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Mister Jiu’s Is Ready to Shake Up Chinatown

Old traditions, new tricks.

Mister Jiu’s whole salt-baked trout with trout roe, charred scallion, and ginger.

 

“Do you mind if we do this standing up?” Brandon Jew asks.

It’s a reasonable question: Jew is poised over a cutting board, chef’s knife in hand. We’re standing in the kitchen of Mister Jiu’s three days after the restaurant’s official early-April opening, and even though it’s three hours until dinner service, the chef doesn’t have time to sit down. “I’m trying to take things day by day,” Jew says. “There’s a lot to work out. I don’t profess that I’m a master of Chinese cuisine. I’m learning every day.” 

Though he never stops moving over the course of our hour-long interview, Jew is improbably calm. His manner belies the sheer weight of both the task in front of him and the expectations that have surrounded him since late 2013, when he announced his plan to open a farm-to-table Chinese restaurant in the longtime home of Chinatown’s Four Seas Restaurant. If Jew’s concept was ambitious, then the idea of bringing it to Chinatown was, to put it nicely, unorthodox.

The dining room’s chandeliers were salvaged from the old Four Seas.

“I went to Cecilia Chiang almost for, like, this blessing,” Jew says of the legendary 96-year-old credited with introducing mid-century Americans to authentic Chinese food. “And she was like, ‘That’s a stupid idea.’” (Chiang declined to be interviewed for this story; Jew says she’s visited twice and “definitely had things to tell me.”) And plenty of others echoed her sentiment. “Even my own grandpa was like, ‘There’s too much competition in Chinatown,’” Jew says. “And I was like, ‘No, we’ll be doing something different.’ To me it made perfect sense.” He smiles. “Hopefully, when people come here it will make more sense.” 

When you step into Mister Jiu’s, it does make sense: The restaurant is a game changer for both the neighborhood and Chinese food in San Francisco. Following a grueling renovation that dragged on for a year longer than planned, the dining room is a study in airy, stripped-down elegance. Its copper chrysanthemum chandeliers—which Jew salvaged from the Four Seas—and expansive views of Grant Avenue nod to the restaurant’s wider context, while the prix fixe menu, with its $69 price tag and organic, locally sourced ingredients, screams latter-day San Francisco. This cognitive divide presents a significant challenge for both Jew and his customers. Chinese food, perhaps more than any other cuisine, is freighted with cultural ignorance and an assumption about what it should cost and taste like. It’s a tough cuisine—and a tough neighborhood—for any innovation-minded chef to make his own.

“When people ask me about the whole authenticity thing or whatever, I say I’m cooking 100 percent authentic with the experiences and training I’ve had,” Jew says. “Maybe it would be inauthentic if I was cooking food for someone living in China with a Chinese palate. But I’m cooking food from here, from farms and systems I believe in.” Chinatown’s legacy of chop suey and egg foo yong has lent him further vindication. “Chinese American food was born here,” he explains. “This neighborhood has never been about representing an experience that was made for Chinese people living in China.” 

Jew got the idea for Mister Jiu’s—the name is a play on his own surname, which was mangled by an immigration officer when his grandparents came to the Bay Area from southern China in the 1920s—when he was working as a cook at Quince. At the time, he was trying to collect recipes from his grandmother, who died before he could get very far; the missed opportunity, he says, hit him hard. As a kid growing up in the Outer Sunset, he’d made regular trips with her to Chinatown to buy groceries, and losing her made him contemplate the accompanying loss of tradition. A subsequent stint cooking at Shanghai’s Museum of Modern Art, where he was exposed to the regionalism of Chinese food, gave Jew further clarity: He realized, he says, “I wanted to create a regionality for Chinese food here in California.”

Before Mister Jiu’s, Jew was best known for his work as the opening chef at Bar Agricole. Now his name is arguably synonymous with not only the next generation of Chinese American food, but also the next generation of Chinatown. “The weight of the entire community has fallen on this poor guy’s shoulders,” says Betty Louie, the owner of the Four Seas building and Jew’s landlord. “I can’t walk down the street without someone asking me, ‘Is it good for the community or bad?’ I think 100 percent it’s good, but the pricing is very high.” And, she adds, “people’s perceptions of Chinatown have always been ghetto. They think we’re a separate nation, and that everything can be negotiated. So [the restaurant] is being held to a totally different standard.” 

While Jew is keenly aware of this, he’s more interested in holding himself to his own standards. And that entails taking the food he’s eaten in China, recognizing its essential deliciousness, and translating it in a way that makes sense in Northern California, whether that means topping his daikon radish cakes with black olives or putting nasturtiums in his hot-and-sour soup. Regardless of what Cecilia Chiang thinks, “our goal is the same,” Jew says. “At the time, she was fighting chop suey. But I have that vision of having people think differently about Chinese food, too.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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