Edible DC: The Changs Give Thanks Around a Hot Pot
From Edible DC by Lani Furbank:
“For one day each year, all of chef Peter Chang’s restaurants close for business.
“Thanksgiving Day is the day we show our staff how grateful we are for their hard work with us to build this brand,” Peter says, with his daughter, Lydia, interpreting. “Taking this day off is a great way to appreciate being in this community, being in this country, that enabled all of this to happen.”
It wasn’t always easy for the Chang family. Growing up, Peter lived an austere, rural life in the Hubei province in China. He rose through the ranks of society when he had the opportunity to attend culinary school and become a master of Sichuan cuisine while working on cruise ships, and then to cook at luxury hotels in China. In 2001, Peter moved to the U.S. to serve as the personal chef to the Chinese ambassador.
After two years at the embassy, Peter and his wife, Lisa, decided they wanted to stay in the U.S. and build a life here for their family and their teenage daughter. To do this required making a discreet exit before his contract ended. So, early one morning, Peter, Lisa and Lydia left the embassy and never returned.
The chef then spent years moving from restaurant to restaurant, covering his tracks whenever he turned too many heads. “The longer he stayed at a place, the less secure he felt about the safety for the family,” Lydia recalls.
During that time, celebrating Thanksgiving was put on the back burner. “Other restaurants used to be open all the time, so that wasn’t a decision made by him; it was the owners or the partners,” Lydia says. “They wanted to open for business, and that basically meant we didn’t get the chance to celebrate—we’d be working.”
As time passed and his reputation grew, Peter found the right business partner and took the risk of opening his first restaurant under his own name. Today, he and his family run a culinary empire with 11 restaurants that stretch from Stamford, Connecticut, to Virginia Beach. Still, every Thanksgiving, they give their staff the day off. “Now we can make the call,” Peter says. “The business will be closed on Thanksgiving because we want to stay with our family … we want to give everyone the day off to embrace Thanksgiving and what it means.”
Over the past several years, the Changs formed their own Thanksgiving tradition with a unique Chinese flavor: a snowy day skiing, followed by a family hot pot. It’s the first chance each season for Peter and Lydia to ski and snowboard, respectively.
“In the winter, we either work very hard because it’s the holiday season, the most busy season for restaurants, or we’ll be skiing on the mountain, which is more tiring than work. Can you imagine?” Lydia jokes.
“After a day of skiing, we’ll be exhausted. Nobody wants to spend hours and hours in the kitchen,” Lydia says. Their solution? Packing up a pot of broth and an assortment of ingredients in a cooler that comes with them.
The convivial group of family and friends comes in from the cold and gathers in the kitchen of their Vermont hotel room or rental house. With a portable burner, a pot of broth and an array of meats and vegetables, they are ready for an après-ski feast. “You don’t have to cook anything,” says Lydia. “You can just boil everything in the pot.”
Peter is a carnivore, and goes for strips of beef tenderloin dipped in the broth. Lisa, a seafood lover, cooks pieces of blue crab in the steaming pot and then extracts the meat from its shell. As the vegetarian of the family, Lydia enjoys any type of bean curd, as well as starchy items like Japanese pumpkin. In addition to all the standard ingredients that get dropped into the hot pot, the Changs add a taste of their hometown with a Hubei-style fish cake.
“I think the fun in the hot pot is—whether you are having it with new friends or old friends or family members—it’s about sharing, eating from one pot,” Lydia says. Hot pot, like Thanksgiving, is about bringing people together.
For Lisa and Peter, hot pot and other food celebrations are a way to keep their family heritage alive for their daughter while living an ocean away from home. “Throughout my upbringing, they’ve tried their best to connect me to our culture, to our tradition,” Lydia says. “That’s the way of doing it, by embracing this Chinese tradition at home and spending time together.”
“My dad tells me every time, ‘The main reason we stayed here is for you,’” she says. “But I think the successful business is a side perk.” When she asks her dad why he chose to stay, his answer is simple: “The pursuit of happiness. This is the greatest country.”
Embracing American traditions hasn’t erased the pride the Changs feel for their home country, but Peter explains, “Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the family. Do we feel Westernized? We would be eating a turkey if we felt that way,” he says with a grin.”
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Featured photo by Jennifer Chase.