In any serious food city in America, there exists a cadre of chefs and restaurateurs who are the Big Dogs. The guys (because, yeah, it’s almost always guys) who, by the weight of their presence on the scene, tend to define the scene—particularly to those from outside the scene, who don’t live and breathe the scene, who, maybe, just eat out a few times a month and don’t track, with OCD fanaticism, the movements of every chef and investor within the scene.
Think about Charlie Trotter in Chicago (RIP) and the upstarts who’ve been siphoning off his ink for the past decade. Think about New Orleans, with its deep reverence for tradition, age and Emeril Lagasse; Denver, with its magnetic pull on the young and wickedly talented; or Seattle, where they worship at the altar of the farm-to-table movement but still flock to the restaurants of Tom Douglas, who, with 15 spots in a city genetically opposed to chain restaurants, is like a mini-chain-emperor unto himself.
In Philly, we have Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri and Jose Garces—our culinary trinity, each of them big for different reasons, each of them representing an aspect of ourselves. There are chefs in town who have more restaurants than Vetri, but no one who has brought such high-gloss glory to our Italian roots. Jose Garces isn’t the most critically beloved of Philadelphia chefs, but he’s on TV. He’s Iron Chef Garces, and with his ever-expanding roster of addresses both here and elsewhere, he speaks to something in our immigrant hearts with his Cuban sandwiches, Irish whiskey, Spanish tapas, tacos, dumplings, noodles and Chicago deep-dish pizzas. And Starr? He’s got money. And connections. With his older places, he’s feeding tourists and rubes, keeping the flame of wasabi mashed potatoes alive in the hearts of the culinarily backward. And with his newer locations, he’s become our most brilliant producer—bringing in major talent, giving them a place to work, then sitting back and watching them go. He’s the Phil Spector of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, only, you know, without the crazy Afro and the murder.
While there are lots of chef-restaurateurs nipping at the heels of our Big Three, none swing quite the same kind of weight. Michael Solomonov has the East Coast pull to bring Momofuku to Philly for a one-night stand (even if David Chang didn’t make the trip) and get himself written about in the New York Times, but he only has a handful of establishments right now, and three of them are doughnut shops. Jen Carroll has the TV cred, but no restaurants at all. Marcie Turney and Val Safran? They’ve got their neighborhood locked down, but don’t really exist much outside of it.
And then there’s Han Chiang. Sitting next to him at the bar at his new Han Dynasty outpost in Old City on the morning of opening night, I ask Han—who’s 35 but looks, at times, like a 19-year-old club kid, all smiles and twitchy energy, hoodies, sneakers and black-framed glasses—what he thinks. At the moment, he has six restaurants already open in Philly and the surrounding suburbs, another on 3rd Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village that had lines out the door just a couple weeks after opening, and a deal in the works to open another Han Dynasty on the roof of the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. According to Han, he has never not made money at one of his restaurants. He’s been on TV (sitting alongside no less than Anthony Bourdain during the Philly episode of The Layover), has name recognition that extends far outside Philadelphia (in part because he understands after-dark Chinese cuisine and the American love of it in a deep and reflexive way, and in part because he’s got that Soup Nazi thing of being rude to his customers when something sets him off), runs what are generally accepted as some of the best Szechuan restaurants in the region, and has lived a life that pretty much embodies the modern pot-smoking, couch-sleeping, immigrant-kid Gen Y version of the American Dream.
Oh, and for his next trick, he claims he’s going to open a hundred Han Dynasties, coast to coast, in the next four years—while starting a new, franchise-able street-food concept that he’s going to test right here in Philly.
So should he be on that list, I ask him? Does it bother him that he doesn’t ever get mentioned alongside Starr and Garces and Vetri as one of the city’s biggest restaurateurs?
Han smiles and laughs. “Fuck those guys,” he says...