Peter Chang, shown at his Virginia Beach restaurant, once worked under aliases, but now he proudly attaches his name to his growing string of eateries. He just opened his sixth, in Arlington. (Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)
For years after he left the Chinese Embassy, Peter Chang seemed more ghost than chef, hiding in Fairfax and Alexandria kitchens under assumed names, often quick to flee when his cooking generated too much attention. He’d rarely, if ever, leave a forwarding address.
The pursuit of Chang soon became an all-consuming story among exotic-food hunters: a tale of obsession, devotion and love for one chef’s authentic Chinese fare. The chase narrative transformed a Hubei province farm boy with minimal English language skills into an American cult figure, an image that, years later, still clings to the chef despite his restaurant chain that keeps expanding year after year.
As he steers his late-model Mercedes SUV, the chef acts oblivious to any labels attached to him. On a cold Friday in late February, Chang, 52, has assumed the role of delivery man, among other job titles for the day. He and his wife, Lisa, a decorated pastry chef, have plotted a course from their apartment in Rockville Town Square, site of the chef’s next restaurant, to several other Peter Chang eateries already in operation. The agenda? Drop off newly printed menus as well as a cook from the company’s culinary innovation team, whom Chang will first pick up in Fredericksburg.
These are the mundane tasks of a businessman who long ago shed his reputation as a chef seemingly afraid to reap the rewards of his enormous talent, moving from one restaurant to another every time his loyal fans and the media rediscovered him. Today, Chang’s food is available in and around Virginia cities including Richmond, Williamsburg and Charlottesville. The chef has come full circle with the recent opening of Peter Chang in Arlington, bringing his cuisine back to Northern Virginia, where he first drove diners and critics crazy with his erratic wanderings in the mid-2000s.
Chang’s triumphal return to Northern Virginia generated so much excitement that Changians — as his devoted pack members call themselves — briefly crashed the Arlington restaurant’s Web site before the place could open its doors last Friday. For a guy who apparently once feared success, Chang has found a lot of it lately: six restaurants (soon to be seven with Rockville’s April launch), a planned fast-casual concept called Peter Chang Wok set to debut in Virginia Beach (where he already has a full-service restaurant) and a promised fine-dining restaurant in the District, designed to be the chef’s flagship.
How is it that Chang, cult figure, so quickly became Chang, serial restaurateur? Or perhaps that’s the wrong question altogether. Could it be that Peter Chang was misunderstood and mislabeled from the start?
The chef lights up the kitchen. Born into a farm family, Chang changed his destiny by going to culinary school. (Jay Westcott/For The Washington Post)
As he navigates his SUV toward Williamsburg, one hand clutching the steering wheel and the other within reach of dried sweet potato sticks, which he snacks on to keep awake during long drives, Chang has a captive audience: a reporter and a Mandarin interpreter. Off and on for the next 13 hours, the chef and his wife will lay out their life story — and attempt to explain the many moves that have mystified followers for almost a decade.
One of the fundamental misconceptions about Chang is this: Contrary to some reports, he is not a Sichuan master chef. He is a Hubei master chef, as a native of that east-central province, known for its river fish and steamed meats and vegetables. “Master chef” is a title the government bestows on a small number of chefs from each province after they have passed exhaustive, multi-level examinations.