Why Do Chinese Restaurants Do This?
The conventional advice given to grad students tasked with committing to a thesis topic is to pick something they’re really pissed off about, and to let their bile propel them forward. This is perfectly sound. The challenge for me, who is pissed off by so very many things, is distinguishing between the things that irritate me only in passing, and the preoccupations that truly haunt me. So it took a few discarded drafts (Have Edible Schoolyard and similar programs been able to meaningfully assess long-term changes in participants’ diets? What do modern detox dieters have in common with medieval fasting women, some of whom were conferred sainthood largely for demonstrating “miraculous” feats of inedia?) before I arrived at the topic of my first-semester research proposal and presentation. That topic was the bifurcated “recipient design” at play in Chinese restaurants in New York City.
Recipient design, if you’re not familiar with the term, is usually discussed in the context of speech or social interaction, and refers to how a communicator will alter his message, or some details of its delivery, depending on who he’s trying to reach with it. But you can also think about how recipient design functions in a textual artifact like a menu, or even in a system as complex as a restaurant, taking into account everything from that menu and the name on its cover to the decor and the tone of the service. Who does each element speak to, and what is it saying?
What fascinates me about overseas Chinese restaurants is that a single establishment frequently has two conflicting recipient designs operating at once. The division can be as obvious as the existence of two menus, the conventional document and the “secret” one. Or, if the restaurant has only one menu, that menu is often organized around, and reinforces, the schism. And should a table of white Americans venture across the schism, displaying a perilous interest in one of the squigglier menu items, a waitress may gently herd them back: “Too spicy!”
Last night I celebrated my friend’s birthday at Legend, a supposedly Sichuanese restaurant in Chelsea. I didn’t have the highest expectations, partly because the location is a bit random, and also because I boned up on the menu beforehand and saw that, in addition to the Sichuan section, there was also a large selection of Vietnamese dishes, a daily bento special, and an appetizer section that opened with miso soup.
The food turned out to be very good. My favorite item of the evening was something it would never have occurred to me to order (I have learned that the margin of disappointment is always wider with seafood), but which the waitress recommended when I asked for her advice in choosing a steamed fish dish. Not steamed at all, in fact, it was sautéed flakes of bass served in a tureen of white pepper broth with Napa cabbage and custard tofu, so clean and restorative in the midst of all that chili oil. We also ate dried conch strips, two kinds of duck, and a fiery popcorn chicken with ginger and peanuts, which you sort of had to hunt for beneath an autumnal pile of papery chilis that had me wishing for a small rake–all ordered from the last few pages of the menu, after bypassing the General Tso and the pho. The Vietnamese dishes were, I learned, a holdover from the restaurant’s previous incarnation, a Viet-with-a-French-accent eatery that had been favorably reviewed in years past. Presumably, the owners didn’t want to lose the patronage of those who had come to associate the location with Indochinese fusion, and so had retained parts of the menu while re-imagining others.
It infuriates me when Chinese restaurateurs behave this way. It makes me want to take them aside and shake them, hard. Can you imagine a French bistro taking over a space that once housed a Greek restaurant and continuing to serve taramosalata because the regulars might expect it? No, of course you can’t. Yet, every day, Chinese restaurants make just that sort of assumption about and concession to some fantasy customer that they imagine exists and, ironically, have probably now helped to create: the customer who thinks that he should be able to walk into any Chinese restaurant in the city and get any dish from both the American-Chinese and Chinese-Chinese canons, and, what the hell, a pad thai to boot (many Chinese restaurants, including Legend, serve one); the customer to whom it never occurs that the pad thai he has just ordered from the Chinese restaurant with only two cooks and a menu that lists 200 other dishes may not be the finest expression of pad thai he will ever taste.
When I love something, I want everyone to know about it. I want the people I care about, and people I don’t even know, to experience the same pleasure that I have. So it’s difficult for me to understand how someone working in the restaurant business can take so little pride in his–hm, neither bread-and-butter nor meat-and-potatoes really work as metaphors in Chinese food–specialty, let’s say, that he’s willing to hide it, as Legend does, behind six or seven preceding pages of totally incongruous cuisine. Legend perpetuates its bifurcated system that caters differently to insiders and the uninitiated and, as a result, everybody loses: the restaurant doesn’t develop the reputation it deserves, the uninitiated customer remains one, and the overall quality of the food suffers, because the overtaxed kitchen is trying to cook in three idioms at once.
There is so much to unpack here about why this goes on, and, encouragingly, how and why it has begun to change, that I’ll never do it in one blog post. I’ve been fretting about the title question so hard and for so long that I know that attempting to answer it will be a major part of my studies, if not my life’s work.