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Special Restaurant Issue | Lotus Land

The unlikely revolutionary

With quiet grace and a wide range of fresh, inventive dishes, chef Chen Chen Liang of New Concept is changing the face of Chinese cuisine in Los Angeles.

June 19, 2005|Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons is a columnist for The Times' Food section.

The dishes are breathtaking, one after another: an astonishingly unctuous square of braised pork belly set off by a jewel-like bouquet of crisp cooked vegetables. The sweet ocean flavor of flash-fried shrimp, accented by the rich, nutty taste of toasted oatmeal. Thinly sliced, perfectly cooked broccoli stems, artfully arranged on a platter of ice and ready to dip in a piquant sauce--"vegetable sashimi," it's called. A spinach dough that turns one bit of pastry such a vivid green, it looks like an intricately folded cloisonne pin.

It's food that you can almost imagine being served in the hushed, minimalist dining room of an ultra-modern French restaurant. But this is an ordinary, bustling restaurant on a commercial strip of the San Gabriel Valley, a 6-month-old Chinese spot with an expressly utilitarian name: New Concept.

Still, it just might be the start of a revolution. Until now, Chinese cooking in the United States has pretty much focused on a narrow range of classics. Restaurants specialize in the traditional dishes of a single region, and strive night after night to perfect them.

New Concept marks a radical departure. Its dishes are fresh and inventive, and drawn from all over China and even beyond--a long riff influenced by the East and West, written in Chinese, English and French and not above a hint of whimsy. Soda Pop Flavored Chicken Wings, anyone?

But the most important difference is one that most non-Chinese may not even notice: Chef Chen Chen Liang's name appears on the menu.

While this kind of publicity may be the norm in ambitious dining rooms everywhere else, it is simply not done in the Chinese restaurant world. Here chefs traditionally are regarded as nameless, faceless workers, known only to their employers and the most inquisitive of foodies.

By placing Chen front-and-center, New Concept is positioning him to become the first Chinese star chef in the United States. In the more traditional world of Chinese cooking, it is a daring maneuver--and one whose success is anything but assured.

Chen is certainly off to a good start. Although New Concept has been open only since December, Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila already has given the restaurant a rare three-star rating, calling it "the place of the moment" for those "who really know Chinese food."

The restaurant is packed. And the two private dining rooms, where banquet menus can run $180 a person and up, are fully booked. Lunch is even more popular. Lines often run out the door for the innovative dim sum that Chen creates with chef Tom Lu.

Chinese restaurant maven Carl Chu, author of "Chinese Food Finder: Los Angeles," says Chen's visibility "is groundbreaking, if they're willing to stick to it.

"For the Chinese, there are still some cultural barriers that are going to have to be overcome," he says. "I'm Chinese and I know how deep that goes, but it could work. It's possible that the younger generation like me, which has been brought up in the Western style, will be more open to appreciating a chef who's taking a starring role."

so who is this guy who is changing the face of Chinese cooking in Los Angeles? Sitting in the dining room, answering questions, Chen seems a most unlikely revolutionary. He listens patiently and answers quietly, referring now and then to his kitchen notebook, where the specifics of dishes are annotated in perfect columns of precisely marked Chinese characters.

The 51-year-old Chen has been in this country for less than a year and is still struggling with English. For translation, he relies on restaurant manager Gary Ye, born in mainland China yet almost startlingly fluent in vernacular American English ("I learned everything from listening to Chick Hearn," he says).

No Western, media-groomed glamour boy, Chen looks, frankly, more than a little worn out. There is a blaze of white in his black hair and his eyes are slightly bloodshot.

He seems infinitely more comfortable at the stove, where he can be found most nights manning the No. 1 wok position, the one that handles the most expensive ingredients and trickiest dishes.

Chen started cooking at 16. As the oldest of eight children, he had to work to help the family. And since he had an uncle in the restaurant business in Hong Kong, the choice of careers was easy.

The turning point in his life--both personally and professionally--came when he was in his late 20s. Until then, cooking had been little more than a job, something he could do to put food on the table. Then, almost on a whim, he followed a friend to Germany, where he helped open a Chinese restaurant.

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