Kate Heyhoe and Thomas Way interviewed Susanna Foo in San Francisco at the Fancy Food Show in 1997.
Kate: Susanna, you tell good stories. The book is filled with charming and fascinating stories about your life and your family. Tell us a story.
Susanna: Well, the reason I have so many stories is that my food is not what people might think it is. I am a Chinese cook, but not like most known here, so I thought I should explain... I am truly a Chinese cook. I don't cook fusion. I don't like it. There's no base to connect to. It's too far away, too crazy.
I start with my roots, which are from Taiwan, when I start to develop a recipe. In China, I used fresh bamboo shoots, which are like artichoke hearts, young and tender, but here they use canned ones which taste so bad. People here think canned bamboo shoots are Chinese cuisine and you have to use it. So they get the wrong impression.
On her background:
Susanna: I was born in Inner Mongolia, my mother is from Inner Mongolia and my father is from Shanxi province in the north. In northern China, there is no rice, because the weather is so tough you can't grow rice there. So wheat flour is a major part of the diet. In my family, we ate dumplings, steamed breads, pancakes, and we never ate rice. My father—somehow he never liked rice. Even after we moved to Taiwan, he still didn't eat rice!
And I think in northern China, the eating is very light. For instance, I like to use balsamic vinegar because it's like the black vinegar I grew up with—the Shaoxing vinegar. It's wonderful, better than the rice vinegar.
It's light too because of the root vegetables they use in northern China: the potatoes, sweet potatoes, daikon radish, and the pumpkins and squashes. So those are the things I grew up with, and cabbages.
My father was a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army, so I was exposed to a lot of things. In 1949, mainland China was occupied by Mao. So lots of government and business people moved to Taiwan. It's a small island. Those people brought their chefs and there were other people who came along and had to make a living. They came from all parts of China and from all the cuisines of China.
So today in Taiwan, you can find very good Shanghai cuisine, Shanxi, Fujian, Beijing... You grow up there in a surrounding where you have all the different tastes of China. In Hong Kong, the Cantonese cuisine is founded, but in Taiwan it's a mixture from all over.
Kate: So that obviously influenced your palate. After you've had these things, it's hard to go back.
Susanna: That's right! So when I started the restaurant I decided to cook what I like to eat. Not to cook what people think is Chinese. Most Chinese restaurants think Americans like fried, Americans like sweet, but that's not true to the way I grew up.
Kate: You have a Masters Degree in Library Science. Not many chefs can say they have that!
Susanna: Yes, I did it to work and earn a living. But it is not creative, it's routine. This is my passion.
I kind of stumbled into the restaurant. I felt I should raise my children until they started going to elementary school, so I stayed at home. My husband's family has this restaurant in Philadelphia and they felt he should run it. He thought it was a good opportunity to have his own business, so we went to Philadelphia.
We thought it would be easy: All you have to do is hire a chef and you just run the front. We found out it was horrible! The first year was horrible. And when I saw how the chefs made the food I was shocked. Because they made two kinds of sauces: one white and one black. White was just water and some starch and some MSG. Black was soy sauce and molasses to make it black, and also MSG. Then they used canned bamboo shoots, canned mushrooms, frozen fish—so I was shocked at the way they made Chinese food.
So I started to make it myself. I was commuting to the restaurant anyway. I was lucky because Jacob Rosenthal came in and I made food for him. He had spent time in China and he always said a nickel in China can buy the best food. So I made dumplings and pancakes for him and he encouraged me. He taught me about French food and one time he even said that Chinese food was better than French. He was the founder of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, and he helped me. I spent eight weeks there. When I came back I decided to change everything about the restaurant. We changed the sauce and the cooking and so on.
Photo: "Chef Boz" Bob Munnich and award-winning author Linda Gassenheimer join Susanna Foo for a memorable dinner.
Thomas: Why do you think Chinese cooking here is so bad? Is it financial?
Susanna: Yes, it is cheaper to cook that way. And also many chefs who came here did not have any culinary background, did not have training. They saw how one restaurant was doing it and they thought this was how it should be done and this is what Americans like—the sweet and the fried.
Thomas: Why don't you like to use MSG?
Susanna: It's very dominant and has a certain flavor. It really changes the flavor of everything but everything tastes the same. The flavor goes to your tongue but it kind of numbs your tongue. That's why you can't drink any wine with it. Most of the wine specialists say to drink beer with Chinese food. But that's not true, because we serve 70% wine. I just don't think MSG is good to cook with. You can't taste the wine. In my family we never used MSG, we always had a kettle of stock by the side and used it. MSG started in Japan and was very expensive, but now it is not and it is everywhere.
Kate: There are a wide variety of soy sauces but in your book you recommend using Kikkoman. Why is that?
Susanna: Some soy sauces are too strong for me. I never liked the dark soy sauce—it's too dominant. So I've been using Kikkoman since I came over to the US. It has a better balance, not too salty, and light. I like it, but everyone has a different opinion.
Kate: If someone had only one chance to explore your food, to eat at your restaurant, what would you have them eat? What would you serve them?
Susanna: I like to do five mini-courses, to show people a bit of everything. I like to serve dumplings for appetizers, with something like salsa or salad or fresh fruit. And tea-smoked ducks, or pompano or squab. I like tea-smoked: it only takes five to seven minutes to cook but the flavor is very intense and well done. It has a wonderful, romantic flavor because of the Sichuan peppercorns. And then I like fish because I think the Chinese do fish very well. The way Chinese cook fish: sometimes you marinate it with soy sauce and wine and oil, then you braise it or grill it. I just don't like the way in this country they just grill the fish with no flavor.
The Chinese fish go well with many red wines, like Merlot, because they have such robust flavors. The garlic, the ginger, the peppercorns. But the French would make fish with creamy, light sauces and so they go with white wine.
Kate: We are in San Francisco right now. What are your dining plans here? Any special chefs you admire?
Susanna: When I travel I like to try different restaurants, so I get ideas. We were in Silk last night. The food was very good but three years ago I was not impressed. In San Francisco there are so many good chefs you want to try them all. Next time I come I'm staying for two weeks!
Have I been influenced by any? I think so. About seven years ago I came to California and went to Stars, Jeremiah Tower's place, and to Alice Waters'. And I was so inspired by the California cuisine because it is so fresh. The wonderful vegetables they use. When I went back to Philadelphia, I started using so many greeens. I found a farmer there who grows organic baby greens, the bok choy and Asian greens. He is in Bucks County and has a real passion. He now grows baby chrysanthemum for me. There's a Chinese way where we sauté them in garlic and it's wonderful.
Kate: Before we go, any last words for our readers?
Susanna: Yes, Happy new year—wishing you great prosperity. I was born in the Year of the Goat, or the Sheep, and my grandma always used to say "Nobody's gonna marry you. You a Sheep! Better go to college, nobody gonna marry a sheep!" (laughter) Happy new year to all!
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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