Chinatown Confidential

The Chiu Chow cuisine of Meng Lei.

"The word he uses is 'seed,'" Jian Leng says. "'This is the seed of the plant.'"

"If I don't have the seed, I can't reproduce the best stock," Lei goes on." All the chefs, Chao Zhou and Guangdong, when they leave, pack their lo soi."

"You don't worry about it going bad, because it's basically always cooking in the restaurant," says Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. "Some chefs get their lo soi handed down from their masters, and it is 85 years old." Lo's recipe for lo soi in The Chinese Kitchen features, among other seasonings, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, fennel, ginger, licorice root, Szechuan peppercorns, soy sauce and a liquor called mei kuei lu chiew. (If mei kuei lu chiew is unavailable, Lo recommends substituting gin.)

Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg
Crab with Ginger and Green Onion
Jennifer Silverberg


Food stylist: Mary K. Sutkus

Though lo soi is used throughout southern China, the Chiu Chow rendition is distinct from any other, including versions from other regions of Guangdong. Lei says Guangdong stock tastes very "heavy," in order to mask the flavor of the original meat. "The beef and pork that you put in — when you take it out, it doesn't taste like beef and pork very much," he explains. "The stock flavor covers the meat."

Meat boiled in Chiu Chow lo soi, on the other hand, retains its distinctive qualities. "When you take it out after boiling it a long time, the beef still tastes as beef, the pork still tastes as pork," says Lei, adding, "I am very proud of my stock."

Lei began cooking when he was eighteen, as an apprentice at what he says was "the only authentic Chiu Chow-style restaurant in Macao," a cabaret with a dance floor surrounded by eighty or ninety tables, each of which seated twelve. "We were cooking for eight hundred to nine hundred people" a night, he says. For the first six months, his only compensation was three meals daily. "I work there, I get fed," he sums up. "I waited for any position available to move up."

The Chinese apprentice system is grueling, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo confirms. "For the first six months you are carrying water. Then after that you are washing dishes. For the first year you are doing nothing else. And then for six months you are washing vegetables. And then you start cutting. It is very, very tough work."

Says Fred Ferretti: "What you are at first is 'The Guy Who Doesn't Wear Shoes': He literally doesn't wear shoes."

Lei says each of the cabaret's five executive chefs took on an assistant to whom he taught a narrowly defined craft. Lei drew marinades and sauces. "Whatever skills my chef knows, he gives to me, and I learn," he recounts. "But I don't learn the skills of another chef."

Says Lo: "If you're smart and you listen to your master, you will do very well. If your master tells you to do something, you don't say anything but 'Yes, master.' But as you do this, you become better. And you learn a lot."

"None of the guys at Hyde Park — the Culinary Institute of America — could stand that," laughs Ferretti.

"They would never do that," Lo agrees. "But this way you really learn. They don't tell you how much to put in. You just look, and feel, and trust your eyes and your hands. It's a really, really tough job."

As Lei learned marinades and sauces, he took pains to absorb the knowledge of the other chefs. To his left may have been an apprentice learning to stir fry, to his right the roasters. "We all have our own specialties, and we do not overstep each other's boundaries," Lei explains. So he learned via osmosis. "I get to watch, I get to hear. When I do my chores and he does his chores, I watch him do his and he watches me do mine."

Lei spent two decades at the cabaret. In 1997 he bought a food cart, and for the next five years he catered to "blue-collar laborers who worked construction or low-class jobs on the streets. They needed a quick bite for cheap."

The cart setup was about half the size of his current restaurant's dining room. "I had a stove, and I made stir fry on the spot," he says. "There was limited seating, limited storage. The cart was small, with two wheels, a stove and a wok. I pushed it home at the end of the day." The food he made there, he says, was "more authentic. It was like a food stand, and the sanitation standard was very different, with road dust and exhaust. It wasn't very sanitized like here. But at the time, during those years, nobody cared."

Lei says he relocated to America in order to provide a better future for his young daughter and chose St. Louis because his wife has family here. In 2003, he opened his restaurant. "It was the only thing I know, that I do best, cooking this cuisine," he says through interpreter Eric Huang. Americans seldom eat here, he adds. "If they do, they're with a Chinese-speaking friend."

Meng Lei isn't the kind of chef who hangs row upon row of roast duck in his front window. Unlike some chefs, who'll display days' worth of cooling birds at a time, Lei cooks only as many ducks as he intends to use. When he needs one, he takes it from a tray on his counter, sets it breast-side up and carves it with carefree confidence. The feet and tongues are set aside for the cold plates, the thighs he deploys in walnut-size bites in any number of dishes, the wings he uses for a cold dish that gets stored in the cooler.

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