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Q & A with Fung Tu’s Jonathan Wu and John Matt Wells

unnamedAt the forefront of the refined Chinese food trend, Fung Tu — fittingly straddling traditional Chinatown and the envelope-pushing East Village — gained instant notice for dishes like Bean Curd and Bacon Terrine, Smoked Chicken Salad over Masa Pancakes, and smoky, Duck-Stuffed Dates. But it sort of faded into the background just as fast, in the face of Danny Bowien’s flashier Mission Chinese Food and Thomas Chen’s newer Tuome.

But thanks to the combined talents of Per Se’s Jonathan Wu and Mas Farmhouse’s John Matt Wells, Fung Tu is back in the spotlight in a big way, having recently garnered glowing reviews from the New York Times, Bloomberg Business, Eater and more — proving that the revitalized restaurant is well worth a second (or third, fourth or fifth) look.  “We’ve definitely grown, evolved and improved since we opened.  The food is more flavorful and fun,” affirms Wu.  “We are better at running a restaurant.  So guests now have a more polished experience compared to when we first opened.”

We also spoke with the chefs about what sets Fung Tu apart from those other hot, modern Chinese spots, their surprisingly thoughtful dessert and beverage programs, and the current culinary crazes they can really get behind (and which they wish would just die already).

What job would you say really kick-started your career? What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to be a chef?
Jonathan Wu: My first restaurant job was washing dishes at Cafe Diva in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2001.  That is where I had my “aha” moment and realized that I wanted to be a chef.  I worked with cool people and the kitchen was a fun place.  Eventually, I started to prep in the morning I was hooked — cooking was it for me.

John Matt Wells: I started working to support my mother and always wanted to play music rather than cook.  I was going through some rough times and getting into a lot of trouble, so after dropping out of high school, I made the logical decision to become a chef.  By the time I was 20, I had 8 years of restaurant experience and knew that becoming a chef was the next step.  However the “aha” moment was most likely as a child in the kitchen with my mother.  The job that kickstarted my career was washing dishes at the Countryside Cafe in North Georgia.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
JW: “Just don’t fuck it up,” told to me by Dan Barber at Blue Hill.

JMW: “Never sacrifice your career for someone else’s mistakes,” told to me by Chef Robert Carter.  He told me that when I interned for him at Peninsula Grill.  My station partner was messing up pretty bad and I went down with him rather than kicking him off and doing it myself, which chef knew I could do.  That’s when he pulled me aside.

What has the response to the restaurant been from locals, being that you’re at the changing, modernizing edge of Chinatown?  Who would you describe your primary customer base as being?
JW: Our landlord, Mr. Chen, is Chinese.  He is a local and came in to eat.  I think he liked it because when he finished the Whole Fish dish there was the tiniest pile of bones left — it was the cleanest I’ve ever seen a whole fish plate come back to the kitchen.  Clearly, he dug it.  I think our customer base is a diverse cross section of people.

JMW: We have a good local following that seems to be growing, but so is the neighborhood.  We have guests of all ages who seem to be into what we do.

If you were to eat at Fung Tu as a guest, what would you order, and why?
JW: Whey Poached Celtuce (Asparagus Lettuce) with Century Egg, Garlic Chives and Dehydrated Dofu Ru; China-quiles (Steamed Eggs with Sichuan Pork Sauce and Crunchy Yucca Chips); Fried Rice with Crab, Ramps, Fiddlehead Ferns, Chilies, Capers and Pickled Mustard Seeds.  I love the flavor of the celtuce — by poaching it in the whey from our house-made dofu ru ricotta, we amplify the nutty, meaty flavors of the celtuce.  China-quiles are very comforting to me.  I’ve always like to eat a steaming pile of piping hot food and then crush something crunchy on top, like potato chips or tortilla chips.  The fried rice is a mouth party with lots of dynamic flavors and textures.

JMW: Mache Salad with radishes and housemade ricotta– it’s delicious and I like our dofu ru ricotta.  Steamed Buns also great, I’m into the mushroom filling this time around.  And Crab Fried Rice with Ramps, Fiddlehead Ferns, Chilies, Capers and Pickled Mustard Seeds…need I say more?

To what do you owe the current refined Chinese food craze?
JW: I think it’s a function of a generation of chefs who have trained at good places and are now opening restaurants that reflect their own heritage and upbringing.

JMW: I don’t have an answer; this is my first venture into Chinese cuisine.  I would like to believe we are doing something to be a part of the movement.

What do you think sets the food and concept at Fung Tu apart from other hot, modern Chinese spots, like Mission Chinese Food or Tuome?
JW: Fung Tu’s vision is based in many ways on my family, whether it’s my mom’s recipes or stories about my relatives’ favorite foods.  Combined with imaginative techniques that I’ve acquired over the years working in some good kitchens, we are able to set ourselves apart with an innovative, original, soulful style of cooking.

JMW: I don’t really know much about the other places to be honest.  I try to focus on something that is new to me and my crew, and can be creative to the guest.  We try to keep to our own world at Fung Tu and work on dishes that feel like creations rather than representations.  We have our stories and backgrounds but we try to keep the food very personal.

Chinese food (at least American Chinese food) has never been known for thoughtful beverage programs or dessert menus.  How have you sought to elevate both at Fung Tu?
JW: We are fortunate to have Jason Wagner as a partner and beverage director.  He had the knowledge, connections, and imagination to create a special beverage program that works well with the food.  Chef de Cuisine/Partner Matt John has lots of pastry skills and has had a large hand in the desserts at Fung Tu.  So it’s about the talent we have here at the restaurant.

JMW: Our wine and beverage program really speaks for itself.  Jason Wagner does an amazing job with the program.  As far as desserts go, there isn’t really much to it.  We wanted to have good desserts; I will usually just come up with something I want to eat after dinner.

What current culinary trends can you really get behind, and wish do you wish would just die already?
JW: Let me preface this by saying that I’m omnivorous.  I’m an advocate of the way my mom prepares Chinese food: small amounts of protein with rice (starch) and lots of vegetables.  One piece of steak would be used for our family of five in a stir-fry.  I think every chef should read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in order to understand how precious meat is and that we should really eat it sparingly.  All this to say, I like the vegetable forward movement — Michel Bras, Dan Barber, Semilla, etc.  This should not be thought of as a trend.

JMW: The only thing I want to see is a better agriculture department for the United States.   I want there to be more support for smaller farms and wish cities like NY would have better waste management.  I wish people would stop supporting sushi restaurants that use wild Bluefin Tuna.  If everyone actually focused on ways to help rather than a new trend to follow, maybe we would be actually starting a movement that makes a difference for other young chefs in the future.

What do you do (and eat) in NYC on a rare day off?
JW: I spend time with my wife, Jane, and son, George.  We have family date night at neighborhood restaurants.  When we lived in Greenpoint, we went to Okonomi a lot.  Now that we live in Clinton Hill, we go to Speedy Romeo regularly.

JMW: Play guitar and order in with my wife.

What’s your ultimate career goal as a chef?
JW: Fung Tu is has been by ultimate career goal — to be the chef/co-owner of my dream restaurant.

JMW: Open a small Bed and Breakfast in the mountains.

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