It’s a Sunday morning in the dead of winter, and there’s already a crowd outside Jing Fong, New York’s biggest Chinese restaurant. Groups of all sizes and ages—trendy young Asian-Americans with oversized glasses and drop-crotch sweatpants, people who could be their parents, confused white families—stand clutching slips of paper with numbers scrawled on them. At the front is a woman with a microphone, her demeanor somewhere between a stressed school-trip chaperone and a People’s Liberation Army general. The wait, she says, is an hour.
While an hour wait has lost its ability to shock in New York—I recently waited three hours to eat at a certain trendy Chinese restaurant ten blocks away—consider this: Jing Fong is neither new (it’s forty-three years old) nor small (the dining room comfortably accommodates eight hundred). Before the day is done, well over three thousand guests will have passed through here.
Luckily for me, I’m able to slip past the crowds and ride the escalator up to the dining room. I’ve eaten at Jing Fong countless times, and the room has not lost its ability to stun; there are acres of red and gold carpet, hundreds of feet of blue accent lighting, and three monumental chandeliers set beneath ornate coffered ceilings. Restaurants of this scale simply don’t exist in New York City—and so I’m here for the day to see how it all works.
The idea of waiting an hour to eat dim sum is pretty much counter to its original purpose: a quick meal—a road trip snack, really—for traders in the tenth century, who needed sustenance on their journeys to and from Canton (now Guangzhou). Dim sum restaurants like Jing Fong—with “aunties” pushing around steam carts—emerged in 1950s Hong Kong. They were perfect for two important groups of Chinese diners: status-obsessed businessmen eager to show off their largess, and mahjongg players whose games lasted for hours.
Jing Fong’s own history begins a bit later, in 1978, one door over from its current location. The New York of those years was a city in crisis. Three years earlier, President Ford denied federal assistance to help the city stave off bankruptcy. In July 1977, the city experienced a two-day blackout. When Ed Koch was sworn in as mayor on January 1, he spoke of a city “tested by fire” and “drawn across the knife of poverty.” Chinatown was run by five gangs, whose battle for control of the neighborhood resulted in constant violence and waves of kidnappings.
It was a tough climate in which to open a restaurant, and Jing Fong struggled from the very beginning. When it ran out of money to pay its bills, it began to offer shares of the company as compensation. Many refused, believing that shares in a restaurant on the verge of bankruptcy were worthless. The restaurant’s plumber, Shui Ling Lam, accepted the deal, and eventually accrued enough shares to become the majority owner.
By 1993, New York was beginning to show signs of improvement—murders had begun to decline, after peaking at 2,245 three years earlier—and Jing Fong’s landlord offered to move the restaurant to the much bigger space that he was developing next door. The change was enormous—150 seats to 800—but Shui Ling believed that the column-free room would give him an edge in attracting the one hundred-table Chinese association parties that could make or break a business. The restaurant made the leap.
Standing in Jing Fong’s enormous kitchen twenty-two years later, it’s clear the move was a good one. Against one wall, a troop of chefs works the wok station, cooking things like clams in black bean sauce, stir-fried eggplant, and pork knuckles. Dim sum production takes place on the other side of the wall. Four silent chefs huddle around a flour-dusted table, spooning pork-and-chive filling into fresh circles of wheat dough, pleating the zheng jiao into uniform crescents, and then loading them onto a sheet tray. Behind them, another chef spoons a thin white liquid over a steam box, the liquid coagulating to form the trademark skin of chang fen. Another chef stands over the bamboo boxes, swapping them on and off the steam tray like a living metronome. Everything is incredibly clean.
Truman Lam, whose father Ming is the current owner, estimates that restaurant uses two thousand pounds of shrimp per week. Pork and the most-used vegetables are purchased in similar quantities. The dim sum chefs produce eight thousand char siu bao per week, fifty percent of which are consumed over the weekend.
Ruling over this operation are three head waitresses—who, like most of the staff, have been at Jing Fong since 1992. Standing on the main dining level just in front of a bank of three dumbwaiters, the head waitresses are in charge of monitoring the entire room. They rely on both the twenty-three “aunties” who man the carts and the waiters who fan out across the room to fill water, fetch tea, and keep a pulse on what guests are demanding. From that information, the head waitresses know which of the hundred-plus dishes on offer are selling out, and call down to the kitchen to replenish them as needed. Within ten minutes, one of the dumbwaiters brings them up to the main level, where the carts are picked up by the aunties, who take them to the floor and begin the process again.
A restaurant run by people with twenty-two years of dim sum service under their belt runs like it’s on rails, but it also evinces a looming threat: that the next generation of Chinese-Americans are not working in Chinese restaurants.
As a young person who chose to work in the family business, Truman knows how rare he is. “In the new generation, I don’t know who would want to do this for a living,” he told me. “When this group of people—and not just the people in this restaurant, but in Chinese restaurants in general—think about retiring pretty soon, you’re going to have a problem with labor.” Even Jing Fong’s newest employees are forty to fifty years old.
For now, though, Jing Fong is safe. The changing neighborhood and rising interest in food have expanded the restaurant’s clientele. The “old guard” of Chinese people fills the restaurant Monday through Friday, Claudia Leo, the restaurant’s marketing manager, told me. On the weekend there’s always a wait, a multicultural, multi-generation scrum jockeying for tables and baskets of har gow.
And a there is now a mimosa cart, possibly some sort of nod to boozy Meatpacking District brunches, or maybe a concession to the fact that young New Yorkers will just flock to anything that vaguely resembles “brunch.” I wondered if those people were a threat to some fundamental element of Jing Fong’s success, or the authenticity of the food it serves.
“I tell them that dim sum is ‘Chinese tapas,’” Claudia retorts. A comeback I find comforting in its honesty—even if it’s been in the black since the seventies, a restaurant run by enterprising folks with eight hundred seats to fill never sleeps on its success. Somebody’s got to make the dumplings.