Interview conducted by Wenjing Wang, PhD in April 2020.
From a Farm Boy to a Famous Chef
Peter Chang was born in 1963 in a small farming village in Hubei Province in central China. Chang is the oldest of three children in the family. His father practiced traditional medicine and his mother worked as a farmer. “I never thought I could become a chef,” Chang said. “Cooks ranked at the bottom of old Chinese society.” In 1981, Chang took a college entrance exam. He wanted to go to the Zhongnan University of Economics in Hubei, but he ended up attending culinary school in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, because he did not score high enough for his first choice. Chang was very resistant to go to the culinary school at that time. “I had never cooked before and, in rural China at that time, men didn’t cook, only women cooked,” Chang said. Chang’s grandmother persuaded him that he needed a skill to move out of the countryside and, as the eldest son in the family, he needed to think about his parents and his younger siblings. Thus, Chang went to the culinary school and, when he graduated with outstanding grades, he was assigned to work on a luxury cruise ship transporting international visitors on the Yangtze River. Chang met his future wife, Lisa, a pastry chef, on the cruise ship. Then Chang started working at 5-star hotels in China and won national cooking competitions. In 2000, when Chang was working at a luxury hotel in Beijing, one of his friends who was a foreign-service worker suggested that he think about cooking in an overseas embassy and go abroad to see the world. Chang decided to take the foreign service cooking test organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China and got a very high score. “If you score high, you’ll be sent to a better embassy; if you score low, you’ll be sent to an embassy with poorer conditions. I got a very high score, so they sent me to Washington, D.C.,” Chang added.
Chang got a two-year contract to work in the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and he and his family arrived in America in April, 2001. “I had no impression of America at that time,” Chang said. “I didn’t have any relatives or friends in the United States. People said it was the most powerful country in the world, so I just wanted to go out and have a look.” During Chang’s two years working for the ambassador, he investigated the Chinese restaurant market in Washington, D.C. and realized that the so-called “Chinese food” in America was neither authentic nor high quality. “America needs better Chinese restaurants,” Chang said. “I wanted to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to the United States and, based on my years of experience serving foreign guests in China, I believed Americans would like what I made.” Meanwhile, Chang was thinking about the future of his 13 year old daughter, Lydia. “I wanted Lydia to continue her education in the United States because it could be hard for her to switch back and forth between the American and Chinese education systems.” Therefore, one morning in 2003, just days before Chang’s contract was set to expire and they were set to return to China, the Chang family left the embassy with plans to settle in the United States.
“The escaping life was not easy for my family. We needed to hide from Chinese bureaucrats because it violated discipline that we chose not to go back,” Chang said. “We also needed to hide from U.S. immigration officials because we were undocumented here, and because we didn’t have identity documents here, so we couldn’t even buy a car, not to mention open a restaurant. Anyway, from 2003-2010, I had an extremely tangled life,” Chang recalled. In 2003, Chang agreed to work as a chef for a Chinese restaurant in Fairfax, VA. The owner was from Fujian Province, China. “He treated me and Lisa very badly and, as the chef, I got paid as little as people who washed the dishes.” Chang felt he did not receive enough respect from the owner and they were not getting along at all. “He could not see my value, so we left after working for him for one year and four months,” Chang recalled. Then Chang started to work in a restaurant in Alexandria, VA. After a couple months, he returned to Fairfax and worked for another restaurant. Then Chang moved several times, to Atlanta, GA, Tennessee, Harrisburg, PA, back to Atlanta, then to Los Angeles, and then to Charlottesville, VA. “I was looking for a business partner who could see my value and was willing to support my ambition of bringing authentic Chinese cuisine to America, but it was hard. I had disagreements with the restaurant owners so I chose to leave.”
Settling Down and Building the Peter Chang Restaurants
In 2010, when Chang ran Taste of China restaurant in Charlottesville, VA, he met Gen Lee, who was also a Chinese chef and ran a sandwich shop next to Taste of China. “He was the first person that appreciated my ambitions and saw my dreams,” Chang said. “We quickly became good friends and built the partnership.” In 2011, Chang opened his first restaurant, Peter Chang China Grill, in Charlottesville with the help of Gen Lee. “That was my first restaurant. From 2001 to 2011, it took me 10 years to open the first restaurant that really belonged to me, a Peter Chang restaurant.” In early 2012, Chang opened Peter Chang China Cafe in Richmond, VA, and in September 2012, he opened another cafe in Williamsburg, VA. In 2013, Chang opened Peter Chang’s China Cafe in Fredericksburg, VA. In 2015, he opened two more Peter Chang restaurants in Arlington, VA and in Rockville, MD. In 2016, he opened another Peter Chang in Richmond, VA. In May 2017, Chang opened Q by Peter Chang, a flagship restaurant in Bethesda, MD.
In 2019, Chang opened Mama Chang in Fairfax, VA, a restaurant featuring recipes by Chang’s wife and mother. The restaurant honors the women in Chang’s family for their influences in Chang’s culinary career. “It focuses on home-cooked meals and reminds people so much of what they had growing up,” according to Chang.
When asked about whether he had ever thought about going back to China to open restaurants, Chang said, “America is friendly to immigrants. American culture is open and inclusive. The market in the United States is more mature and follows rules. As an immigrant, I knew nobody. But I dared to start a business and I knew I could settle down as long as I had skills and worked hard and was willing to endure hardship. In China, starting a business from scratch is more complicated. The social network is complicated and you need to know the right people. Anyway, the market was less mature in China ten years ago.”
Since Chang decided to move his business center back to Northern Virginia in 2015, Peter Chang’s restaurants has continued to expand. As of April 2020, Peter Chang has more than 11 restaurants throughout Maryland and Virginia with nearly 200 employees. Peter Chang has become a household name for gourmet enthusiasts in Washington, D.C. Chang also received a number of awards and media exposure. Chang was named finalist for best chef Mid-Atlantic in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards in 2016, and he has also cooked several times at the James Beard House in New York City.
“I have been thinking about business transformation for a long time as my restaurants continued expanding, but I never thought it would be a pandemic that prompted me to start putting my imagination into practice,” Chang laughed. “Beginning with Chinese Lunar New Year, which is the 25th of January, some of my restaurants lost about 30 to 40 percent of their diners.” The days before and after Chinese Lunar New Year are usually the days when we have the most diners all year, but with the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and the lockdown of Wuhan, Hubei on January 23rd, the revenues declined significantly, and 50 Lunar New Year dinner reservations were cancelled, according to Chang. “When the outbreak started in March here, my restaurants suffered a more severe blow. When announcements were issued by the government, we followed them and stopped all dine-in options at all Peter Chang restaurants. As a Chinese restaurant, we were hit harder compared to other types of restaurants.”
Chang stated that he chose not to close his restaurants for a couple of reasons. “Of course, closing restaurants is the easiest thing to do. I could choose to close all my restaurants and lay off all my employees; it seems the most worry-free option. But I cannot do that. Being unemployed would be very hard for my staff; they have their own families to support. My community would also be disappointed because they need to eat. I told myself, I need to be responsible to my employees, my community, and the Peter Chang brand.” Chang decided to convert his service into delivery and take-out. Besides online order from the restaurants’ regular menus, he also started a special promotion in WeChat (a social media platform) mainly focused on Chinese-American diners. Each week, the restaurants feature five dishes as ‘deals of the week’ and post the weekly special menu on his online WeChat groups. People in the group fill out forms if they are interested in the special menu and pick it up at different Peter Chang locations. In this way, Chang reduces the cost by mass producing the five dishes and customers can get the dish at a lower price. “In WeChat, I built a culinary group for my diners and gourmet enthusiasts to share food ideas and improve culinary skills. Because of the huge demands, I now have seven such groups and each group has 500 people,” Chang said. “I have been thinking about this for a long time, I call it ‘customized community marketing,’” Chang laughed. “Because I believe this is the trend and the future of the restaurant industry. When the market is sluggish, it is time for restaurants to think about how to survive, and I am happy that I put it into practice.” Chang stated that his online business was going very well and he very much appreciated how his diners and his community supported his business during such a critical period. “If we can survive it, my employees and I will definitely serve the community better and give back to society, and I think we’ll survive,” Chang said optimistically.