By Cici Chen
For many Americans, Chinese food means three things: fried rice, General Zao’s chicken, and crispy fortune cookies. Yet the irony is of course that the folks living in China wouldn’t know what a fortune cookie is, as it only exists in America.
This is evident in the New York melting pot, a feast of “real” Chinese food often demands an excursion to the faraway land of Flushing, or Manhattan’s overcrowded Chinatown. Therefore when Hot Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant specializing in authentic Sichuan cuisine opened in the East Village last October, it soon became an attraction for sophisticated Chinese food lovers.
Walking into Hot Kitchen on any evening, one is greeted by warm brick-colored walls, waiters dashing about in red aprons, dishes covered in hot red peppers, which is the signature of Sichuan cuisine. Together they make the rectangular space vibrant with bright hues of red.
From the first glance it seems like the chattering diners are mainly Chinese, yet a second look reveals that western faces occupy almost half of the tables.
“In the beginning there were only Chinese diners, then Chinese brought their American friends here, now Americans come on their own,” said Jenny Fu, a competent yet amicable woman in her 30s who owns the restaurant with her husband, Tao An. She dresses casually in a jeans and vest, has a sweet smile, and is always multi-tasking. An on the other hand is a composed, affable man in his 40s, often wearing dark colored sweaters.
Situated on 2nd avenue between 6th and 7th street, Hot Kitchen’s location provides a solid base for its ample revenue. “This place has two advantages,” said An. “First of all, it is close to NYU, and if the Chinese students at NYU like what we cook, we will have a guaranteed source of customers. Secondly, there are many young residents in the East Village, and young people tend to like spicy food more.”
An also pointed out that there had been an increasing demand for authentic Chinese cuisine in New York fueled by social and economic progress in both America and China. He said that many westerners who come to Hot Kitchen would say things like “I was in China last year; I ate this and this.” Many of them even speak Chinese. In the meantime, Chinese students who come to the U.S. nowadays are more affluent than the earlier generations who eat instant ramen everyday. “Students now have the financial capability to eat at restaurants, and they will not spend money on lousy food,”said An.
According to Fu, the most crowd-pleasing signature dish that Chinese customers relish is “Assorted Spicy Wok”, a savory and fiery jumble of more than 15 kinds of meat and vegetable stir fired in a large pot of Sichuan peppercorns and dried chili peppers. The satisfaction this 24-dollar plate brings is unmatched by other dishes of the same price. Sadly, not so many westerners can handle the level of spice in “Assorted Spicy Wok,” The delectable “Lamb with Cumin,” on the other hand, is fancied by Western customers and popular in take-out orders.
Despite its specialty in authentic spicy entrees, Hot Kitchen reserves a small menu of American Chinese Food. “Dishes like Broccoli with Chicken are inventions by our predecessors, and you need to keep them to cater to some western customers, besides, they are nice dishes,” said An.
Fu said that the business’s profit is contributed equally by dine-in and delivery. She would not give a dollar number, but acknowledged the restaurant’s success.
“Immodestly speaking, right now this is the most successful Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan,” said Fu. She compared Hot Kitchen with The Legend, a popular 2-floor Sichuan restaurant near Union Square. “The Legend might generate a little more revenue than us because their restaurant is bigger, but their cost is also higher. Hence profit wise, we are actually more successful.”
Yet success did not come fast and easy for An and Fu. Since 2007, they had co-owned three restaurants with other people under the name Grand Sichuan. There was disagreement on management philosophy between the other owners and the couple. So they sold their shares in two of them, and in 2009, An and Fu set out to build restaurants in their own name. The first one was a small Beijing style hot pot restaurant in the West Village, but it did not make money, so it was transformed into a noodle bar last year and is still finding its feet.
Before running restaurants, An was a delivery man at various Chinese restaurants in New York for 4 years. When he worked at the Grand Sichuan restaurant on 55th street, he met Fu who was a cashier at that time. Unlike most blue-collared workers, both of them were college graduates from respectable schools in China. Fu studied law in Shanghai and An studied Chinese literature in Beijing. Recounting what sparked the chemistry, Fu said, “When you meet somebody who comes from a similar background, you can soon feel that special connection.”
Before coming to the U.S., Fu had a stable job working in the administrative office of the Justice Department because she was good at writing. She found her job dull compared to fighting crimes, but there was little possibility for switching office. “I was young and always thought somewhere else would be better,” said Fu. So she decided to see the world outside of China, and applied for graduate schools in the U.S.
In 2001, Fu graduated from a school in Maryland with a master in Computer Science. (She would not name the school because she thought it was not prestigious.) It was a year during which U.S. unemployment rate climbed from around 4 percent to over 5 percent. Fu could not find a job, so she came to New York and got the work as a cashier.
An was the co-owner of a publishing house in Beijing when he decided to come to New York. A friend always told him how great America was, and he wanted to see it for himself. One can only imagine the harsh transition from being a boss to riding bike on the New York streets in all weathers, but An did not recall the delivery days with bitterness. An said in the beginning, he occasionally thought of going back to China, but he stayed on, hoping to obtain a Green Card, i.e. the status of U.S. permanent resident.
Fu said that she missed being a cashier, because she didn’t have to worry about anything once her shift was over. Now as a small business owner, she takes care of all the bookkeeping, and deals with countless frivolous matters. An on the other hand makes the overall business plan and designs the menu. An said that Fu was a tremendous help to the business because his English was not so good, but Fu spoke excellent English as she went to graduate school here in the U.S.
Fu said they obtained the money to open a restaurant from their savings and by borrowing from various sources. An and Fu did not explicitly state how much they invested in opening Hot Kitchen, nevertheless, they said that it requires at least 300 to 500 grand to open a restaurant like theirs in New York. One third of that money is essential to keep the restaurant open while earning negative profit in the first 6 months. Luckily for Hot Kitchen, the business started to look good after 2 months.
“It is quite risky to start a restaurant,” said An. “Failure is the norm. In New York, say 100 new restaurants open today, at the same time 80 old restaurants failed and closed, left without a penny.” “Therefore,” An continued, “no matter what kind of restaurant you run, you must have a particular characteristic, something special.”
While there were many factors that constituted Hot Kitchen’s success, An said that it was important that he likes what he does. “If you don’t have an interest in food and restaurant,” said An, “you wouldn’t’ pay attention to the culinary trend in China, and know that people back home love spicy food now.” An said that he learns about the new popular dishes from the Internet, and when he goes back to Beijing occasionally, he would try them out in person, as well as talking with his friends in the restaurant business. Hot Kitchen’s celebrated entree “Assorted Spicy Wok” was one that only gained popularity in China in recent years.
Fu said that good cooking alone is not enough; it must be combined with genial service to foster customer loyalty. She is the mind behind Hot Kitchen’s account on Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and has more than 1200 followers. She not only re-tweets compliments of her dishes, replies to suggestions, but also posts personal statuses.
Ting Li, a Chinese young woman working in Manhattan and a Hot Kitchen regular said, “I like that I can ask questions and offer comments on the food to the restaurant on Weibo, and I get responses. It makes me feel like that I am a valued customer.” Other popular Sichuan restaurants in the city like The Legend and Grand Sichuan do not have Weibo accounts.
Though Hot Kitchen seems to be thriving, there is no laying back and sipping teas for the owners. “It is easy to be popular for a short while, but it is very difficult to keep the flame going,” said Fu. “The Chinese are fickle foodies; we never know what will happen tomorrow.”
An goes home every night when the restaurant closes around 11 pm, and Fu gets up every day at 7am and drives to Flushing to buy fresh produce. They have a 6-year-old daughter who is taken care by her grandmother. Fu thinks about getting a stable job with medical insurance when the restaurant no longer needs her. She said that opening restaurants is her husband’s dream, and she has yet to find a career of her own. So what about if An opens more restaurants, wouldn’t she want to help? Fu replied with a laugh, “of course I do. So the ‘getting a stable job’ thing is topic for some other time.”