When he arrived in Chicago in 1997, Chungjun "Ben" Li was appalled at what passed for Chinese food here. Searching for a taste of home, he instead found restaurants that "served me sweet-and-sour chicken, chop suey, or egg foo yong," he says. "I was so disappointed, because I don't know what is that. When I saw the food I couldn't eat it."
Li, a formally trained Sichuan chef, found it especially painful that the U.S. restaurants he found work in—including the one that sponsored his immigration—expected him to cook the stuff. The sad state of Chinese food in the States isn't simply the fault of Americans who don't know better, he says. The problem is that most restaurant owners aren't chefs.
Li grew up in Chongqing, a large city in southeastern Sichuan that's now a separately governed provincial municipality. After high school he found work cooking at a hotel, where he demonstrated enough promise that his employer sent him to culinary school. Sichuan's regional cuisine is best known for its use of blisteringly hot chiles, funky black bean paste, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. But that doesn't begin to reflect its range.
According to Fuschia Dunlop's 2001 cookbook Land of Plenty, the product of her own formal culinary training in the southwestern provincial capital of Chengdu, there are 23 distinct flavor combinations in Sichuan cookery: subtle compounds of salty, sweet, sour, savory, and hot with names like "strange flavor," "home-style flavor," and "fish-fragrant flavor" (which is neither fish based nor fishy). Additionally, there are 56 codified cooking techniques to be mastered, from chao (stir-frying small bits of food) to su zha (deep-frying battered food once at low temperature and again at a higher temperature) to dong (jellying).
At school Li studied banquet planning, majoring in decorative food carving. Then he returned to the hotel, where he helped orchestrate feasts showcasing elaborately presented versions of classic Sichuanese cooking, both common and exotic. After three years back he was lured away to the Rainbow Hotel in Beijing, where he was soon followed by his former "master" in Chongqing, hotel head chef Wan Cai Li.
The pair worked at the Rainbow together for four more years before Ben Li emigrated. After arriving in Chicago he cooked at a series of Chinese restaurants in the city and suburbs, finding time to study hotel management at Harold Washington College and present carving demonstrations at Elgin Community College.
All the while he brooded over the scarcity of real Sichuanese food in Chicago. In his view even the city's most popular Sichuan representative, Chinatown's Lao Sze Chuan, had toned down its food to accommodate non-Chinese who flocked there in the wake of positive publicity. "Chinese people go there, they say, 'Oh, this is not Sichuan style no more,'" he says. "American people don't know. But Chinese people, they know."
Li was determined to open his own place, aimed at attracting disaffected Chinese customers. His plan to purchase Sky Food, a tiny space on Cermak, was met with skepticism by friends, who warned him it was a terrible spot. "Location is not important," he says. "The important thing is the food, the service."
Last year he joined forces with Wan Cai Li, who by then had emigrated and was cooking in Lexington, Kentucky. The pair bought the business last December, opening under the name Double Li in English, "Chongqing House" in Chinese.
There are notable differences between the cuisines of Chongqing and Chengdu. Ben Li says the stronger, spicier seasonings typical of his hometown help residents cope with the oppressive heat and humidity: "People want to eat more chile, then sweat," he says. His fish in chile broth and hot pot of lamb with cumin are representative—fiery, oily, and swirling with flavors deeper than mere chile heat. A cold tripe appetizer is more texturally complex than other versions around town, with bits of crispy celery heart, sesame seeds, and cilantro dressing the snappy offal.
Not everything in the Sichuan canon is tongue flaying. There are shrimp deep-fried in a preserved egg batter, or Li's "pocket" tofu, a labor-intensive traditional preparation of ground tofu, chicken, and egg whites formed into silky steamed quenelles. The two chefs cure their own bacon, glaze it with hoisin sauce, and stir-fry it thinly sliced with snow peas and wood-ear mushrooms. They even dabble in a little East-West fusion with their black pepper-garlic "tenderloin": actually flank steak, massaged, battered, deep-fried twice, then sauteed in butter with garlic, oyster sauce, and a heavy scoop of coarsely ground black pepper. It's a decadent progression of flavors and textures—crunchy, chewy, rich, sweet, peppery—that Ben Li borrowed from a Chengdu chef.
It didn't take Double Li long to reel in Chinese customers. After less than a month the restaurant was slammed by students who'd been alerted to its presence by a Web site for Chinese expats. The crowds were drawn by the offerings on the Chinese-language portion of the menu; the English side lists familiar items like Kung Pao chicken and crab Rangoon. But over the months Li has come to recognize that there are more than a few non-Chinese speakers who want the real deal. He's translating the full menu into English, and makes a point of encouraging non-Chinese to try the unfamiliar things—which he vows not to tone down, saying, "I will keep my style."v
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.