Acclaimed chef Brandon Jew: How did San Francisco's Chinatown succeed? Through the food

The owner of the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu's shares the food and the history of his Chinatown eatery with Salon

By Joseph Neese
March 22, 2021 9:59AM (UTC)
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Brandon Jew, center, is the chef behind the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s restaurant in San Francisco. (Penguin Random House)

Brandon Jew is the executive chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Mister Jiu's restaurant, which sits on hallowed ground in San Francisco's Chinatown. The same space was once occupied by Hang Far Low, which Jew points out was "the city's grandest restaurant for decades" after it opened its doors in the 1850s. More recently, it was the opulent Four Seas, whose guests were Chinese dignitaries, elected officials and A-list celebrities like Vince Vaughn. 

In his new cookbook, "Mister Jiu's in Chinatown," which is co-written by Tienlon Ho, Jew takes readers on a journey that transcends the plate. In addition to teaching us his master technique and the recipes from his award-winning kitchen, Jew also shares the rich history and stories of the birthplace of Chinese American cuisine. When he reflects on how Chinatown succeeded, the answer is the food. 

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"It's through the food," Jew told me during our recent "Salon Talks" interview. "That bridged a lot of the racism, the stereotypes of the Chinese community, by having the most delicious food in the city here in Chinatown, and people started to break down a lot of those walls."

RELATED: Purchase a copy of "Mister Jiu's in Chinatown" and support local book stores

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The book, which pays homage to Chinatown's past, present and future, offers a behind-the-scenes look at a neighborhood that changed how America eats. The immigrants who landed in Chinatown brought with them recipes that dated back generations, and they also created something uniquely American. 

"I think there's been a lot of, maybe, secrecy behind some of Chinese cooking," Jew said. "And I'm hoping that the more people actually learn about Chinese cuisine, the more people will appreciate our culture and our food."

When Jew recently appeared on "Salon Talks," we talked about former President Richard Nixon's love of Peking duck, how to navigate cooking with a wok at home and why soup is always part of a proper Chinese meal. To learn more, read or watch our conversation below.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about how you feel right now in this moment amid the release of "Mister Jiu's in Chinatown."

There's definitely a mix of emotions. I'm really proud of the book, how it's come out. And the process is three years of having a big project on the side of running the restaurant. I can kind of recall the beginning of the book, not feeling quite ready to write the book. And actually leaning more on the idea that this is also a book about Chinatown and present-day Chinatown. As much as the inspirations have guided me along the beginning of the opening of Mister Jiu's to the end of 2019, which happened to be really the beginning of the pandemic, in a way. So a lot of the photos, a lot of even just the size of the team that I had, it all kind of reminds me of what we're trying to work back to. 

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But also, I guess some of the other emotions are nervousness. I think we try to really have a good mix of what we do here. As a restaurant, I think we try to make food that is not so easy to make at home. And that you're going to be tasting flavors and experiencing things that you just can't whip up yourself in one night, really. But we want the book to be practical, too. So making sure that we were including recipes that were achievable for someone to do on any given night, I think that was important.

But I also have some aspirational recipes — if you have a couple of days and you want to actually see how our duck [is made], how long it does take to produce and why those steps are important, then that's also there. Because we wanted to make it also a book that was not just a very simple, kind of Chinese American [cookbook], but we want it to be really true to some of the technique that is a little more complicated. 

Your restaurant, Mister Jiu's, sits on what I would call hallowed ground. There's decades of history there. The Four Seas was there for over 50 years, then you moved in. Can you tell us a little bit about the significance of that space and creating your restaurant in that space?

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It feels like a real honor to be able to continue the legacies of restaurants that have been here before me. [Editor's Note: Hang Far Low, the establishment before Four Seas, dated back to the 19th century.] I think that is something that does sit on my shoulders in a way that it makes me want to do them justice, make them proud of what we're doing here. And I think I take a lot of inspiration from the kind of restaurants they were in their prime, too. I'd say like they were both cutting edge restaurants that were representing, I think, fine dining in Chinese cuisine. And we're really great hosts for celebrations, traditional celebrations in Chinese culture. We're in a space right now that was a banquet room that used to host weddings of 300 people. Some of the old postcards that I have, there's like 12 massive lazy Susan tables in this entire space. It looked like a lot of fun. So having some of that energy of how it was, you kind of want to see that again here as an operator. So yes, I think the space has been very, very inspiring to me.

Your restaurant is Mister Jiu's, which is spelled differently than your last name. But that might not even be your last name, as it turns out. 

Yes, we had to write a little bit about that in the book. Because I think it's not easy to understand why my last name is spelled J-E-W, while the restaurant's spelled J-I-U. And then, like you said, neither of them are really my last name. And this all comes into play when talking about some of the loss in translation. We use that theme a little bit.

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My last name was changed when my grandparents came to America. They got processed in Angel Island. And this happened to a lot of other immigrants as well, not just Chinese.

I had interviewed an architect at one point. He was Italian, his last name was Pesce, and it just got written as "Fish." And so his last name was Fish. Changes were made based on probably the process and what would be easier for [immigration workers] to write. So I'm assuming, because of the amount of processing that was happening, my grandpa said his name was Jiu, and they wrote "J-E-W."

My grandpa didn't want to change the name after that. I don't know if it was a fear of getting kicked out of America. I talked about my grandpa, Yeh Yeh, in the book. He was a man of few words. And so he didn't really want to cause any disruption to his life or anyone else's. He was fine with that kind of thing. 

But I always questioned it. I always wondered why, how we got this name. And part of me, and I think I'm really the only one maybe that feels like this in my family, I really wanted to change it. I wanted to change it back to what I thought it should be. It should have been. And even before the restaurant opened, I was actually in pursuit of that. I think I understood that it was kind of upsetting my parents. So changing the name to J-I-U when the restaurant open was a way for me to say, in some words, that my last name is not really my last name. And I wanted to have something that was phonetically, actually, or literally spelled more correct.

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Before you opened Mister Jiu's, you were cooking Italian food and Mediterranean food. But you said you didn't realize that you needed to open your restaurant until your grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Can you tell me about how that connected the dots for you on your journey to becoming a chef?

Yes, that really impacted me at the time of my career. I was really deep in understanding Italian cuisine. Anytime you're cooking something, I feel like you're paying homage to a time and a place. [I was] really learning a lot about Italian customs with how their food is incorporated into their celebrations, or certain regions of Italy, how they made these kind of pairings, and flavor, from what really they had around them. I think I started to look at my own family and realize that I felt like I had a duty to really learn and understand my family's food. And I think that came to a headway when my grandma was passing away, because I realized that I didn't take enough of the opportunities to catalog as much as I could.

Mister Jiu's, in a lot of ways, is me working my way back to the memories that I have of food with her. And with my family. And also traveling to China and living in Shanghai, a lot of what I'm searching back to is some of these taste memories,  trying to find how to get that flavor back that's almost like something that is on your palate that you can recall, but getting back there has taken some time to understand how to get there. 

And so the book, there's a lot of what I've come to learn. Also, I've been just fascinated with Chinese technique. And I think for a lot of home cooks, I want to have people understand it's not difficult, but it does take time to learn. And I think the approach to ingredients is very similar to what I had grown to learn about California cuisine, which is that curating your ingredients is a big part of your final result. Understanding the products as well as you can, cooking them, asking questions about them and experimenting. There are some pairings that I feel stronger about sometimes . . . I'm just thinking of the Mandarin salad with chrysanthemum — the chrysanthemum is such, to me, an amazing aroma and texture. And I really love how it pairs with citrus particularly. 

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But that should not prevent people from making that recipe if you can't get chrysanthemum. You can find things like chervil, you can even use watercress — that's going to be a little spicier — but it's about getting the best products you can and then understanding some of the technique and some of the flavors behind everything, and then just find where those things fit. And so I've enjoyed trying to figure out, even for myself, how do I get artichokes or avocados into Chinese cuisine and where can they fit in? I don't have an answer for you quite yet. But we've used avocado in a cucumber salad before . . . I really loved the richness that brought. 

And we use artichokes for its bitterness. The same way that I think a Chinese chef would use bitterness to initiate some of the beginning of the meal to get you salivating. And also to maybe combat some sweetness that might be in a dish, and balance it back to being savory. I'm hoping that this book becomes inspiring for people to understand some of the method, but also to experiment themselves, and to really just have fun in the kitchen. I mean, that's what got me into cooking in the first place. Cooking should always be enjoyable. And at the end of the day, it's your meal. So making it the best you can, you're going to be rewarded for that, anyways. And that's why, I mean — I've been big-boned my whole life, so I've loved eating. And I hope this inspires another generation of chefs to cook Chinese and to learn Chinese techniques. 

Also, I think the mission of this book is to help promote Chinese American authors, too. There haven't been a lot of chefs that have gotten the opportunity to write books or have taken on putting the recipes out there. I think there's been a lot of, maybe, secrecy behind some of Chinese cooking. And I'm hoping that the more people actually learn about Chinese cuisine, the more people will appreciate our culture and our food.

When you parallel how Chinatown was successful, I mean, it's through the food. That bridged a lot of the racism, the stereotypes of the Chinese community, by having the most delicious food in the city here in Chinatown, and people started to break down a lot of those walls. So this is also about some of the history of Chinatown, the struggle of Chinatown, but also the success of this neighborhood, as far as immigrant community-living in America, still able to have a lot of their customs and their culture, but also integrate American culture into the neighborhood as well and be successful here in America.

Speaking of Chinese American chefs, you talked about how your parents were once very much against you taking a career path as a chef. Can you speak a little bit about that? That may be surprising to some since you're so successful now. 

I went to college for biology. The sciences have always been really interesting to me. I think in some other way, I still get to really learn about what I've loved even as a kid, which is plants and animals and learning about life systems and all those kind of things. But yes, my parents, I think they thought I was maybe going pre-med or just maybe even a more academic kind of life way. I think that was partly because I was the first in my family to leave to go to college. And my parents, they didn't go to college. So having the conversation with them that I was really wanting to pursue cooking and I love cooking, I think their hope was that it might be like a lot of things that I said I enjoyed doing and that it might just pass. 

Some of the conversations I had with my grandparents, they really didn't understand why I would want to cook. And I think the industry now is different, I think you can maybe explain what I'm trying to aspire to, being able to showcase Chinese cuisine and to be able to have my own restaurant. And they just didn't see that. Some of the growth of our industry has given a lot of hope for younger people to understand that they can have a lot of aspiration in this industry to continue cooking, if they really enjoy it.

That's also something that I'm hoping the book can also promote: giving aspiration to a younger generation that Chinese cooking is multi-faceted. 

In your section about how you cook, you instruct people at home to follow the philosophy of their grandmother, which is cook by principles and not by rules. What does that mean?

My grandma, there was never a recipe out where she was following. She cooked by a lot of memory, she cooked by a lot of feel, and she tasted along the way. And I think that's what I'm trying to promote is not being so locked into following a recipe that you can't be flexible enough to learn how to make something be adjusted. Some of the principles that I've been referring to is having that flexibility, and also being comfortable without the guidelines of a recipe sometimes, to not let it bum you out. The great thing is, especially when you're cooking at home, is you're going to have two, maybe three meals a day. So if something didn't turn out, you have another opportunity, either that same day to make some dinner, or tomorrow. And it's about making adjustments, small ones, every day, learning about how to make them better. Our restaurant is better now than it was the first year. I mean, and it should be, because we're understanding our recipes more and more, we're making adjustments along the way. 

And these recipes are the recipes of three years into running the restaurant, they're not the beginning of where we started. So I'm hoping that this is also educational for anyone that is on a path of learning some of these dishes, that we can give our observations and our techniques that have helped us learn about how to make it successful.

And techniques like that include the wok, for example. To be able to cook at the wok at your restaurant, a chef works their way up the ladder. They have to pass through every other stage of the kitchen first. It's a very unique tool. What is the difference between cooking in a wok in the restaurant kitchen and at home? And do you have any recommendations for getting started with a wok at home?

The first recommendation would be turn your fan on or open a window because it's going to get a little smoky. Being comfortable cooking with high heat is part of cooking on the wok, and I think that's the thing why the wok is traditionally, has been the last station that you get to, mainly because you have to be very relaxed cooking with very high heat. And making the right move and having the observations and things are just going so much faster.

I trained on more of a French top with sauté pans. You can move things around on French tops, if it's hot or if you want it simmering. On a wok, you have one ring in front of you, and you adjust the temperature from high to very high to crazy high.

Yes, you can probably lower it down a little bit, but you're not simmering on a wok. You're thinking about how everything goes in. And that's why it's very much, I think, an exercise in knowing how to make the right cuts of vegetables. So they go into the wok at certain times. And then understanding the timing, making a sequence of what you're going to do before, during and after the actual cooking process. 

Having that mapped out is going to make you . . . You'll have a better outcome, if you think about it before you start cooking.

But then also thinking, OK, I'm going to do this: I'm going to put the oil in, and then add the ginger. And then right after the ginger goes in, I'm going to put in the bok choy. After the bok choy goes in, if it's big, I might put a little bit of water so it creates some steam in the wok and doesn't get to char. After that steam goes in, I'm going to season it with the soy sauce, the sesame oil. And then move it around — because of how it's shaped, all the heat's on the very center of the bottom, and then kind of juts out to the side. So make sure you're moving the ingredients in the wok as well. 

You can map when beans go in, and then when you're going to turn off the heat. Having your utensils ready for you close by. Cooking with the wok, the success is in game planning. That's my advice for successful wok cooking.

We mentioned duck earlier in the conversation. Peking duck, as we call it here, didn't really become a popular thing until President Nixon came around. And since we have a very politically minded audience here at Salon, I thought that would be an interesting story to share.

Yes, I think when you understand that a lot of these very complicated dishes have been designed for palace dining, for emperors, and there was, sometimes on purpose, a lot of intricacy. When you've had Peking duck, that technique is, to me, a culinary masterpiece. When you think about what those chefs did to make those kind of decisions to put air between the skin to baste it, hang it, dry it and then basically roast it that way. That's the only way you can get the skin so crispy. There are these lamp-like hallmarks of Chinese cuisine, I feel like Peking duck is one of them. 

That technique is something that you don't find in any other cuisine. That one is so unique to the outcome of getting crispy skinned duck. I still am fascinated with it. We cook about 100 of them over the course of the week, when we were open and operating. We just take a lot of pride in that dish, knowing that it's something that is a culinary masterpiece. That technique pays homage to a real deep understanding of the product and the skill of the chefs.

In your book, you also write about soup. Your other grandmother would always cook you soup, and you say "soup is always part of a proper Chinese meal." Can you elaborate on that?

One memory that I will always have of my grandma . . . she had a pot of soup on the stove. And you got to say hi to her, give her a kiss and then you had to drink soup before doing anything. You were not allowed to do anything until the bowl of soup that was given to you was done. And I think that was her way of . . . it was like medicine. The soup was restorative, it was a way of really deep nourishment. And so having soup be part of a Chinese meal to me is about the mix of textures that you can have over a course of a meal. But more important, I think, is that nourishment. It's a warming you up from the inside out kind of a feeling. A lot of what goes into those — broth, ginger, mushrooms, chicken bones or pork bones — all those things are meant to be restorative and medicinal. So yes, drink your soup, got to drink your soup.

We're in the middle of the pandemic, and winter weather, so I think that's a message for the times for sure. You write about dessert and Chinese meals: As you've said, in Chinese meals, the desserts are really just the closers. Why is dessert less of an important aspect?

A lot of the more pastry focus was, I think, as far as dayparts go, it was more of something that you would have during the day. You look at Chinese bakeries, most of those things there are a mix of sweet and savory things. In American dining, you know how important it is for dessert to be part of the meal. And so we have a very talented pastry chef, Melissa, who's in the book, and these are her recipes. She does in pastry what I do in the savory area. Having a sweet something at the very end is, I think, really part of American dining. And so we wanted to have that experience be where we kind of also get to really play on the mix of Chinese flavors with sometimes American, sometimes French, sometimes Italian, pastry techniques.

I wanted to talk to you, too, about identity and the Chinese American experience. In your book you write, "my first language was Cantonese, I lost it growing up. And with that, I thought I lost a lot of my heritage for forever. But I discovered I'm more Chinese than I ever imagined, in the way I eat and the way I define dessert." Can you tell me about how your restaurant has helped you to better understand your identity?

Yes, it really comes back to this question that I kept getting, especially in the beginning of the restaurant: Is this restaurant authentic? And authenticity, understanding what that meant for me, authenticity, you have to be authentic. It means that you have to feel like it's what defines you. And for me, as a chef, for me as a Chinese American, having someone ask me if the food's going to be authentic, it really kind of put me in front of a mirror, and had me realize, well, what is my authenticity? What can I say is my authentic experience that I'm giving someone? And I think that really played out in my life, and understanding where I fit in between. Was I Chinese enough? Or was I American enough? There's a lot of pictures of my childhood going from one side to the other, trying to find where to be in the middle. 

I'd say, immigrant American communities, their children are experiencing this. I saw my parents experience it, I saw my grandparents experience it. And I think for myself, I was trying to find what that authentic-ness was, where I fit in between the two cultures. And I think my experience in Shanghai really kind of shaped it because I thought I was going to Shanghai to get this motherland experience. But what I got instead was really understanding how American I was, and how American people viewed me. And I came back feeling a little more at peace with being in the middle.

How that translated into my food was my authenticity is really my training. The things that I've come to love over the course of being here in the Bay Area, being exposed to a lot of other cuisine and cultures. My training is Italian training. There's things that I do still to this day that are very Italian. I still have three or four different amazing extra virgin olive oils that we have in our pantry.

So there's things that I have incorporated, that I feel like is more authentic to my training, and more authentic to me being at peace with being in between two cultures. That is the authenticity that I bring to Mister Jiu's.

And I encourage and I promote chefs finding their identity through their food and being comfortable there. Not feeling like you have to do something that is not speaking to yourself. And at the end of the day, I think the diners, they want food that they know that the chef deems is delicious.

It's the same thing with a writer when they say write about what you know — you're cooking about what you know, and your family and your experience.

The issue of authenticity is really interesting when we talk about comfort food. And that's a topic that we've talked a lot about here over this past year with the pandemic and the return to comfort food. "Comfort food" means different things to different people  it's not macaroni and cheese for everybody. For example, my grandmother is an immigrant from Mexico, and I grew up eating a lot of the dishes that she made, and those are the things that I think of as comforting. Do you have any thoughts about comfort food, when it comes to authenticity?

A lot of those comfort foods go back to some of those memories that you have of things that are delicious. And they're not necessarily fancy, they're more memorable, I think, like you said, you think of your mom or your grandparents when you have those dishes, they have a deeper meaning. A lot of times, I feel like comfort food, you're getting comforted by not only the taste that you get, but by the remembrance that you have of having those dishes with those people, or traveling to a certain place and having something there and wanting to relive that experience again by tasting that. 

I think that's something that's multifaceted about comfort food, that you're being comforted by not only the flavor of something, but also another layer of either remembering people or places. And I think it just puts a smile on your face when you have that kind of food; you start to realize that that food has a lot importance, and it has a lot of significance. 

When you put those pieces together, that's part of what I was searching for in this industry — wanting the food that I cooked to be more than just putting a meal together. I wanted to have it be about my memories and about the people that were influential to me. And to pass on the recipes to another generation of cooks.

I'd be remiss to ask you this because Ashlie Stevens, who's one of our columnists here in the food section, has a column called Saucy where she takes deep dives into condiments. It was really interesting when I read that "when Americans were pouring on Chinese condiments at the turn of the 19th century, their cookbooks used the terms 'soy sauce' and 'ketchup' interchangeably." 

From what I know of ketchup, ketchup was not even tomato-based, really, until Heinz, I think, developed that. It was more almost like a fish sauce, a condiment that was more salty than sweet. So the word ketchup was an evolution, I think, of the use of the condiment and it being altered to a point where no one imagines ketchup being anything other than a sweet tomato kind of sauce.

But its origins are in China, which is interesting, because we think of it as a uniquely American sauce or condiment.

Yes, I love the history of that.

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Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is the Managing Editor of Salon. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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