Episode 75: Chinese-American ft. Little Tong and Silver Apricot
Simone Tong, Chef-Owner, and Emmeline Zhao, GM and Partner, of Little Tong, and the soon-to-be opened Silver Apricot talked to us about their culinary progression from introducing mixian at Little Tong to showcasing what it means to be Chinese-American today at Silver Apricot.
Simone and Emmeline credit their love of food to family. Simone recalls some memorable moments growing up including her exposure to delicious Chinese banquets during her Dad’s business dinners, and translating the menu for her Mom’s French bistro in Chengdu while visiting from college. Emmeline saw her parents, who immigrated from China in the 80s, put together dinner parties in North Carolina featuring Chinese dishes made with Southern ingredients, inventive in their own right. “Asians were the foodies before there were foodies”, says Emmeline.
An episode of “After Hours with Daniel Boulud” featuring Chef Wylie Dufresne further pushed Simone in the direction of food. Simone says, “I was mesmerized by his charm, his knowledge, his way of plating, his playful way of making food that is science and art, a combination of childhood memories, and avant-garde.” It was an aha-moment and the idea of becoming a chef took root. Simone enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, and went to work at wd~50, Alder and 15 East.
Emmeline found herself devouring the Food Network in college and became familiar with all the celebrity chefs at the time, including Chef Wylie. When her path in journalism no longer satisfied her desires, she started to look for something else. One day when serendipitously perusing Craigslist she saw a front of house position for Chef Wylie’s new restaurant and applied--and that’s where Simone and Emmeline first met. The incredible friendship and business partnership between the two definitively began when Simone called out at Emmeline from the basement of Alder, while butchering a fish, “Why aren’t we friends?”
Before opening Little Tong, Simone traveled for a few months in Yunnan, China, with the intention of studying mixian, the rice noodles that were the foundation to Little Tong’s initial success. Simone says, she was inspired by the romance of this region--the people, the scenery, the inclination for the exotic and the renegade. “We have a stereotype of what Chinese food, or Chinese people, and mainland China is. And Yunnan overthrows all of that,” says Simone.
Simone wants to be clear that she used Yunnan as the inspiration, and that she’s not making traditional Chinese food from Yunnan.
In conversations with family, friends and the community around Little Tong, the shift to expand beyond mixian at the restaurant took place organically. Simone and Emmeline see their Little Tong restaurants and their dishes as constantly changing and improving. “We’re a New York Chinese restaurant. That’s why the feedback matters. We’re here to be a restaurant for the community that we’re in,” says Emmeline.
When asked about what to expect at Silver Apricot, Simone replies “surprises”. What she can tell us is that there will be a focus on seasonality, and on using a combination of classical Chinese techniques, the best of contemporary French and Japanese techniques, and what she learned from Chef Wylie. Simone and Emmeline are presenting Chinese-American food tied into their Chinese-American identities. “Chinese seeded, but American grown”, says Emmeline. For centuries, Chinese food was either directly transplanted in America or tailored to American tastes. Their version of Chinese-American food is neither.
Simone believes the future of Chinese food in America is going to look totally different than what it does now. Imagine the cuisine not bound to the borders of Chinatowns or only precious to those with a Chinese heritage, but equally scattered in each neighborhood with the same accessibility and familiarity for diners and families of all backgrounds. In the meantime, there’s a focus on doing the little things in order to achieve the big things. The team is taking it a day at a time, relishing the joy in lifting the mood and creating new experiences for each customer, adding another stroke of paint to the colorful palette of New York’s dining landscape.