Lydia Chang greets me with an offer of tea. She’s seated at table No. 22 in the empty dining room of NiHao, the revolutionary new Chinese restaurant she co-owns in Canton, and even on a cold December morning, her warmth is apparent. “It’s half pu’er, which is a Chinese black tea,” she says, as she sips from her own cup. “If it’s harvested today, you can drink it, but over time, it can last over 20 years. Something like this could be as valuable as a glass of vintage red wine.”
So, is this one worth big bucks?
“No, this one is pretty new,” she says, as she lets out a surprisingly substantial belly laugh considering her diminutive size. While the 5-foot-3inch Chang may be small in stature, her reputation in the culinary world has been growing since she opened NiHao in July, in the middle of the pandemic. In November, Esquire placed it fourth on its list of best new restaurants in America. An impressive achievement, for sure, but even in that brief, 104-word write-up, hers was not the first Chang name mentioned. That was her famous father, chef Peter Chang, described as “the elusive Mid-Atlantic legend of Szechuan cuisine.”
His would be rather gargantuan footsteps to follow. Luckily, his only child isn’t trying. She’s a key part of his empire, and at NiHao, she’s leading the charge. Lydia Chang, 33, is a manager, marketer, front-of-the-house designer, menu shaper, and visionary. Basically, she does everything in the restaurant business—except cook. At NiHao, which is a part of her father’s company, her business partner, executive chef Pichet Ong, mans the kitchen.
“I like to say I am an excellent eater,” she says, letting out another of those laughs. “I spend more time eating out, tasting, doing R and D. Cooking is something I know I would never be able to compete within my family. I withdraw myself from that competition.”
So far, her efforts are paying off. NiHao is wildly popular, and at least one important observer has certainly taken notice. You don’t need to read in between the lines to understand that her father had reservations about his daughter’s vision, if not her abilities.
“I was prepared and ready for the cleanup and aftermaths of a failure,” Peter Chang writes via email, his preferred method of communication. “I thought to myself, there’s only a 30 percent chance it could turn out to be a [sound] business. She could come to me one day begging for help or money. However, I still need to give her a chance to prove herself. I was observing from a distance and patiently waiting for the moment to come. Well, now we know, NiHao is on the journey to become its own thing—very different from what I have done. Of course, I’m pleased and admire her courage. Without much of my involvement, she pulled it off.”
BORN IN CHINA, Lydia Chang grew up in the city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. Despite the fact that both her parents were chefs, it was her grandmother’s cooking that shaped her then admittedly bland palate. Her favorite dish was ground pork—“I liked it very, very dry over rice,” she says.
“Mom and dad were like visitors because they were working so much,” she says. “Dad has a schedule, he goes away to work for 10 days, comes back for one-and-a-half days. He was a chef working for a cruise company along the Yangtze River. Mom worked as a pastry chef sometimes from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
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