, scallops and razor clams – even frogs and turtles. "We haven't gotten to that part of the menu," Brewer says.
After an hour's worth of shopping and a cart piled high with Brewer's staples and Feng's let's-try-this tosses into the basket, they are ready to check out. All that food is making them hungry. Soon, they are deep in discussion contemplating which strip-center Chinese restaurant to go to for lunch. "Sichuan Folk," says Feng. "The best."
That is, until Brewer's restaurant opens its doors.
By: Connie Dufner