The first appetizer Olivia Wu and her son, Erling Wu-Bower, serve for Chinese New Year isn’t Chinese at all. It’s mian kam, a Thai finger food that is a one-bite riot of hot, sour, salty, sweet. They are a fitting start to a celebratory feast that traces the culinary journey of Wu, a celebrated Northern California-based cooking teacher, and Wu-Bower, a James Beard Award-nominated Chicago chef.
“If there’s any place I consider a hometown, it’s Bangkok,” Wu says. When she was a baby, her family tucked her into a fruit basket and fled their native Shanghai on a plane headed for Thailand, to escape the Communist takeover because of her father’s strong Nationalist ties. In Bangkok, Wu ate Shanghainese food at home and Thai food out in the world. She moved to the United States for college at 16, and started cooking to ease her homesickness.
Wu raised Wu-Bower in the suburbs of Chicago; he remembers trekking into the city every week to scour farmer’s markets, Vietnam Town and Chinatown for ingredients. Nearly 30 years later, they are both chefs. Wu lives in the Bay Area; Wu-Bower runs Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, but they reunite at Wu’s Moss Beach home to cook a feast for Lunar New Year.
Wu-Bower slices cilantro while Wu debones pork belly. She’s so happy with all the prep he knocks out, she claps. He’s so moved by her braising sauce, he mutters an expletive; she scolds playfully. He tastes her chicken soup and says, “I’d add more shiitakes.” She vetoes his idea of sesame oil in the beet marinade. They discuss how to best load the refrigerator for a solid five minutes.
They finalize their menu only after a stop at the harbor where they buy spot prawns off a shrimping boat, at the Chinese supermarket for fresh bamboo shoots and a foraging walk in the woods. She finds nasturtiums growing wild and wants to use them in place of betel leaves in her mian kam. Wu-Bower is careful to not crush the patch with his Vans and helps his mom pluck the greenest rounds the way she instructs.
With her family scattered around the world, Wu says she turned Lunar New Year into “a cooking celebration for me and Erling with our chosen family.”
In childhood, that included Wu’s colleagues, her son’s soccer team, and chef and restaurateur couple Rick and Deann Bayless. Now, it’s chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski and former colleagues from Wu’s careers at the San Francisco Chronicle and as an executive chef at Google. Their menu has evolved with their culinary paths while retaining ties to their past.
“Mom’s life and my life are such a collection of different cultures. Ours is not a traditional Chinese New Year’s by any means, ” Wu-Bower says.
Still, Wu says, “I’m looking for authenticity because that’s my generation. I’m the immigrant.”
“I’m not,” Wu-Bower responds. “I’m so proud of being Chinese — I always have been — but I just want to cook the food I want to eat. I want an amalgamation of my childhood: heavily Chinese and Thai, Cajun and Creole from dad, Mexican from Rick [Bayless], Middle Eastern and Italian from Chicago.”
Wu respects his stance, but explains her creative process further, “I want to trace where things come from. I dig really deep into roots, and then, I can fly.”
And Wu-Bower counters, “Mom, you taught me through our ingredient shopping sprees. Now that I’ve got stuff from around the world in the pantry, there are no rules to it.”
Their approaches converge when they create a dish as a team. Thousand-year eggs are a standard new year symbol of fertility; they whisk them into a vinaigrette that is drizzled over silken tofu, Santa Barbara uni and more eggs.
Red, a lucky celebration hue, shows up in a chile paste massaged into crab the color of flames and also in soy-braised Swiss chard with marinated beets. The latter dish pairs Wu’s chard with Wu-Bower’s beets and exemplifies the divergence of their styles. Wu cooks bright red Swiss chard from her local farm using a technique she learned in Ningbo, China; Wu-Bower’s beet marinade pairs shallots with a sticky rice vinegar he tasted, loved, and wanted to use.
Wu-Bower had been cooking alongside his mom — and for his mom the nights she worked late — all his life. He always suspected he wanted to be a chef, but her move to California, when he was a senior in high school, cemented it. Nothing ever tasted like fusion in his mom’s cooking, but the diversity and quality of the ingredients in California was a revelation to them both. When he ate his way around the state for the first time, he tasted memories of what he’d grown up eating — and expansions on it.
After training professionally in California and Chicago through his college years and beyond, Wu-Bower opened Pacific Standard Time as an homage to his mom’s new state and what he calls his true “food home.”
At their Lunar New Year feast, their “chosen family” spears slices of silky cured duck that Wu-Bower has brought with him from his restaurant off the lazy Susan alongside a crunchy pickle quartet, and juicy pomelos and blood oranges soaked with a cilantro vinaigrette and mounded with spot prawns. Crackle-bottomed pork dumplings, raw fish with Chinese dried lemon, the chard and beets, grilled char siu and raw chile-rubbed crab fill out the table. And those are just the cold courses.
Wu ladles an interlude of soup made with a whole yellow chicken per new year custom and adds the bean curd knots and fresh bamboo shoots her mother craved in Thailand but couldn’t find.
The empty soup bowls are filled with red rice from Thailand, to soak up sauces from the hot dishes. Local black cod is steamed until slick and meaty, then showered with cilantro, scallions and chiles and a lashing of sizzling oil. Standard mapo tofu gets a blanket of Dungeness crab. The classic caramelization of soy-braised pork belly deepens with the addition of bourbon. A green-on-green dish of smashed fava beans swirled with pickled mustard greens cuts the richness of the meat and fish and tempers the heat of the tofu.
For the final course, Wu carries on one of her mom’s traditions, albeit in her own way.
“Every Chinese New Year, my mom gave me a red apple because the Chinese word for apple sounds like peace,” she says. “Having a life defined by so many wars, that was what my mom wanted the most for the new year.”
That’s why Wu now serves apple tarte tatin as her Lunar New Year dessert. She first learned how to make it during formal patisserie training in France and has adapted it by adding dried red jujubes.
No, tarte tatin is not Chinese. But it’s a part of who Wu is as a cook and represents what she’s taught her son about Lunar New Year.
“I’ve learned that I need to be honest with my heritage and what my history is and I also need to look forward,” he says.