Peter Chang does not slow down.
He leaps from the table to offer water to guests. In another moment, he whisks back into the kitchen of his Bethesda restaurant, Q By Peter Chang, to help his staff prepare a massive carryout order for the Dragon Boat Festival, an ancient Chinese holiday that falls in late spring.
Even after sitting back down, Chang, 58, remains in constant motion, fielding calls to his smartphone and twiddling a metal bottle cap with his fingers until it’s bent.
Chang prefers to speak Chinese, but certain things don’t require translation. When he’s asked whether he has any plans to retire, a broad smile creeps across his face. He laughs and shakes his head.
His seemingly boundless energy is a driving force behind Chang’s restaurant empire — which is growing in both scope and culinary world recognition.
Earlier this year, Chang was one of just five chefs across the U.S. to be named a finalist in the James Beard award for the category of “outstanding chef.” He beat out the likes of Baltimore chef Cindy Wolf, who was named a semifinalist but not a finalist.
The final winners will be announced Monday night at a ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; Chang and his family will attend, along with chef collaborators Pichet Ong and Simon Lam.
It’s the first awards ceremony in two years for the Beards, sometimes called the “Oscars of the food world,” and it arrives after a 2021 audit that aimed to overhaul and diversify the program.
Lydia Chang, Peter’s 34-year-old daughter and business partner, was trying to manage expectations in the days ahead of the event.
“We are not there with a goal of winning,” she said. “We are there to enjoy ourselves and to have a great time.”
Lydia also heads up operations at NiHao, the family’s restaurant in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood. The eatery, which opened in 2020, was recognized by the Beard awards as a semifinalist for best new restaurant, but was not a finalist.
Chang said he never envisioned achieving this level of success when he first left China two decades ago. “Chinese cuisine is still a pretty minor type of food in the United States,” he said through translator, friend and business partner, Lawrence Chen.
Like Wolf, Chang previously has been a Beard finalist in the Mid-Atlantic regional “best chef” category. But the national nomination is a new level of recognition, one that signifies his impact in getting American diners to understand the nuances of Chinese cuisine.
To some, it’s past time.
Fuchsia Dunlop, a London-based cook and food writer who specializes in Chinese cuisine said, “It’s about time that the gastronomic establishment in the West gave Chinese cuisine its due.” Dunlop, who has eaten at Chang’s Northern Virginia restaurant Mama Chang in Fairfax, hopes that his Beard nomination “opens a path for greater recognition in the West, not just of the tastiness of Chinese cuisine, but its sophistication as an art form.”
People in the West tend to “undervalue Chinese food while finding it delicious,” said Dunlop. Aspects of Chinese cooking like wok technique might seem simple to Americans, but in fact have ancient roots and require deep focus and skill to ensure that everything is cooked just right at high heat.
Steve Chu, co-owner of Ekiben, a Chinese fusion restaurant in Baltimore, said he’s familiar with Chinese food being undervalued. Growing up, he was accustomed to disparaging comments made by some customers at his father’s restaurant, Jumbo Seafood in Pikesville. If the business raised prices even a few cents, a customer might ask: “Isn’t Chinese food supposed to be cheap?”
When Chu heard of Chang’s nomination for the Beard, he thought: “It’s about goddamn time.”
Raised on a farm just outside of Wuhan, China, Chang moved to the U.S. with his wife, Lisa, a pastry chef, and then-14-year-old Lydia, two decades ago as a chef for the Chinese embassy.
After he left that position, he labored for years in relative anonymity in the kitchens of restaurants in Virginia, with names like China Star and TemptAsian, according to a 2010 New Yorker profile.
Yet his well-seasoned Sichuan staples, unlike anything else available in the region at the time, caught the attention of a coterie of hyperfans who began seeking out the intense flavors that stood out in his cooking. His followers termed themselves “Changians” and tracked his whereabouts as he moved from restaurant to restaurant.
At first, Chang avoided the spotlight, fearful of attracting the ire of the Chinese government after leaving the embassy job. But in 2011, he opened his first Peter Chang restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia. This fall, Chang will open a 10th branch in Columbia, in the Merriweather District. A new eatery, Chang Chang, will open in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood this fall, as well.
A new concept, Peter Zhang, is set to launch this year in Fairfax, with future locations planned for Maryland, potentially in Baltimore. Featuring a more streamlined, limited menu than his existing restaurants, Peter Zhang will allow Chang to experiment with a business model that’s been growing in popularity among Asian restaurateurs. At the heart of it all are the bold, dynamic flavors of Sichuan.
A changing dining climate has supported Chinese chefs moving from the margins of the food world to the center of popular cuisine. In places like the U.S. and U.K., “There are quite a lot of chefs producing Chinese food on Chinese terms,” food writer Dunlop said. “There’s a whole new space for really authentic Chinese food.”
Ekiben’s Chu agreed, saying that as China grows as a superpower and more Chinese students travel abroad for school, “Chinese culture and cuisine [is] starting to make headwinds and getting the respect it deserves.” With the popularity of TikTok and other diverse platforms to share conversations about food, more diners are being introduced to food traditions outside of their immediate bubbles, Chu said. “This is probably the most exciting time to be eating in America.”
For business owners, a good translator helps. For the Chang family, that’s typically Lydia. Fluent in English, Mandarin and the Wuhanese dialect, Lydia has helped communicate a unified voice across the family’s restaurant group, which includes concepts in Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut.
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“Lydia’s family has been really great at marketing themselves and marketing Peter,” said Chu, calling the Changs savvy restaurateurs. He added: “They’re also super talented.”
A master chef in her own right, Lisa Chang is behind some of the favorite dishes at the family’s restaurant group, including the scallion bubble pancakes and dim sum dishes. “Anything that has to do with dough is her work,” said Lydia.
Dunlop notes that while Chang has a grounding in the classics of Sichuan cuisine, he isn’t trapped by tradition, choosing instead to innovate and grow as the world around him changes.
During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown in the U.S., Chang was introduced by a friend to an Amish community in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He began sourcing Amish-raised chickens and other produce for his restaurants. Customers “can really taste the difference in the ingredients,” Lydia said.
Chang said he’s fascinated by exploring the different possibilities of basic ingredients, such as how to make dozens of different items from a single cabbage. “There is a Chinese way of saying it. It’s called, ‘Using a dot to explore different angles.’”
With that, Chang charges back into the kitchen to prepare a plate of braised chicken, and another of tofu skin salad seasoned with Sichuan peppercorns, a signature of the region. Called mala in Chinese, they offer a tingling, numbing sensation unlike anything else. No wonder his followers were hooked.
Words can only go so far. At the end of the day, Chang’s first language is food.