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Michael Tong

Jim Poris - July/August 2001

Food Arts presents the July/August 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael Tong, the suave and savvy restauranteur who has dared to drape a smooth white tablecloth over the luncheonette Formica of Chinese restaurants. At a succession of establishments—but most notably at Shun Lee Palace, his 30-year-old institution in Midtown Manhattan—Tong has mixed authenticity with modernity, a match that made his groundbreaking championing of Sichuan and Hunan styles of cooking more soothing and accessible to Americans numbed by chop suey house banalities or put off by the cacophony and confusion of restaurants in countless Chinatowns.

"He's like Sirio Maccioni [Le Cirque 2000, NYC and Las Vegas] in his relentless perfectionism," says the critic Gael Greene, who wrote extensively about the fervent creativity and exotic variety Tong aided and abetted in Chinese restaurants in the 1970s and '80s.

Tong's mind is a file cabinet of names, faces, and the dishes each customer has enjoyed on every visit. That's flattering, indeed. So, too, are the great show of captains' and waiters' hands that carve and arrange tableside production numbers like Beijing duck and baroque, lifelike sculptures of frogs, dragons, fish, and other beasts cleaved from vegetables and fruit that dramatically dress the presentation of each dish. To Tong, these gestures are more than just empty, uptown airs gentrifying an immigrant cuisine historically resistant to the service requirements of its adoptive country. They're necessary steps "not so I can justify charging more money but to help us raise and maintain quality," he says.

Tong was born 200 miles west of Shanghai. His father, a high-ranking finance official in the Nationalist government, moved the family to Taiwan in 1949 to escape the ascendant Maoist communists. At 15, he left home to attend high school in Hong Kong, and three years later he came to the United States. He earned a civil engineering degree from Oklahoma State University in 1966. During the summers, he traveled to New York City to work in Chinese restaurants, including a stint at the China Pavilion at the World's fair, where he met T. T. Wang, chef to the Taiwanese ambassador. Wang soon opened Shun Lee Dynasty, and when Tong joined him as manager in 1967, he helped Wang develop the first non-Cantonese upscale restaurant outside of Chinatown.

Tong started the Sichuan/Shanghai-influenced Shun Lee Palace in 1971 with Wang's kitchen input and then the next year introduced incendiary Hunan cooking to a broad audience at Hunam (intentionally misspelled, he says). A lincoln Center branch of Shun Lee has been a West Side fixture since 1981. Rather than let Shun Lee Palace ossify in its middle age, Tong brought in Adam Tihany for a re-do in the mid-'90s.

Tong adheres to one simple prescription for his longevity and success. "Smiling is the basic policy, no matter if you're unhappy or you're depressed. In the dining room, you must have a smiling face."