Schoenfeld, who died yesterday at the age of 72.
Photo: Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images
I have always thought of the great Chinese food expert and restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld, who died yesterday after a long battle with cancer, as the latest in a long line of a certain type of New York original who had the used to populate the food world. in the dark days of the 20th century, before an explosion of digital chaos allowed everyone to pose as an expert in everything. Like Edna Lewis and his lemon chess pie, James Beard and his hearty American meatloaf, or AJ Liebling and his Alsatian sauerkraut, these trailblazers tended to have their own passionate area of expertise. They tended to be self-taught, like Eddie, who started his life studying Chinese cooking as a child while eating Sunday dumplings in Brooklyn, and they tended to create their own quirky characters over time. , in the style of Eddie, who was known for his red owl glasses and penchant for farmer suspenders, too.
I used to spend some time with Eddie when I first started writing about food decades ago, hoping to soak up some of his knowledge and wisdom, which which was considerable. He’s been involved in over 50 restaurants over his long career and could chat for hours about the origins of General Tso’s chicken (he’s Taiwanese but owes a lot to the chefs he helped recruit at the original Shun Lee Palace in the 70s. ), or Shanghai soup dumplings (they are Taiwanese too), or the line of former Kuomintang generals in Taiwan, some of whom he had met during his trips to Taipei. He had learned a Nordic “Mandarin” style of home cooking from Grace Chu, who had been married to Chiang Kai-shek’s ambassador to Moscow, but he was also an experienced Japanese cook, and if you let him, he would speak for hours of the best way to fry pork katsu or a Japanese rice omelet.
Eddie’s real talent wasn’t that of a cook, of course, or even that of a restaurateur. Passionate and erudite, he considered himself, from the start of his career in the late 1960s, the ambassador of true Chinese cuisine, of which New Yorkers could only dream at a time when even the most lit lived on dismal bowls of lo mein and foo young eggs. Like the early blues scholars who walked the traditional folk paths and recorded the songs of the great old masters, Eddie pursued the great banquet chefs and cooks who had dispersed after the Communist Revolution in 1949. He found them in France and in Taipei, starting with Michael Tong at Shun Lee Palace, where he led the house in the 1970s, continuing with the great Anhui chef David Keh in the 1980s, and finally with Joe Ng, whom he recruited from a dim sum parlor in Brooklyn to run Chinatown Brasserie, then Redfarm and the big Peking Duck restaurant Decoy. In doing so, Eddie more or less single-handedly brought a kind of music to the Chinese food world that we had never heard before.
Eddie took me out to dinner once or twice when he lived in a house in the heart of Brooklyn, which I remember had a cozy kitchen full of woks and a sprawling lawn, although our relationship was a bit changed when I started reviewing his restaurants. The last time I saw him was a few years ago at the Decoy for an event he had agreed to do in partnership with the magazine. I had been one of the few reviewers to give Redfarm a less than stellar review, so we hadn’t spoken in a while, but Eddie loved an audience, and he and I shared a love for Peking duck , which I first ate as a child in Taiwan in the 60s, when I began my own explorations of the joys of northern Chinese cuisine. Eddie wore his red-rimmed glasses and trademark plaid shirt, and as the duck banquet was served he slowly rose from his chair like a country preacher and began to speak theatrically of the particular joys of the duck of Beijing. He talked about the dish’s history dating back to the Ming imperial court, the endless complexities involved in its proper preparation, and the right way to enjoy it. When he finished his sermon after 20 minutes, or maybe more, our small group of grateful big-city fressers put down our forks and our chopsticks and our glasses of cold beer, and we gave Eddie a round of applause.