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 Hospitalitys 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 didnt 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-bes foodie fate found him when a pair of blown shoulders served up a career shift, leading him to hit the cookbooks, literallywith 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 Yans China, (as well as the companion PBS show in Seattle), before settling in Santa Clara as sous chef (and eventually executive chef) for Yans 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? Its the people. I care a lot about what Im doing, he muses. I enjoy taking care of people. Its just not the food, its the experience. The real thing is what you get from people when they taste food that they enjoy. When youre around people that really enjoy it, and you feel it too thats 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 doesnt 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. Its a beautiful place, and its 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. Its been a very interesting experience already and a lot of fun. I first introduced dishes I really enjoy, and theyre 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 Im working on.
So whats a dish maybe people arent ordering, perhaps out of lack of familiarity with the name, that you think they should def try?
Well, it was the Laksa, which Im crazy about its 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 chefs dish, its 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 were trying to do with it is basically taking traditional dishes and ingredients and then just presenting them in a more modern way. Its not reinventing anything or combining anything. Its modern presentation with traditional ingredients, techniques and cooking methods.
Right. Eschelon has been very clear to qualify that Zinda is not Asian fusion
Absolutely. Its 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. Theyre 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 Im trying to bring it to Raleigh and introduce that part of the dining experience to people here.
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 didnt have any stock, but it was cold my dad was working outside in winter in Chicago and I didnt 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, Ive 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 didnt 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.
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), itd 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 theyre trying to learn. Teaching is his main thing even as a television personality, hes still teaching people Chinese food and tries to make it fun, while also conveying the message behind it. I know its a catchphrase If Yan can cook, so can you but its 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 Ive won a few bets, betting people I could drink beer upside down. And Ive taken peoples money (laughs). But also, cooking. Beyond a profession, its 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. Its very important because theres no stop. Theres no way to find out every technique and ingredient throughout the worlds cultures. And things are always evolving.
Food faux pas?
Well that fusion thing. In theory its 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 doesnt 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 youre getting ready to serve your mother.
If you were limited to one ingredient?
Either fish sauce or soy sauce. Theyre 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, theres magic in just that one ingredient.
Current food fixation?
Indian food is a little bit new to me I hadnt had real authentic [Indian food] and hadnt 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, Im learning a lot about Indian food and have gotten to experience a whole lot more of it. In the last six months or so Ive had more Indian food than I have the rest of my life combined. As a culture, again, its 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, its a really nice learning experience.
If you were to grub on our city streets (besides Zinda) where would we find you?
I dont go out a ton, but I go over to Sono often. Its 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 its 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. Thats 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), Id love to see more of that, because theres 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 thatd be really cool.