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…
IT’S DANIELLE who first explains to me about Han Chiang’s plans to get super-duper famous and rich and ridiculously successful. This is a couple weeks before opening night of the new Han Dynasty in Old City, during an early walk-through of the new space.
Danielle is Han’s legal counsel. She’s also his real estate scout, his personal assistant, his mother’s personal assistant, his PR flack, and the project manager for the new Old City Han Dynasty. She’s crisp, clipped, curt and professional, still dresses every day like she’s five minutes late for an appointment in court, and acts—in addition to all of her other duties—as a bodyguard, making sure no one gets to Han without going through her first. On the walk-through, I watch her put down an electrical contractor like he’s a rug-pissing dog, sending him out the door for no greater sin than arriving to look at the sound system at a time when she has other, more important things to do—like having lunch with me. Which, in the grand scheme, isn’t important at all. But I got there first, and I’m thinking about talking to Han at some indistinct point in the future, and that’s enough.
(Later, Danielle would explain to me that she didn’t think she was being so curt–that the contractor had arrived without an appointment and that, since she didn’t know who he was, he had no business being on the premises unescorted. Telling him to leave had been a workplace safety issue, she insisted. A lawyer in every breath.)
Over my dan dan noodles, tweezer-plucked Chinese barbecue and cups of green tea, she tells me that Han’s scheme for opening a hundred restaurants in four years is absolutely real, no question. That he has this fast-casual-street-food concept in his head (spaces made up to look like alleyways, with indoor carts serving all sorts of international street food that Han will find while traveling around the world and bring back to Philly like a boon) that’s right on the verge of becoming a thing. Han has apprentices training under him, she says—mini-Hans who signed on after he advertised on Craigslist, promising that someday they could be millionaires and the managers overseeing his ever-expanding empire. But what he needs most of all, she insists—other than to keep making deals and opening restaurants and making friends and enemies with his food and impressive vocabulary of four-letter words—is to get his own TV show.
“Don’t you think he’d be brilliant on TV?” she asks, and I say sure, because Han has exactly what it takes to blow up on the jumping box: a completely outsized personality and a willingness to go totally ballistic over nothing at all.
No, not just a willingness, but a wonderful, exuberant joy. Because while Han Chiang is known for running some really good Szechuan Chinese restaurants in and around Philadelphia, he’s famous for his temper.
He’s famous for cursing at customers. For exploding in the middle of his own dining rooms over perceived breaches in good taste or decorum and refusing to serve people who do something stupid—like asking for Americanized Chinese dishes that exist on his menus but that he thinks no one but children should order. If you don’t know him for his restaurants or his food, you likely know him for the legend that has grown up around him. Oh, that guy that screams at people who order sweet-and-sour chicken … That’s Han.
More to the point, that’s exactly the kind of guy you want on TV if you’re a producer looking for a new personality around whom to hang a reality show. And Danielle tells me that there’s been some interest, but nothing concrete. Not yet.
But then, a couple weeks later, Han decides to throw a party at the new restaurant, which he opened in the massive, opulent vault of a building at 123 Chestnut Street that once housed Reserve steakhouse. It’s private-ish, this party. He and his team invite food people. Press. Friends of the house. There’s plenty of liquor. The kitchen is up and running (barely), but the menus aren’t finalized yet. One of the big changes at the new space is the addition of a new, late-night Taiwanese street-food menu—the first significant change to the Han Dynasty menu formula since Han started opening restaurants six and a half years ago. Tonight, the street food is being done in batches—sticky rice with dry shrimp or mushrooms, pork belly buns and fried chicken wings with dried Szechuan pepper. A new round comes out and is laid down on the small, secondary service bar that’s been installed at the far end of the long, regular bar, and people line up to get a taste.
When Han shows up, he’s got a camera crew following him, recording everything he does. I learn later that they aren’t shooting for anything in particular, but are just, you know … shooting. Trying to make a sizzle reel that Han’s people will be able to shop around to various producers. They’ve been brought in by Danielle for the event. To capture Han being Han.
At a certain point, he collects a bunch of people from the crowd and walks them down the street to the old Old City location, which is empty and dark but still basically a restaurant. Everyone has had a few drinks. And maybe not quite enough food. Han is loud (as he generally is) and says they’re gonna wreck the place. Just trash it, because, well, he’s done with it now. Doesn’t need it anymore. There’s a kind of rock-star-in-a-hotel-room bravado to the scene, but also something else. Something kind of desperate. With the cameras rolling, he picks up a chair and throws it against the wall, and then …
And then, really, nothing. They’re just a bunch of people in the basement of a closed Chinese restaurant, and nothing about it feels right. Shortly, everyone is back down the street at the real party.
When I ask him later about that moment and whether he felt like he had to perform for the cameras, Han says yes. His reputation for being temperamental is earned, no doubt, but he is, under normal circumstances, a pretty nice guy.
“If the customer is nice, I’m nice,” he says. “But if they’re assholes, I’ll be the biggest asshole they’ve ever seen.”
The problem was, at that pre-opening party, he was trying to manufacture something for the cameras that wasn’t natural.
The problem was, the chair hadn’t been an asshole.
BEFORE OPENING HIS FIRST HAN DYNASTY in 2007—the original, in Exton—Han had never worked in a restaurant before.
Well, not really. He spent one summer as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant in Paoli, near where he grew up in Parkesburg. A place called Hong Garden. But he spent a lot more time working in flower shops.
He worked in flower shops because his mother owned flower shops: “I’d come home from school on the school bus, and my mom would take me to the flower shop and just say ‘Run it.’”
This was when he was 13 or 14, shortly after he and his family arrived in Pennsylvania from Taipei. This was, he says, most of his teenage years. He did it because his mom owned more than one flower shop and couldn’t be in two places at once. They were family businesses in the most classic sense—owned by the family, run by the family.
“My mom never told me any moral stuff like ‘Don’t stay out late’ or ‘Don’t do drugs,’” says Han. “She was always, ‘Here’s how you invest in real estate, here’s how you buy stocks and train employees.’”
Talk to Han for more than 10 minutes about anything and he’ll bring up his mom. She’s the second most important thing in his life, right behind his business, because that’s something else she taught him: “‘Work hard. Put business first before family.’ That’s what she told me.”
And eventually, that’s what he did. Though the standard celebrity chef/restaurateur backstory always seems to involve standing at the hip of a grandmother while she preps sauce for some mythological Sunday supper, followed by a suitably young entry into the ranks of white jackets, Han’s history with the industry is different. He didn’t get into the restaurant business until he was 27. First, there was high school (which he hated because he was bullied and because he was the only Asian kid in his class) and the flower shops. Then an attempt at college. (He went to Drexel as an electrical engineering student but dropped out because he didn’t like reading: “I can’t read,” he tells me. “I hate reading. I have completely no interest in it, and I’m very happy I dropped out.”) Then there was his slacker period—living at home with his mom with no money and no girlfriend, just smoking weed and sitting on the couch.
“I always thought I would make a lot of money,” he says. “I always wanted to be a business owner. That’s what my mom always told me to do.” But at the time, he wasn’t doing anything. He was the black sheep of the family. No one thought he would make anything of himself. But then he started thinking about restaurants—about the Szechuan food he’d hated as a child, but which his dad had served him because he was from Szechuan Province, and how he’d (eventually) come to love it. There was a restaurant in Delaware that he’d drive 40 minutes to get to just for “that jaw-dropping effect” of the peppercorns and spices.
Han didn’t cook at home. He loved (and continues to love) Pizza Hut, and though he remembered the food in Taiwan, he didn’t remember it fondly. “I had to come to America to find real, authentic Szechuan food,” he says. “Taipei had nothing but dumbed-down Szechuan, dumbed-down Chinese.”
He thought that maybe he could do something better here, if he had a space, and the right chef. He didn’t want to cook (“That’s a lot of work”), and he’d already been a busboy. So his first real job in the industry was as an owner.
Back at the bar at the new Han Dynasty, he explains how it all started, and why.
“The way I saw it,” he says, “opening a restaurant, I don’t need a lot of skills so long as I can work hard.” He pauses, pouring tea for both of us. “And they don’t cost that much.” Then he looks at me, and his face splits in a grin. “I had no fucking clue.”
Han’s mom helped him get his first restaurant—the one in Exton. Everyone in his family was against it: “They all said, ‘Han’s a slacker. You’re going to lose your retirement.’ My dad said he’d take care of me forever, that I’d never have to get a job if I just didn’t get into the restaurant business. No one thought I’d be able to do it. So that was why I did it. To prove them wrong.”
He didn’t take a day off for three years. At the first restaurant, he had a partner, someone who understood how to run a successful restaurant—the woman who ran the Szechuan restaurant in Delaware that he liked. He also had a chef, Yo Fu Zhang, who was well known in the area, and whom Han had stolen away from another restaurant.
“Seven years ago, he was the Szechuan master,” Han explains. “He would come out of the kitchen, talk to people. People knew him. And when he left [his old restaurant], everyone just followed him.”
“When you stole him, you mean.”
“Yeah, when I took him. You know, I’m still dating his daughter!”
Which is true, and impressive—because Han and Zhang eventually parted ways.
“He was a fucking prick. So I learned how to cook just because I wanted to fire him.”
There was a line out the door the day he opened the original Han Dynasty—mostly Chinese customers, all of them following Yo Fu Zhang. The white people, Han says, came later. After two years, he dissolved his partnership with the other owner, but the whole “line out the door” thing became standard operating procedure. With every restaurant he opened, he found success, saw the lines running out the door. He made a name for himself from day one and never stopped trying to improve. His second location was in Royersford. Then Old City. Then Manayunk, University City, Cherry Hill, Old City again. When he first opened the original Old City location four years ago, he slept in the basement for 10 months, and then that, too, became a thing with him. When he opened in Manhattan, he slept in the basement. When he opens in Beverly Hills, he’ll probably get a room at the hotel. Make that part of his deal. Because he spends months at each location—fine-tuning, tinkering, getting to know his customers.
“I’m obsessed with solving problems,” he tells me. When there aren’t any problems, he makes problems, just so he can solve them. He recently spent a month in China, eating and going to culinary school, because he doesn’t like the control his chefs have in the kitchen, where he still isn’t entirely comfortable.
“Every time I tell the chefs I want to change something [about their recipes], it’s like I raped their mother or something,” Han says. “If I want to use a different ingredient, a different spice, try to find the right balance, it’s terrible.”
WE’VE GIVEN UP on the tea at this point and have started drinking beers. When we step outside the front doors for a cigarette, Han runs into a couple friends from the neighborhood. They’re looking for chairs for their apartment, and it just so happens Han has a whole restaurant’s worth of chairs he’s getting rid of.
We all walk down to the old Han Dynasty. Its doors are wide open; moving trucks are parked out front, and a steady stream of workers walks in and out. Han goes right in the front door, but he’s stopped by one of the guys gutting the space. “Closed,” the man tells him.
“Uh, I own this place,” Han says.
That happens to Han a fair amount. It’s something to do with how he looks. How he carries himself. That might be one of the reasons he doesn’t get mentioned alongside the big restaurateurs in town—he doesn’t look like a big-time restaurateur. He looks, more than anything, like someone who’d be eating at Han Dynasty at midnight on a Thursday. Sometimes moving a little slowly. Maybe giggling a little too much. He once tried to open a Han Dynasty outpost at Penn, but was turned down. The people representing the school wanted to know how he would pay the rent. He got pissed, told them that he already had three successful restaurants up and running: “What the fuck do you mean, how am I going to pay the rent?”
He picks out chairs for his friends, then helps carry them down the block to their car. He’s a few hours from the official opening of the new Han Dynasty, but he seems to be enjoying wandering around, talking about his past, his mom, how he got to where he is today. Because it got annoying sleeping in the basement of his Old City restaurant, he eventually got an apartment right around the corner, and that’s where we head next. In the elevator up, he talks about opening night and all the things he still needs to do. He’s still writing the menu, still training the staff, isn’t sure who is going to be behind the bar.
His apartment is almost empty. The main room is just white walls, a bare floor, a PlayStation 3 and some mattresses. Staff from the restaurant sometimes sleep here between shifts or at the end of the night. His bedroom is small and cluttered—everything’s pushed out of the way to make space for an extra bed because Han’s cousin from Taiwan is currently staying with him and helping him put together the late-night Taiwanese street-food menu. The whole place reminds me of the headquarters of some small and underfunded rebel army. It calls to mind the description of David Chang’s apartment in Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of him in the New Yorker from years ago—a place that exists solely as a box to keep Han in when he’s not working.
He tells me he’s going to be abandoning it soon anyway, to move back in with his mom, who now lives in Paoli. Keeping an apartment? There’s not much point. He’s only in Philly for a few days, to see to the opening, then will head back to New York (where he’ll sleep at the restaurant), then probably L.A. (where he’ll sleep … somewhere).
In the meantime, he has a few hours before the crowds start descending, so we talk about restaurants and do a couple of bong hits, and the last thing I remember him asking me is whether or not I drove to work that day. After that, it’s just some music in my head and a three-hour blackout. When I come swimming back up to consciousness again, it’s dark outside. I’m lying sideways across Han’s bed. I remind myself what a bad idea it is to party with your sources—the first and most often broken rule of journalism—and slowly try to remember how to make my legs work. Eventually, Han comes in to check on me. Asks how I am. Laughs when I apologize.
“Not the first time that’s happened, man,” he says. “It happens all the time.”
While most restaurateurs would consider having a food writer pass out in their bed on opening night a distraction, Han just rolls with it. Outside, in the bare, echoing living room, he’s assembled his above-the-line staff to do menu planning. They sit on the floor and shuffle papers while, downstairs and around the corner, the dining room starts to fill up for the first seating. I do a modified walk of shame past them, headed for the elevator. Han walks me outside and to the restaurant, where the crowds aren’t yet lined up out the door (the new room seats 180 people, all told) but are certainly headed in that direction.
“Come on in,” he offers. “Let me get you something to eat.”
THE NEXT MORNING, I send Han a text—just a quick thanks for taking the time, and for watching my back when things went a little sideways. He writes back:
NP bro. It was fun. Can’t wait to read about last night.
Over the next two weeks, things will settle out at the new place. The East Village location will add delivery service and get a glowing three-star review from Adam Platt at New York magazine (which, as expected, comes with a certain backlash from the haters). Han will finalize (or nearly finalize) his deal to bring Han Dynasty to the West Coast, and move back in with his mom in Paoli. He’s behind on his plan to open 100 Han Dynasties, but that doesn’t concern him. “It’s a dream I have,” he tells me. “It might happen, but I don’t know. You gotta dream big.” And anyway, he insists, the coasts are the tough part. Once he has New York and L.A. handled, everything else is just filling in the middle.
Later, I bring up the Starr/Garces/Vetri question with him again, and he expounds a bit, gives me something more than a desultory “Fuck those guys.” “They’re better restaurateurs,” he says, “but I think I’m a better businessman. They’re definitely more experienced. More knowledgeable about restaurants and cooking. I put all my time into seeing how the whole restaurant runs. They don’t really … I have a lot of respect for those guys, but nothing they do is going to affect my business. Nothing anyone says is going to affect me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with building my own empire. Restaurants are just what I did.”