David Keh and the New (in 1977) Face of Chinese Food

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Gourmet Chinese? It may seem like it’s everywhere these days, but once upon a time, the very idea was laughable, as this September 1977 article shows


In style all that is required is that convey the meaning. – Confucius

That fine, elliptical Confucian diktat, anticipating Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is More” by some two-thousand five-hundred years, is understood by a few—all too few—Western designers, architects, artists and writers. A New Yorker who understands it well is David Keh. He was born 42 years ago in the central Chinese province of Anhwei, studied Chinese literature in Taiwan and New Jersey, as presently projects gastronomical meaning as he sees it on Third Avenue. Keh is a restaurateur, quite possibly the best and certainly the most controversial owner of Chinese restaurants in New York. David Keh is a stylist.

The style is what chiefly upsets the professional restaurant critics. Keh’s prices also raise their hackles, but since restaurant critics do not in line of duty have to cough up for what they put down, the tab is apparently not too upsetting. No, what disconcerts our proconsuls of the palate is that at his Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan at Sixty-third Street and Chung Kuo Yuan at Sixty-fifth, David Keh dispenses an unfamiliar haute cuisine Chinoise that seems to aspire to something quite beyond their ken. Also, in the case of Chung Kuo Yuan, also known simply as David K’s, some typewriter gourmets appear to be unsettled by the very ambiance of the place: chandeliers, widely-spaced tables, damask napery, a profusion of fresh flowers, crystal and silverware from Rosenthal, numerous and knowledge waiters, attentive captains. Chung Kuo Yuan means China Garden, and we all know hardly, perennial chop suey joints by that approximate name that come as close to verdure as Canton does the Cannes. Actually Chung Kuo Yuan does have a garden room, a cool, green place in the sun that may be even more verdant than the Italian Pavilion’s.

And why not a Chinese restaurant as chic as Lutece, as elegant as Café des Artistes, as loving as Parioli Romanissimo? We seem to forget that the China of Confucius and Mencius also invented the fundamentals of Western haute cuisine as we know it: herbs and spices, sauces, pastas, cooking in wine. Mandarin cooking is to this day far more refined as complex than anything the Cordon Bleu savant is equipped to deal with. What the Chinese call “the true taste” goes beyond what the palate receives but concerns itself as well with color, shape, arrangement, nutrition and texture – as many as five different textures arranged against each other. For the most part, the chow Americans buy in the belief that it is Chinese is a gummy, brown, bland mishmash of stale, mediocre ingredients, souped up with monosodium glutamate, slap-dash-fried and served by a waiter who seems to be in as much of a hurry for the last suburban local as his customers (and often more contemptuous than Conrail in his delivery).

David Keh is not too scornful on this score. But he is passionate. “For more than a hundred years,” he notes, “people in this country have been eating Chinese food as almost something for nothing. Two people share one dish, and they don’t complain about the dirty tablecloth and the old joke about being hungry ten minutes after they’ve finished eating. At least ninety percent of the Chinese restaurants in this country are owned by poor families who have no knowledge at all of classic mainland cuisine. You can understand that. In China, only rich people talk of good people. For rich people, a meal can be a hundred dishes. Poor people, which means almost everyone, only want to fill their bellies.”

In fact, because of their insistence of a balanced diet that always includes fresh vegetables, some peasant families in China today may be better nourished than the average capitalist American who subsists on fast food, and flash-frozen Supreme de Blah from the fridge. David Keh is not a nutritional evangelist, nor a faddist of any kind. Keh is concerned with food, naturally, but most of all with food as “a form of communication.”

The balances and essences of great Chinese cooking are not easy to communicate. The written menu at Chung Kuo Yuan—in contrast to the flowery prose perpetrated by lesser restaurants—is as austere as a Confucian maxim. The dishes—including specialties from Peking, Szechuan and Hunan, range from exquisite hors d’oeuvres, including shao mai and feu kuo ($6.95 for two people), to a particularly succulent main dish in which a two-pound lobster is shelled, sautéed in white wine sauce with water chestnuts, mushrooms, broccoli, ginger, sherry and minced scallions ($19.50). Another specialty, which I can hardly recommend too highly, is lian mien hwang ($6.25), authentically Chinese pan-fried noodles, a subtle dish that bears as much relation to its American descendant, chow mein, as ballet does to bump-and-grind. These prices would not seem unduly high at La Caravelle or The Four Seasons or the Remington Room at “21”, but they stir hypertension among some diners because this is a Chinese restaurant.

Whether for this reason, or because its somewhat off the beaten track for the expense account set, David K’s does not yet draw a big crowd. Since there are only twenty-four tables in the big main dining room and a dozen small ones in the garden room, all discreetly separated, the place would not seem crowded even if it were filled to capacity. By contrast, Uncle Tai’s, only two blocks south, usually has diners waiting in line to get in—one reason perhaps being that it was awarded four stars by the New York Times two weeks after it opened.

It would be equally hard to overpraise the service. At Chung Kuo Yuan, the dining room staff numbers nineteen, the kitchen staff fourteen. At Uncle Tai’s, the numbers are about the same. Including David’s employees at his Szechuan East, 1540 Second Avenue, the K corps numbers some one hundred people. He pays them, he says, “the highest wages in all New York’s Chinese restaurants—twenty percent of the gross to the kitchen staff, ten percent to the people up front.” At least half of Keh’s employees come from Chinatown and a large number of them are college-educated. “I’m not their boss,” he says. “I’m their associate.”

Indeed, David Keh is not a wok star. He can hardly boil a bamboo shoot. Though his father was a general in Chiang Kai Shek’s army, he grew up poor in Taiwan. Arriving in New York in 1965 with twelve dollars in his pocket, he worked at a succession on menial restaurant jobs, sleeping in cellars, eating free, saving every cent. By New Year’s Day 1968, he had scraped together enough cash and loans to open his first restaurant, Szechuan Taste in Chinatown. To my knowledge, this was the first eating place in New York City to base its menu on the spicy cuisine of that heartland Chinese province. (It is still an excellent restaurant.) After two other small, successful ventures, Keh opened Szechuan East, under the auspices of Uncle Loo, who was brought over from China.

No one would call David Keh “Uncle.” An elegant, articulate man who looks at least six years younger than his forty-two, he sounds at one moment like a Fortune profile; at another like a pure Hunan ham. To wit:

Customers are amazing. People who don’t quarrel over a big bill will walk out with knives and forks and plates. The flowers they are welcome to. They only cost me five-thousand dollars a month.

I say to my waters: I was a waiter before you were. You should be proud to be a waiter. I want you to be part of a family.

This [Chung Kuo Yuan] is the place I dreamed about. I’m losing twenty-five thousand dollars a month here. I’ll even sell Uncle Tai’s, but I will stick with it.

The suave and public Mr. Keh can be quite misleading. He is rarely abed before four in the morning and is up by nine-thirty to consult with Peking-born Norman Chi, a distinguished New York restaurateur who is David’s factotum and general manager of all three restaurants. Jean Keh, a one-time nurse from Peking who married David in 1967, supports and understands his ambitions. On weekends, David compensates by taking Jean and their two sons, William, seven, and John, six, out to beaches and ball games. “We mostly eat MacDonald’s hamburgers and hotdogs,” says David, “and we have a ball.”


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