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A Tale of two chefs: Life’s dishes going hot and cold

By 21 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Julie Chang

Oodles of noodles: A Xi'an chef perfects a local delicacy, liangpi | Photo by Julie Chang

Bai Zhuxian’s modest Shaanxi eatery is easily overlooked amid the many retail signs that decorate the bustling streets of central Xi’an. Yet just around the corner, Chef Wong’s Prosperity and Fortune Restaurant, boasting both neon lights and promises of what could only be good things, could bewitch any passerby.

However, the vast difference between the two establishments does not lie in their physical exteriors but rather in the attitudes of the chefs who work there.

“When you go into the kitchen, all you deal with is smoke and grease, and it is not good for your health,” Wong says. “Cooking is just another job.”

As China experiences a rapidly growing economy, today’s youth increasingly have opportunities to pursue careers that were not open to their parents. And now, as these graying adults find that it is too late to take advantage of the altered career climate, many middle-aged people like Wong have grown weary of their professions.

“At the beginning I treated [cooking] as a hobby and worried about food tasting good,” Wong says. Cooking has now become a service industry where chefs simply cater to their customers’ demands, Wong says.

Wong received professional training from Shaanxi Culinary School when he was 19. He chose to become a chef because of an interest in the culinary characteristics of each Chinese region, and simply because he enjoyed eating. Now at the age of 48, he believes that there is nothing left to know about cooking.

Unlike Wong however, 56-year old Bai, owner of a small restaurant she runs with her family, still finds walking into work everyday a pleasure.

“I like [cooking].” Bai says. “If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be doing it. Bai’s restaurant serves only one dish, liangpi, the rice noodles popular in Shaanxi province.

Unable to attend college and eager to help her husband start a business, Bai learned to make liangpi from a chef in her hometown 30 years ago. Bai, along with her family members and employees who all refer to her as “Ma,” makes the noodles from scratch, from grinding rice into flour all the way to the forming thin noodle strands.

“Making liangpi is very complicated, but I make it very well,” Bai says with a smile.

The cold dish is simple, served with vinegar, pepper oil, and soybean sprouts. Yet the pride and care that Bai takes in her single dish translates into the home-style taste that local customers have come to enjoy.

“I like that the customers treat us like we’re family members,” Bai says. “Every time customers come here, they are happy.”

Although Wong does not see himself continuing to cook either recreationally or professionally after retirement, Bai still aspires to enlarge her restaurant in years to come.

“I like that I do my job very well,” she says. “It motivates me to make [my restaurant] bigger.”

Photo by Julie Chang

Small is beautiful: A street-side eatery specializes in Shaanxi cuisine |Photo by Julie Chang

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