It’s opening time at RedFarm, an unassuming New York hotspot that promises “Chinese cuisine with greenmarket sensibility.” A seamless mix of English, Mandarin and Cantonese flows out of the kitchen. The waiters bustle around the dining room — rustic and chic with wood beams, whitewashed brick, gingham tablecloths and touchingly mismatched chairs. A plate shatters, and one of the staff shouts “Mazel tov!” mystifying the Chinese cooks.
More curious, however, is Ed Schoenfeld, RedFarm’s co-owner, who is sitting at a table, sinking his teeth into a pastrami egg roll. Schoenfeld is something of an anomaly — a Jewish guy from Brooklyn who has reached the summit of the Chinese food world. His smattering of Cantonese has what he calls “a Brooklyn accent,” and on this day he is clad in red suspenders, a red-striped shirt and red-rimmed glasses. (He earned the vaguely mobsterish nickname “Eddie Glasses” because he has the same outfit in eight different colors.) At 62, the serial restaurateur and restless impresario is lauded as an authority on haute Chinese cuisine.
Check out Ed Schoenfeld’s recipe for Schmaltzy Chicken Fried Rice.
Indeed, RedFarm, which has been open for less than a year, serves such offbeat dishes as Pac-Man dumplings and Kowloon filet mignon tarts. It may be, however, the auspicious Year of the Dragon, which begins on January 23, that proves Schoenfeld’s most successful. With RedFarm as the flagship, Schoenfeld plans to revolutionize Chinese delivery in New York and to develop a premier, nationally recognized Asian grocery line, placing him among the ranks of Jewish Chinese food moguls like Eddie Scher, creator of the Soy Vay sauces, and the Epstein family, founders of Kari-Out, the largest distributor of soy sauce packets in America. In the more immediate future, he hopes to bring a new RedFarm restaurant to a major epicenter of Jewish Chinese fressing — Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Schoenfeld’s affinity for Chinese food began in his childhood. “Chinese food represented food that was deeply tasty, exotic and financially accessible” for Jewish immigrants and their children, he explained. He characterized it as a forbidden fruit, or “safe treyf,” the phrase coined by sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine.
Growing up in a Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and Ethical Culture family, Schoenfeld first learned to cook on a six-burner stove with his grandmother Goldie. “[She was] a matriarch to three families who raised 19 kids and cooked for 25 people twice a day. I don’t know how she got the food home,” Schoenfeld said.
At 18, while still a student at New York University (he eventually dropped out to pursue a culinary career), Schoenfeld began hosting special banquets for diehard foodies at Chinese restaurants around New York.
Thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the timing could not have been better: “There was a generation of chefs who arrived in this country in the late ’60s and early ’70s, who were some of the very high-end chefs who chose not to stay in China [because they] couldn’t really practice their craft in the way they had,” Schoenfeld said. On the mainland, the communists “took everyone’s metal utensils from their homes, so it affected not just restaurant cooking, where you could no longer cook fancy food, but it affected home cooking.” With the onset of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the transmission of Chinese culinary traditions was abruptly, traumatically broken: Haute cuisine fled the country or went underground.
Meanwhile, émigrés from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere elevated the sophistication, authenticity and regional diversity of New York’s Chinese food scene virtually overnight — and suddenly Schoenfeld, still in his early 20s, knew all the players.
He studied with the aristocratic Grace Chu, who had reportedly served dinner to Stalin as the wife of a Kuomintang military attaché who helped run the embassy in Moscow. He worked as a host at Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan, a four-star restaurant that helped introduce Hunan cuisine to America, wearing “the world’s tackiest polyester blue tuxedo with pattern fabric… in a ruffled shirt with a blue bow tie.” At one point, a prominent Chinese restaurateur asked Schoenfeld to drive around with him and point out all the Jewish neighborhoods — targets for an expanding empire of Szechuan restaurants. “It was kind of like joining a fraternity. They hazed me endlessly when I first started,” Schoenfeld said of being white (and Jewish) in a Chinese-dominated world. In one restaurant, he said, “if a customer was a bad tipper, the pejorative for him was jautaai [‘Jew’ in Cantonese].”
Over the past four decades, Schoenfeld has helped shape the development of Chinese food in America. From the Shun Lee restaurants to Pig Heaven, the elegant Auntie Yuan and the classic Chinatown Brasserie, he has served as concept creator, talent scout, taster and public relations guru, among many other roles. He has championed “unabashedly inauthentic” American Chinese cooking, while emphasizing authentic regionalism and fresh, greenmarket ingredients. He has consulted for casinos, governments, real estate developers and restaurant businesses from Miami to Hong Kong. Closer to his roots, Schoenfeld makes a mean matzo ball soup (lauded by Jewish cooking authority Joan Nathan on her series shown on the Public Broadcasting Service, “Jewish Cooking in America”) and is proud of his self-described role as a “consigliere” for Mark Federman of Russ and Daughters deli.
Back at RedFarm, the pastrami egg roll is no more: A few crunchy, smoky bites, cooled by a creamy, kaffir lime-enhanced mustard was all it took. Another plate arrives: smoked salmon “bruschetta”— perfect disks of Asian eggplant tempura topped by a palette-bursting salad of smoked salmon, black caviar and creamy avocado. Are these the first tantalizing morsels of a new Sino-Jewish fusion cuisine? Dim sum fit for a deli? Schoenfeld demurs with an innocent grin: “There was no conscious attempt on my part to do Jewish Chinese food.”
Ross Perlin served as the Forverts’s China correspondent. A writer and linguist, his most recent book is “Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” (Verso, 2011).
This story "Saying Mazel Tov in Mandarin" was written by Ross Perlin.