Behind the Line with A.J. Faung

Published Tue, Nov 06, 2012 01:35 PM
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Chef A.J. Faung from Zinda in downtown Raleigh. Photo by Beth Mandel

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

Bringing the Southeast Asian balance to the local plate — sweet, salty, sour, spicy — Raleigh newbie Executive Chef A.J. Faung is zipping zest into gastro goliath Eschelon Hospitality’s newest bite spot, Zinda.

A born chef and magna cum laude grad of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, the top toque earned his chopsticks under his own original muse: Asian cooking sensation Martin Yan (so, if Yan Can Cook, so can, well, A.J.).

A natural in the kitchen with a humble start, it was some PBS “Yan Can Cook”/“Julia Child”-inspired hot dog soup for his dad (“it was cold and we were out of chicken…” he defends) that led the food phenom to find his passion.

But Faung didn’t immediately translate that culinary obsession into a profession. While food service did play an early starring role — from the budding busboy through the Chicago pizza prep line to the stint with United Airlines food service department — the wok-star had yet to awaken.

After receiving a promotion from food to ramp service at United and doling a dozen-ish years to the cause, the chef-to-be’s foodie fate found him when a pair of blown shoulders served up a career shift, leading him to hit the cookbooks, literally—with culinary arts studies in the Sunshine State, which led to a gig in San Francisco working with his original muse Martin Yan on his last cookbook, “Martin Yan’s China,” (as well as the companion PBS show in Seattle), before settling in Santa Clara as sous chef (and eventually executive chef) for Yan’s famed Yan Can Asian Bistro, which was awarded a Top 20 Asian restaurant by “Asian Restaurant News” in the U.S. during his time under the helm there.

Having lived and learned all over these great States — Baltimore-born and bred, Chicago raised, and denizen of Florida and Cali — and, of course, as the protégé of the likes of Yan, Faung, no doubt, brings culinary flare to the Raleigh foodie scene. But his real passion? It’s the people. “I care a lot about what I’m doing,” he muses. “I enjoy taking care of people. It’s just not the food, it’s the experience. The real thing is what you get from people when they taste food that they enjoy. When you’re around people that really enjoy it, and you feel it too — that’s what the cooking is.”


You're a Raleigh newbie, taking root this past spring. Ya dig it?

I do. I like Raleigh — it has enough going on big-city wise, but then again it doesn’t have the traffic and a lot of the other problems that big cities do. The food scene is good, and people are doing some really good things here.

What's it like being at the helm in one of the city's newest food hot spots?

I like it a lot. It’s a beautiful place, and it’s fun trying to figure out what Raleigh wants — as far as their foods, their tastes, ingredients — and then seeing what people are responding to on the menu and changing and going from there. It’s been a very interesting experience already and a lot of fun. I first introduced dishes I really enjoy, and they’re selling well, and I get a lot of positive feedback, but I also see the [unfamiliar] names of the menu items deterring people from ordering. If they try it, they enjoy it, but overcoming the name familiarity is something I’m working on.

So what’s a dish maybe people aren’t ordering, perhaps out of lack of familiarity with the name, that you think they should def try?

Well, it was the Laksa, which I’m crazy about — it’s a wonderful dish. But I think the name was scaring people so I took it off the menu. I hope to reintroduce it as it gets colder here, and people are more into soups. But otherwise, the red cooked pork. I say it all the time … I love it. As a chef’s dish, it’s close to being perfect as far as the balance between the protein and the vegetable, and then also the balance inside of the dish as far as the flavor components.

What about Zinda's Asian eats makes it "new Asian"?

For new Asian, what we’re trying to do with it is basically taking traditional dishes and ingredients and then just presenting them in a more modern way. It’s not reinventing anything or combining anything. It’s modern presentation with traditional ingredients, techniques and cooking methods.

Right. Eschelon has been very clear to qualify that Zinda is not Asian fusion…

Absolutely. It’s not at all. Emphatically also. It is an amalgamation of different cultures — Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese… those flavors — but it is not blending any of them.

Speaking authentic Asian, word is, Zinda's got the best Asian teas on market. True story?

Yes. Definitely. Our teas all come from China. They’re camellia sinensis, the tea plant, not to be confused with assam, which is another tea leaf from India, but this is the Chinese tea. Some of them are hand-rolled, and we have some that are hand-tied. We have a pretty good blend of flavors, representative of white tea, green tea, oolong, red and black. A friend of mine has six teashops over on the West Coast; they go after each harvest and select their tea and bring in 35 tons at a time twice a year in the growing seasons (spring and fall). So they turned me on to the tea, and I’m trying to bring it to Raleigh and introduce that part of the dining experience to people here.

First dish?

I was watching the “Yan Can Cook,” “Julia Child,” “Jacque Pepin” block on PBS — and that tagline, ‘If Yan Can Cook, So Can You,” and so the next one came on, and it was “Julia Child,” and she was doing soups, making stock, and so forth. I didn’t have any stock, but it was cold — my dad was working outside in winter in Chicago — and I didn’t have any chicken for chicken soup, but there was chicken bouillon. So I took that and vegetables and the hot dogs from the fridge and so I made him hot dog soup. He still talks about it to this day (laughs).

From where does your Asian culinary prowess stem? What was the impetus?

My great grandfather was from Canton, China, and he and his brother came over here and started an import/export business in Baltimore and had a couple restaurants. Having that as part of my lineage, I’ve always been interested in Chinese cuisine and Asian culture in general, and after moving to San Francisco was introduced to more traditional. Because our family is mixed [Chinese and Eastern European ancestry; and A.J. has dual U.S./Australian citizenship], we didn’t have any specific Chinese traditions. My grandmother would make dishes for my grandfather that were Asian inspired but were not authentic. So for my own knowledge, I wanted to find out about the traditional cuisine.

Greatest mentor?

Aside from my parents (and I mean that, because they gave me who I am as a person: work ethic, how to treat other people, how to set goals and be true to them … the important things in life), it’d be Martin Yan. He gave me a lot of knowledge, and, not only that, he is a mentor. He is an educator and wants people to learn as much as they can about whatever it is they’re trying to learn. Teaching is his main thing — even as a television personality, he’s still teaching people Chinese food and tries to make it fun, while also conveying the message behind it. I know it’s a catchphrase — “If Yan can cook, so can you” — but it’s true. You just have to want to and you have to try. He offers so much knowledge and inspiration.

So, cookery aside, you're a TV star and tea connoisseur who drives a chopper and can rock handstands. Any other hidden talents?

I was a gymnast in high school … so I’ve won a few bets, betting people I could drink beer upside down. And I’ve taken people’s money (laughs). But also, cooking. Beyond a profession, it’s also my hobby. I do that a lot in my free time and try to learn different cuisines, techniques and ingredients, and continue to grow culinarily. It’s very important … because there’s no stop. There’s no way to find out every technique and ingredient throughout the world’s cultures. And things are always evolving.

Food faux pas?

Well that fusion thing. In theory it’s wonderful, honestly. As long as dishes are done with real thought, it works beautifully, but a lot of people just mash things together for the sake of mashing them and it doesn’t always lead to a cohesive dish. Also, cooking without passion — not putting love into something and just doing it to get it done. You should give your best every dish. I try to tell my guys and do this myself: Make each dish better than the last one you put out. Always think as if you’re getting ready to serve your mother.

If you were limited to one ingredient?

Either fish sauce or soy sauce. They’re both powerful; they both have umami (coined by the Japanese, meaning the fifth taste). So just that one product, if adding it to proteins in particular, and then you add heat to it by grill or wok — when it caramelizes with the protein, there’s magic in just that one ingredient.

Current food fixation?

Indian food is a little bit new to me — I hadn’t had real authentic [Indian food] and hadn’t understood some of the techniques to get to the end result — but because of the boss [G Patel, founder of Eschelon Hospitality] and some of his family and friends and my co-workers, I’m learning a lot about Indian food and have gotten to experience a whole lot more of it. In the last six months or so I’ve had more Indian food than I have the rest of my life combined. As a culture, again, it’s a long tradition of cooking and doing a lot with a little — making these really deep, powerfully flavored dishes with few ingredients and a lot of spices. For me, it’s a really nice learning experience.

If you were to grub on our city streets (besides Zinda) where would we find you?

I don’t go out a ton, but I go over to Sono often. It’s in our house of restaurants — a really good place, and Mike Lee [Sono chef/owner] is a really good friend of mine. Not only that, but we sometimes go there and just talk shop, and it’s a comfortable place to hang out. The atmosphere is always nice and relaxed. Mike Lee is a fabulous chef, as well, a master with his sushi. So we share ideas with each other, and sit around with John Anderson [Eschelon culinary director] and relax and have a couple drinks. That’s where I go to unwind.

You've bounced all over these great States, if you decide to stay and kick it in Raleigh, what's your vision?

Coming from a city like San Francisco, where it is all about the mom and pop restaurant (by which I mean not corporate, people who go and learn something and bring it back and just want a little something for themselves, maybe 20-30 seats where two to three people can handle it all and just put out good honest food), I’d love to see more of that, because there’s so many really neat old buildings here in Raleigh that would really suit that kind of restaurant scene. And you have people who are from here, but who have gone other places and learned things they could bring back and execute. I think that’d be really cool.

Zinda Raleigh

301 Fayetteville St. Suite 120

Raleigh, NC 27601



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