As part of our ongoing Evolution of a Dish series, we caught up with Chef Connie Chung, founder of Milu Restaurant in New York City.
A great dish has to fire on all cylinders. Taste, texture, temperature, consistency, margin. And the best dishes also tell us a story. It can be a simple one, or a complex one filled with nostalgia and provoking thought. But either way, this to me is where the craft of cooking converges with the art of telling your story through food. And doing that everyday, on time, on demand, with a team you can count on; all the while keeping a business going successfully, is why cooking will never be just an art form. The craft always comes first.
Chef Connie shares with us a bit about her process, her ambitions to change the perception of Chinese Food in America, and how she brought the Mandarin Duck to life at her new restaurant Milu.
First, a little background on Connie:
Is there a message you're trying to convey in your food and with Milu?
I want to bring more traditional Chinese flavors and dishes to the forefront and make Chinese Food more approachable and a bit more modern. And from a personal perspective, I think food shouldn't be fussy. It should just be delicious. That's all I really care about. I want food that when I eat it, I just want more.
What does Chinese food mean to you?
Well, first and foremost it of course means food from China, but that can mean a lot of different things. It's no different to me than referring to American food. It's an incredibly vague term, but it can mean a gazillion different things. Unfortunately most Americans think of typical Chinese take out and General Tsao's chicken when they think of Chinese food. Someone called yesterday yelling on the phone, "why don't you guys have egg foo young?" I hope we can help to change the perception of what Chinese Food in America
Is there something about or your background that many people wouldn't know that impacts your cooking?
I have a degree in chemical biology from UC Berkley. I did not particularly like my major, let's start there. I think that college was a great life experience. Aside from the academia, I learned how to organize my life and just generally be organized. And I learned the importance of just getting shit done, and sometimes you just have to make it happen. That was a great life lesson that most definitely helps in the kitchen, because so much of cooking in a restaurant professionally is about organization. If you work in kitchens, you know that. But if you haven't worked in a professional kitchen, you probably wouldn't realize or appreciate the amount of organization and planning it requires. You can't just run without a plan. The ability to structure your day and work efficiently is definitely a skill that requires honing.
Is there something you took away from your time at UC Berkeley that you've been able to apply to your work in the kitchen?
I'm not gonna lie. I don't really remember a lot of college. But yes, I do think there was a lot of emphasis on critical thinking and how to solve a problem. instead of just memorizing a formula.
What part of the process of cooking in the professional setting do you love most?
I would say prep for me is definitely preferred, you know, the AM shift. Service is great, and I enjoy the rush, especially a lunch service because it's a quick wham bam, you're done. You feel accomplished, and then it's over, and now you can get back to production.
The Dish: Mandarin Duck from Milu
Where did the idea for this dish come from?
My favorite protein is duck, so that was kind of automatic. I knew that a duck breast was out of the question for a fast casual concept, so that left the leg. To me, the best way to cook a duck leg is to confit it.
Starting with the duck confit, it kind of made sense to reference Peking duck. So that’s where the hoisin came from. As a restaurant/concept, we decided on rice bowls. So then I also pulled inspiration for Hainanese chicken rice - where the chicken is poached and then the rice is cooked with the drippings and stock from the poached chicken. I took that idea and applied it to the duck. I made a “sofrito” for lack of a better term with duck fat, onions, garlic, ginger, and mushrooms, and cooked the rice with that. And then Hainanese chicken rice is classically served with slices of raw cucumbers. But of course, I couldn’t do something as simple as raw cucumber. So we score the cucumbers, salt them, and then dress them with a chili and roasted garlic sauce.
How do you capture ideas? And where do you store your recipes?
Scribbled notes in notebooks. When I have time, I try and transcribe them into a “clean” notebook as the one I keep with me in the kitchen can get quite messy.
When you have so many ideas, and so many years of recipe development, since I haven’t digitized all my notes, finding things sometimes can be hard.
Tell us about your creative Process? What factors (internal & external) do you consider when developing a new dish?
It definitely depends. For this dish, the starting point was the protein - the duck. But sometimes, it can start with an idea. Like this dish could have started with “I want to pay homage to Hainanese chicken rice but with a twist. So I’ll do duck instead of chicken.” Or something like that.
In this fast casual setting, we absolutely want to cross utilize recipes, so we look for inspiration in our current recipes. This is more a function of efficiency and cost effectiveness. But in a more fine dining setting, like when I was at EMP, I think it’s the opposite. It’s more about trying to do things as new and different every time, I felt like. There were a few exceptions of course, where there was tried and true methods for cooking certain ingredients which we just didn’t mess with.
I think the story is definitely important. If there’s a story behind the dish, it just makes more sense to you in your head, and it ends up coming out better and better tasting in the end. I think you also have to think about what people like. As chefs, we are cooking for our guests. I personally don’t like bacon (shocking I know) but I’ll put it in a dish, if it fits, because I know that most people like it.
How do you iterate on a dish?
A great example would be the updates we've made to our marinated cucumbers. When we did all of our testing in small batches, they were great. But when we started to scale up and produce in larger batches for service, we were getting complaints that they were salty. The process originally was to salt them, then marinate. We realized we needed to rinse them after salting. Now they're great every time! The feedback is super important. We have a bulletin board in the kitchen, and we add announcements like this about adjustment to process so the whole team is aware.
When and how does the cost of the dish come into play?
Usually quite at the end. It’s 2 different mind sets, creating food and thinking about cost and execution. If you think about the cost and execution too early, your creativity will be stifled. I leave it to the end, and then make adjustments as necessary if required.
How do you delegate and train to ensure the dish is being executed well even when you're not on the line?
The most effective way, in my opinion, is hands on training. A well written recipe is essential, but nothing is better than showing someone, working side by side. If you take the time/have the time to do this, you are more likely to get a result that’s closer to when how you make it yourself. Nobody does a recipe for the first time by themselves.
Recipes in a professional kitchen should not be up to interpretation. I can attribute a lot of this approach to my time at EMP, where we were rigorous about having well written recipes with clear instructions
I always also make sure my manager cooks the entire menu side by side with me. We did this with our photo shoot of the whole menu, so my manager knew exactly how to do everything.
What's next up for you and Milu?
We are really excited about our menu for the Chinese New Year. It's launching February 12th and the menu testing is just about done!
You can find out more about Chef Connie Chung here:
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