‘So what do you think is the reason that you like Dynamite Shrimp?’ or ‘Do you think that PF Chang’s will work in India?’ – well, these were the questions that I was being asked by Mr Philip Chiang, the co founder of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, the popular American casual dining restaurant chain. And I thought that I had come to interview him! In exchange of an exclusive lunch invite to celebrate the opening of another of P.F. Chang’s many outlets (in the World Trade Center Mall in Abu Dhabi) today, I met up with him yesterday in the early morning hours as he visited the restaurant in the Mall of Emirates. This was undoubtedly a much better deal – no other media or invited guests surrounding the man. Here I was chatting to him exclusively, over some Dynamite Shrimp for breakfast.
I looked at my watch when asked ‘Would you like to eat or drink something?’ I grinned, ‘Is it too early for your Dynamite Shrimp?’. I thought I had quipped a very smart one, at 9:30 am in the morning. The kitchen hadn’t yet opened but soon a martini glass with the signature dish arrived at the table, prepared specially for me when I had said that this was my favorite of their menu. Dynamite Shrimp for breakfast? Sin, sin, sin! Unfortunately the secret of the recipe is not out, but here comes a snippet of a fantastic food banter with the man behind the largest full service, casual dining Chinese restaurant chain in the United States and many more outlets across the globe. How did the Dynamite Shrimp of PF Chang get created (a Google search will give you more than 100 ‘copycat recipes‘ for P F Chang’s Dynamite Shrimp!)? It was actually influenced by the British in Hong Kong. Chinese Cuisine doesn’t really have any dairy product and the Dynamite Shrimp has Mayonnaise in it. The British brought that to Hong Kong and soon the Chinese Chefs in Hong Kong discovered it and started using milk proteins. That’s how it came about. We added the spice and a bit more flavor to the recipe.
Chinese cuisine is probably the most popular ‘exported’ of all regional cuisines. PF Chang is known for American Chinese but does the menu change across countries and regions? No it doesn’t. In every restaurant across the world, the flavors and the recipes are consistent. 80-90% of the menu is pretty much the same, whether it is in Mexico or Colombia. Maybe, we could add a bit more spice in Mexico but that’s about it. In the States, we have a few more items, otherwise it’s exactly the same. The people who come into any particular location, expect the same food that they would have tasted in any other location.
Interestingly, although PF Chang is expanding across the globe with a lot of expansion in the Middle East (Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, KSA and the UAE), barring Philippines, there isn’t any prevalence of PF Chang in the South East Asia. We are going to open in Korea this spring. Is it because the Chinese that you serve is probably not very authentic, more Americanized and the flavor is very different from what the people in these regions are used to? Actually not. On the contrary, you’ll be surprised that our Menu is very authentic. It’s the style of preparation. When we opened up, Mr Paul Fleming (the other co founder whose name’s initials form the P. F. part of PF Chang while the surname of Philip Chiang is shortened to Chang) summarized the concept as Chinese food but Western service. We will see how it goes in Korea. A lot of our menu is actually authentic. When we took our team of people to China on culinary tours, they were surprised to see how authentic our food was. Yes we do change/adapt our menu a little bit in terms of certain ingredients depending upon their regional availability. The style of cooking is a little different but everything else that we do in our kitchen is very authentic – we cook in woks, we use Chinese Cleavers to cut most of our food and in that sense everything is traditional.
Do you locally source your ingredients everywhere? Yes, as much as we can and if it meets our standards. Are you fussed about using only organic stuff? Chains often don’t have a reputation for doing all these. I don’t know much about the local organic scene here. Even in the States, for a restaurant chain it is very difficult to maintain the organic aspects. Because of the cost involved? Not only because of the cost but also because of our volume, it is next to impossible. But all our food is cooked to order and everything is fresh. We pride ourselves in being consistent, so if you taste our Mongolian Beef, it will taste exactly the same everywhere. Our quality standards are very high. Before a restaurant opens up in any particular market, a culinary team is here a year before to check out all the ingredient sourcing.
Coming back to Dubai, is it a very different market than the other international markets that you have come across? What is the reason behind the brand’s success in this region? In my opinion, Dubai is trendier. It is almost like a Miami Beach culture where people are always expecting something new and happening. It is a melting point and has a major tourism presence. Our restaurants are mostly located in the trendiest malls here and we do attract a certain clientele that is always looking for the latest things. In that sense Dubai is very special. Also, the entire Middle Eastern market for us has been tremendously successful. I know a little bit about the Middle Eastern taste and I am wondering whether it a slightly different kind of spiciness that we bring in, that is missing in their own food culture. Are there any plans to open up in a more exclusive, non-shopping mall set up with perhaps, alcohol license? No, we are not thinking of alcohol license for the Middle East market. The Middle East market is a very family oriented market and our restaurants, as you said allows for families to get together (I had told Mr Chiang how kids are very fond of PF Chang, the Z-Sisters included – the ketchup factor?). We are located in the malls and not in any hotels and we cater to all categories of consumers – families and locals etc and we seem to be doing absolutely great. The point of reunion in the region seems to be the shopping malls but in the future, if there are any such opportunities, like a neighborhood or an exclusive location, we will definitely consider. Initially we were always in the malls, even in the States. I believe the MOE outlet is the busiest of all your outlets in the world. No plans of expanding this one? Yes, it is. There are plans to open up more restaurants in Dubai – there’s a new PF Chang opening up in the newly constructed part of JBR overlooking the sea, the Deira City Centre. In Abu Dhabi too, apart from the one in World Trade Centre Mall, there is going to be another one opening up this year.
Recent studies reveal that Chinese food is being increasingly considered as unhealthy – high on Sodium and oil. Have you considered creating a MSG-free menu (Chinese food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG or Monosodium glutamate to enhance its flavor)? We are very much aware of the trends in terms of high levels of sodium and sugar and we try incorporate these finds. We are constantly evolving in this area because these factors are worldwide concerns now. Re-iterating here, that all food is fresh, cooked to order and nothing is pre-cooked. Naturally, preparations in terms of chopping etc has to be done before but nothing is cooked until and unless one places the order. In this way, we can take care of any specification that one might have – taste preferences or any allergies. Your menu in the States has a gluten-free option. Why not here? We are developing a gluten-free menu here.
Which is your personal favorite from the PF Chang menu? Definitely the Chicken and the Lettuce wrap. The top 3 from the menu that everybody else likes, incidentally I also like! Actually, this is the No 1 selling item across the world. We cater to so many different type of consumers – imagine a consumer in Mexico or Turkey, or say Dubai or the Philippines, but at the end of the day when we measure what menu item is selling and what is not selling, we find that the almost exactly the same across all the locations. And the number one selling item is Chang’s Chicken and Lettuce wrap!
Did you create the original Chang’s menu? Yes. The staff came into the LA kitchen and we worked together. When you started off, did you have a vision of having a chain of restaurant? Not at all. We were only going to do just one restaurant in Arizona and that’s about it. No body thought that in 20 years time we will be having 220 restaurants world wide (The first restaurant was opened at the Scottsdale Fashion Square in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1993). It’s a combination of food, the ambiance and the service and the diners experiencing that should also feel that it’s a great value for money. The service is very important (As Genero Pérez, the VP Global Marketing put in – get a limo ride but you pay for a taxi and that is very important for us). The restaurant business is very complex and a lot goes into it, even the Music that is playing on in the background. So far I think we have succeeded. We might be a chain of restaurant but we like to believe it is a collection of restaurants and each restaurant is very different in terms of its decor and the look – the mural changes, the light changes. For example, the restaurant in Jeddah is absolutely beautiful. People look forward to going to a new PF Chang’s.
What is the next level of ambition – like let’s do these 220 PF Changs restaurants right and then what? We have Pei Wei Asian Diner, which is an offshoot of PF Changs. It is more Asian (influenced by the cuisines of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand), fast casual. The operations are smaller but the food is very tasty as it is freshly prepared and cooked to order.
You had been working as a Chef in your earlier years. Do you miss going into the kitchen? I do actually. I am not actually a trained, professional Chef. I pick things up just being around Chefs. My mother had a Chinese restaurant and I have been around my mother’s restaurant when I was growing up. The Chinese food that I enjoyed as I grew up wasn’t really for everybody. For instance, in my own restaurant, I didn’t have the typical fortune cookies or any stereotypical menu items that people expected. My niche was the mass audience.
What’s your favorite cuisine apart from Chinese? Italian and Japanese cuisine. Any favorite Chinese restaurant apart from PF Chang naturally? No. I have dishes that I like and I go to specific restaurants for a specific dish. I like Thai food quite a bit. What about Middle Eastern food? Oh yes, I love it. There is a similarity in both our foods in terms of zestiness in the flavors and the taste. Before sign off, I just had to take a picture of Philip with the horse statue that has almost become synonymous with the restaurant (am told that in Kuwait or in KSA, the statue is not allowed). One of the most interesting thing about interviewing is to discover elements about a person that most people wouldn’t probably know. Philip’s real passion lies in painting – he is an artist! If a new P.F Chang opens up in India, please remember that I did tell him that the American Chinese would definitely work in India, a country which loves its variations regional variations in Chinese food (Kolkata is the only Indian city with an official Chinatown known as Tangra and the unofficial count of the number of Chinese stands at 5,000 – 200,000. This is an interesting blog post of mine… Momos in Tiretti Bazar | The Last Chinese Remnants Of Kolkata). I walked out with a takeaway bag of Dynamite Shrimp – personally this is the only item of their menu that appeals to me (don’t get me wrong though!). In return, I gave him a glimpse into a food blogger’s world of idiosyncrasies – incessant clicking of the dish before even a spoonful could go into the tummy. And that too my Nikon wasn’t working that day!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from this post. You can see more pictures of my travel and food journey here.
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