Throw Back Thursday: Chef


Chef Zheng in addition to his cooking duties also pulled double duty as guesthouse gatekeeper. Gatekeepers throughout China are the most important of all job descriptions, as they determine when a foreign devil, for instance, can safely and comfortably exit, after about 9:00 p.m., and reenter, around 5:00 a.m., the living quarters. A gatekeeper deserves vast amounts of guanxi...if one wishes to roam around and explore the city's nightlife.

Lao Zheng was the first Chinese to meet and greet me in my new home, a converted Buddhist WWII MilitaryTemple to Cai Da’s guest house and special meeting room, and my home for the first two years of an idyllic sojourn. I arrived mid-morning from Beijing train with severe jet lag exhausting me, and biological clock 12 hours ahead. A knock on my room’s door, I stagger to open it and there’s this short man holing a humongous platter of food! My stomach turns over in disgust and rejection and I pantomime I’m not only not hungry, but the huge pile of food is turning my gut over. He looks startled and scurries away. He’s back at the door, I open and he’s standing with hopeful grin and ... bigger patter of food! I learn later that in general Chinese think we Western Foreign Big Nose people are used to eating gargantuan piles of food!! I learned later he thought I was rejecting the first platter for a second larger one!!

Lao Zheng was a tremendously excellent and talented cook. He had just returned from an Chinese Embassy gig in Paris and my only other house mate, Mary, and I were honored to have, while in China, some of the most exquisite French cuisine offered by this extraordinary Chinese/French chef! Hao Gong Fu, Lao Zheng!

Mary and I took our meals personally created by Lao Zheng in a quaint, movie set tea house in back of the Temple. The walls were of bamboo and we were right off the ageless kitchen, with high ceilings and enormous woks hanging about the walls. Lao Zheng would cook and serve us with an air rifle strapped to his back that would be unslung at a moment’s notice to drill one of China’s ubiquitous “ground squirrels,” or rats to the rest of us, scurrying about the kitchen floor. This one fact of life in China not only curtailed Mary’s presence at mealtimes but also gave me a new and very different view of the “Year of Rat!”