Q and A

Who’s authentic now? Chiang’s 200 restaurants stay true to their Mandarin roots.
Image: courtesy of Phillip Chiang

Philip Chiang on “real” Chinese food

Most people don’t consider P.F. Chang’s high-pedigree. One, it’s a chain, therefore an auto-demotion on the palates of food snobs, and, two, it doesn’t serve “real” Chinese food. But P.F. Chang’s roots can be traced to the Mandarin, a legendary restaurant in San Francisco that opened in 1961, introducing America to high-end Chinese food outside the Westernized Cantonese-style food still ubiquitous today. On its fifth anniversary in Honolulu, co-founder Philip Chiang was in town to celebrate. We asked him about his role as an accidental restaurateur–the restaurant which was supposed to be a brief stop on the way to an art career.

Philip Chiang

“Now everything is so global. Is that authentic? I don’t know. I think people have to judge for themselves…”

How did you decide to pursue the restaurant business instead of art?

Well, basically because art doesn’t really pay the bills. The opportunity came to get into the restaurant business, via my mother’s business. She owned a restaurant, and when she opened the second one in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles where I was living at the time…I jumped in, just thinking I would get back into painting in a very short time. But it didn’t happen.

It’s funny, it was probably a different time and place–these days, a proper Chinese family says don’t go in the restaurant business.

It’s true. It’s become a lawyer or doctor or something.

Do you do any of the design for the restaurants?

No, I don’t. I’m in the fine arts seriously now, as a painter.

How about your daughter?

She’s an independent thinker. I don’t really try to tell her too much. If she wants to try to go into the restaurant business, she knows better. She loves to go out and taste all kinds of food, so she’s kind of like me in that way. She’d rather be a diner than the person in the kitchen making the food. I don’t think she’ll pursue the restaurant biz.

Going into the family business, was there ever friction between what you and your mom wanted to do?

Well, we certainly had different ideas about how to run a business. Maybe it’s just a generation gap. So we generally just stayed out of each other’s way. I have more contemporary ideas on how to run a business. Her strength was more in the dining room and being the hostess with the mostess kind of thing. On administrative, managerial work, we differed quite a bit. We have a similar taste in food, but when it came to operations, we had differences for sure.

How so?

I’m very organized. She improvises, I guess. Much more. My management skills [are] more contemporary. She ran her restaurants in a mom-and-pop style, and I wanted to be a lot more professional, more organized in that sense.

How about in developing the menu?

We have similar tastes in Chinese food. Although she comes from a more aristocratic background, so the foods that she opened her own restaurants with were more sumptuous, were more of Chinese haute cuisine. Whereas my style is a little more casual, more street, more everyday home cooking kind of food.

How do you respond when people say you don’t serve real Chinese food?

Those [who] really travel and go to China today and go to the current restaurants in some big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, I think they’ll find that things are changing. Definitely, the inspirations are coming from the West. It has already been going on in Hong Kong for the last several decades. And if you go to Macau, they’ve been doing fusion for a long, long time. That’s a Portuguese and Cantonese fusion. When we do that here, people think it’s not authentic.

So, what is?

I think the term “authentic” now is a difficult word to pin down. Now everything is so global. Is that authentic? I don’t know. I think people have to judge for themselves: Is it good food or is it not good food?

The other thing is, all our food is cooked no different than any other Chinese restaurant. Which is to say that all our food is prepped the Chinese way, with a cleaver. [None of] our kitchens…have Western knives. Everything is done with Chinese cleavers. We use the typical Chinese method. We wok cook everything. And it’s cooked to order just like in Chinese kitchens. If you asked me, ‘define Chinese food,’ I’d say one, it has to be cut into bite size because we use chopsticks. Secondly, it should be cooked over a Chinese stove with woks. All our restaurants are designed like a traditional Chinese restaurant.

The other answer to that question is: our core menu–70 percent of our menu that sells the best–is from the very first menu at our first restaurant, almost 19 years ago now. And all those recipes, all those dishes, came from my restaurants, which were in those days considered totally authentic. That is the core menu, unchanged from my own Chinese restaurants. Those recipes came from my mother, came down to the restaurant I was running…the only thing I changed was [that I] simplified them, my dishes were more homestyle. My entire kitchen was Chinese staffed in those days. Those recipes have not changed to this day.

Bottom line is, do you like it? Obviously, with over 200 restaurants now, we’re doing something that people like.