Olympain of Chinese Food
written by Courtney Tait | photographed by Tim Sugden
Most mornings, FuLai Wong can be found in the seafood markets of the Jade District, hand-picking live lobsters. As the executive chef of Wong’s King Seafood — a banquet-style eatery named one of the top 100 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. by Chinese Restaurant News Magazine — the 37-year-old Wong thrives on creating the kind of traditional Chinese dishes that have won him multiple awards, including a gold medal at the Fifth China International Cooking Contest.
By 9 A.M. he’s in the kitchen, where he begins a 12 to 13-hour day doing the kind of work he grew up watching his father, Chef Andy Wong, take pride in: chopping and braising, steaming and stir-frying.
“I love cooking,” he says. “I never went to any colleges or culinary institutes. Mostly I watched what my dad did.”
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Wong opened up about moving from China to the U.S. as a 10-year-old boy, the evolution of the Jade District, and which dish you must order from his menu.
Where did you grow up, and what role did food and cooking play in your life?
I grew up in Guangzhou, China. It’s a big city an hour or two from Hong Kong. It’s known for its food. My dad went to a culinary institute for cooking and supported the family. He was the chef of a five-star hotel in China, and was well known before we moved to the U.S.
I lived there until I was 10. We moved to Portland in 1989. It was during the time of the protests at Tiananmen Square, and we were afraid we weren’t going to make it because of the turbulence. My uncle owned a restaurant in Newberg, so my father worked the second day we came to America. The food was Americanized Chinese food — it took him a little bit to get used to cooking that style.
When I was 17, my dad opened his first restaurant in Sandy. After school I would help out and watch him cook. I would take my friends there and wanted to show off what a 17-year-old could cook, and they were amazed by it. So that’s when I started learning more.
How did you feel about leaving China and coming to America at 10 years old?
I was excited. We wanted this opportunity for our family — the American dream. Coming here we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t have a driver’s license, we pretty much had to start over and learn everything new. The most difficult thing was learning the language. When we first came they had a program called ESL. We went through that, and by the time I was in middle school I could start conversing in full sentences.
Are you married? Any children?
I’m married to my beautiful wife who I met in high school. We have two boys, 16 and 13. They ask how to cook a steak or eggs and they love cooking ramen, but they haven’t shown too much interest in the restaurant yet.
When did Wong’s King Seafood open, and how would you describe the style of food?
It opened in 2004. By then the Asian community in Portland had grown significantly, and we had three Chinese American restaurants, so we wanted a traditional Chinese restaurant. The menu is 85 percent traditional.
Before it was open, my dad and I went back to China for a cooking contest to refresh some of the style of cooking. It was the Fifth China International Cooking Contest in my hometown. This is the Olympics of cooking contests in China, with 18 different countries and over 1000 chefs. We went just for the experience, but we brought back two golds. It was almost like Iron Chef, with judges walking around and cameras. I was 25 years old, and when the cameras were on, my hands were shaking. I was praying to God, ‘don’t cut my fingers.’ I cooked braised abalone in oyster sauce — the temperature and the timing have to be right because if you overcook or undercook, it’s very tough. The judge tasted it and gave me a really high score, and I won the gold medal.
What misconceptions do you think non-Chinese people have about Chinese food?
A lot of people say Chinese food is greasy, fatty, and it just goes right through them and they get hungry. But it depends what you order on the menu. My father and I eat very healthy — soup, fish, tofu, vegetables. We use vegetable cooking oil, and you can request for light oil, no oil, or steamed. Chinese food is very healthy. If it goes right through you, then you aren’t eating enough fried rice.
What should people definitely order from your menu?
Peking duck is a must have. We roast the duck until the skin gets crispy, push it out in a cart, and the server will hand carve the skin tableside, to be paired with a sweet bun. For the second course, we’ll dice the duck meat and stir fry it to be served in a lettuce wrap.
What do you think of the evolution of the Jade District?
I think it’s great. It brings the community together, and it’s brought more awareness to the area, so it benefits all the businesses. A lot of restaurants have moved out of Chinatown to this area. When there’s competition, it makes us better. The only thing I don’t like is when some of the restaurants compete with prices, it degrades Chinese food, and people think it’s cheap.
What do you think you would be doing for a living if you hadn’t become a chef?
I was very good at math. I maybe would have become an accountant.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love the outdoors. In wintertime I snowboard. I like to golf, I like to go to the gym. Any physical activity, going to the river — you name it, I’m there.
What’s the best part of your work day?
I love the dinner rush — it gets my adrenaline going.