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The Interpreter and The Source

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The Interpreter and The Source
Sichuan Steamed Flounder / Text by Amy C. Evans / Photos by Julie Soefer

IN HOUSTON, THE COLLABORATION BETWEEN TWO TRADITIONAL CHINESE CHEFS AND ONE AMERICAN CELEBRITY CHEF BRINGS UNEXPECTED FLAVOR TO THE CITY

What the hell is beef and broccoli?” That was Heng Chen’s reaction to the Chinese food he encountered when he first arrived in the United States.

Heng and his wife, Cori Xiong, were both born in China and spent their formative years in Texas. They met in Austin while attending the University of Texas, where they studied economics. In 2008, they married and decided to build a life together. A life around food. Cori grew up in her father’s restaurant in Plano, Texas, called Little Sichuan Cuisine, so she already knew the ins and outs of the restaurant business.

Chen and Xiong found an available space in a strip mall in Houston’s growing Chinatown neighborhood on the city’s west side and recognized that the market there had room for an authentic Sichuan restaurant. They recruited a seasoned chef, Rong Wu, who trained at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in Xiong’s hometown of Chengdu, China, to helm the kitchen. In 2011, they opened Mala Sichuan Bistro, featuring an extensive menu celebrating the distinct flavors of the Sichuan peppercorn.

Heartland to Houston

Photo by Julie Soefer
Photos by Julie Soefer

In 2012, Nebraska native Chris Shepherd opened Underbelly, his highly anticipated restaurant where the inspiration, ingredients, and techniques he’s gleaned from Houston’s diverse immigrant population find a presence on every plate.

Shepherd is a rabid locavore, sourcing ingredients from farmers and fishermen from around the Texas Gulf Coast. But he doesn’t limit himself to what he can get from known purveyors; Shepherd immerses himself in Houston’s diverse culinary scene for even more. He spends quite a lot of time eating around Houston, looking for unique dishes that satisfy his hunger for new information, new connections.

Part of a chef’s training is to stage—to intern in another chef’s kitchen to learn about new techniques and cuisines. Chris Shepherd is staging all over Houston all of the time. His approach is unique, for he looks past the plate, into the kitchen, relentlessly questioning the people he recognizes can teach him something.

Peppercorn as Game Changer

Photo by Julie Soefer
Qing Yi Se (Peppercorn Bomb Frog) / Photo by Julie Soefer

The dish that knocked Shepherd’s socks off when he first visited Mala Sichuan Bistro was the Spicy and Crispy Chicken: “It was approachable, kick-ass fried chicken, but it had a pronounced flavor profile. The peppercorns are the part of the dish that make you go, SHIT!” Shepherd loved the numbing kick, but he also appreciated the spice’s floral notes. He picked up some peppercorns at a market in Chinatown and took them back to his kitchen at Underbelly.

As is Shepherd’s MO, he experimented with a culinary and cultural mash-up: using Sichuan peppercorns in a saucisson sec, a variety of French sausage. His first cure was a success, but there was something missing. After Shepherd made many more visits to Mala and got to know Xiong and Chen, Xiong offered to share some of her precious peppercorn stash—the ones that her father imports directly from China—with Shepherd. Their quality, he decided, was unrivaled.

Shepherd added his Sichuan Peppercorn Saucisson Sec to Underbelly’s charcuterie plate and continued experimenting with the peppercorns in other dishes. His steamed whole flounder with citrus and Sichuan peppercorns is another way he’s found to highlight the unique mala flavor he’s hooked on.

But, at the end of the day, Shepherd is still a white guy making use of a signature Sichuan ingredient. And Xiong says she can tell. Shepherd’s hand is still shy, his mala too subtle. But Shepherd is okay with that. Because what really matters to him is getting a better sense of place in his adopted hometown of Houston and sharing his discoveries with anyone who will listen. This James Beard Award-winning chef has a quite celebrated platform from which to preach, and people are definitely paying attention.

The Interpreter and the Source

Photo by Julie Soefer
Feng Wei La Zi Ji Ding (Spicy and Crispy Chicken) / Photos by Julie Soefer

This dynamic is a bit unusual, though. A chef’s inspiration is often repackaged as a one-sided experience, with little nod to the actual source. To Shepherd, this seems painfully shortsighted. “It’s like watching a movie halfway,” he says. “To truly understand, you have to see someone do it. You have to be able to understand the why and the how.”

And to Shepherd, you also have a responsibility to give back.

For Xiong and Chen, their interactions with Shepherd and the attention they’ve received as a result have boosted their confidence. So much so, in fact, that they are currently working to open a second location in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, far from Chinatown, in the heart of the city, as luck or fate would have it, right across the street from Underbelly. Shepherd has requested that a few of his favorite dishes show up on their new menu, but he’s also shared a bit of business advice. He offered Xiong and Chen a few ideas on how to introduce their new client base to the unadulterated soul of traditional Sichuan cuisine, urging them to stick to what they know best.

Xiong and Chen don’t plan on diluting their menu when they leave Chinatown. In fact, they’re intensifying it. Their Peppercorn Bomb Frog is just one of the new dishes they plan to show off.

“I feel like a lot of other Chinese restaurants will try to tone down this flavor just because they feel American diners are unfamiliar with it, and they will get scared off if they put too much mala into it. But that’s the opposite of what I want to do,” says Xiong.

They are making mala mainstream.

As Southern cuisine bends more toward a “New American Creole,” as Chris Shepherd calls it, everyone’s culinary identity now has a place on our plate.

Recipes from Heng Chen and Cori Xiong of Mala

Feng Wei La Zi Ji Ding (Spicy and Crispy Chicken)
Qing Yi Se (Peppercorn Bomb Frog)

Recipes from Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

Sichuan Sausage with Ember Roasted Carrots
Sichuan Steamed Flounder

Mentioned in this post:
Chris Shepherd