The Chinese (Michelin) Star of Paris

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fung Ching Chen wanted to be a scientist. But China's Cultural Revolution intervened, and he became a chef instead.

Last month, in what some in French gastronomic circles consider another revolution, Chen's Parisian restaurant, Chen-Soleil d'Est (Chen--Sun of the East), became the first Chinese restaurant to be granted a star in the Michelin Guide.

Unlike most of the French-born chefs listed in France's red-covered bible of serious cuisine, Chen did not start his French cooking career with Michelin in mind.

"When people were telling me about the little red book, I thought of the one I used to carry everywhere back in China," says Chen, 48. That red book didn't contain restaurant listings, of course, but the quotations of Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.

For six years, at his cozy location downstream from the Eiffel Tower, Chen has been endeavoring to marry traditional Chinese methods with the best French ingredients. Out of the kitchen he closely and nervously supervises come, among other dishes, poularde de Bresse en feuilles de lotus (fattened Bresse chicken in lotus leaves) and canard de Challans a la Pekinoise (Peking duck made with ducks from Challans, reputedly the best in France).

The fusion dishes on Chen's menu have charmed the Parisian public and critics alike. "While most of Chinese cooks stick to tradition, he is very creative," says Jean-Claude Mariani, a Paris-based gourmet and food writer.

When this year's Michelin Guide--the 90th--came out in March, Chen-Soleil d'Est was one of 405 restaurants in France to be awarded a star. One star means, according to Michelin, "a very good restaurant in its category."

Until last month, only four restaurants serving non-French food in France had been granted that distinction. Three of those were Italian or Scandinavian; the only non-European honoree served Moroccan food.

"What I try to do is to make food as good as you can find in China," Chen says.

That simple but ambitious credo has led the muscular, energetic cook on an extraordinary life's journey. One of nine children of a farming family near the southern Chinese city of Shanghai, Chen was helping his mother in the kitchen by age 10.

At 16, he started work as a kitchen hand in a nearby restaurant. That year began the tumultuous decade-long Cultural Revolution.

"People were shooting at each other in the streets, and the schools were closed," Chen remembers. His teenage mind was captivated by his science courses, and he had hoped to make a career in the field. But when the classrooms closed, his thoughts turned to the kitchen.

"What attracted me to cooking was the fact that I could prepare the same foods differently and still make them taste delicious," he recalls. That passion soon convinced him to leave his homeland.

"In China, we lacked many ingredients to practice with; everything we learned remained theoretical," Chen explains. "It was impossible to find shark fins or birds' nests."

A restaurateur he met told him there were no shortages in Hong Kong, then a British colony, so Chen left Shanghai. He didn't have the right papers and was detained at the Chinese border for six hours. He finally received permission to leave the country but only for seven days.

"Once I got to Hong Kong, I knew I would be staying more than a week," he says. He managed to obtain a local identity card and started to work in one of the bustling colony's restaurants. He sought tirelessly to master his trade.

"When I was an apprentice cook in Hong Kong, I could work 20 hours a day just to learn something new," he says.

In 1972, when the budding chef was 21, one of his friends moved halfway across the world to Paris. Chen immediately decided to follow. Already, he had the dream of opening a great restaurant serving gourmet Chinese dishes.

He started in Paris near the bottom, working at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter. The Chinese consider eight a lucky number, and that's how many years it took him to save enough money to open his own place in the Paris suburb of Ste. Genevieve des Bois.

It prospered, but for Chen, it was the minor leagues. His ambition had turned to owning a restaurant in one of the most finicky gourmet towns in the world, Paris, where "eating Chinese" usually means quick and cheap takeout food reheated at home.

"I wanted people to see Chinese cooking differently, with our 4,000 years of civilization," he says, "and not only as low-quality greasy-spoon stuff."

A word about Chen's style: It is a fusion of the traditions he has picked up from Shanghai and Hong Kong and Paris. His native region is renowned for its soups, soy-based dishes and noodles. The shark fins and birds' nests on Chen's three-page menu are typical Cantonese fare. Hong Kong's Teo Chew (Chiu Chow) cuisine is akin to Cantonese but uses more seafood. Peking duck, as the name indicates, is a dish of the Chinese capital. Sichuan salt-and-pepper fried frogs' legs is an unexpected joining of a French dish and a blend of spices from a province of central China.

Chen's flexibility in the kitchen even takes into account the wishes of individual customers. "There are not many meals on my menu," he says, "but I season them according to the client's taste." Not all French chefs would do so.

In Chen's adopted country, where cooking is a keen topic of conversation, such an eclectic approach has its critics. Purists say Chen's inventions lack authenticity and are too Europeanized. They argue, for instance, that you simply cannot use lean French-bred poultry to make Peking duck. Chen's defenders counter that he has adapted old Chinese recipes to please Western palates and the desire for less fat.

Lunch at Chen-Soleil d'Est runs about $35, dinner between about $45 and $80. That's twice as much as typical Chinese takeout here, but reasonable for a top-rated Paris restaurant.

The two-story dining room, divided into smoking and nonsmoking sections, looks Western. A row of metal dragons at the entrance is one of the few hints of the chef's origins. Customers sit in wooden armchairs and eat off fine china, to the soothing sounds of the artificial waterfall in the lobby. The air is slightly fragrant with Asian spices.

In the kitchen, Chen's staff prepares the ingredients, but he is the one to use the wok. As he cooks, he says, his heart beats faster with excitement. His dedication to his profession is all-consuming.

"Everywhere I go, whatever I do, I always have something on my mind," he says in passable French. He is already thinking about winning a second Michelin star, a prize only 74 restaurants in France, all serving French cuisine, were awarded this year. Then--who knows?--perhaps a third star, the ultimate honor granted to a mere 21 French chefs.

Determination, says Chen, is one of the traits that makes for a great cook, and there is no doubt that he has plenty of that. Who else in the Michelin Guide can boast a career spanning the distance between Communist China and the Left Bank of Paris, all for the love of preparing and serving great food?

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