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Andrea Cherng, the chief marketing officer of Panda Express, spends a lot of time thinking about how mainstream America perceives Chinese food.
For many Americans, the fast-food chain is their first taste of Chinese food. And while yes, Cherng gets paid to shape the rhetoric around Panda Restaurant Group, which owns Panda Express, there’s a deeper, more sentimental cause behind her drive.
Cherng is the daughter of Andrew and Peggy Cherng, the founders of Panda Express. She has personally witnessed it grow from a small mom-and-pop restaurant in the Los Angeles area to an international chain with locations around the world.
“Back then, my father worked front of the house and my grandfather worked back of the house,” she says. “There weren’t enough dollars to support the family, and I remember the desperation of those moments.”
The desperation was so great that Cherng recalls her father chasing down any customer who left without ordering.
“Each of the customers was so important to us because without them, my family would not survive,” she says. “That has been imprinted in our culture.”
These days, the Cherngs don’t have to do much chasing. With more than 1,700 locations around the world and over $2 billion in annual sales, Panda Express has become many people’s first—and in some cases, only—exposure to Chinese food.
Andrea Cherng is highly aware of that position. As a second-generation Chinese-American, she feels a responsibility, perhaps more so than her parents, to publicly celebrate the family’s roots.
Authenticity is a concept that Panda Express has battled for its nearly four-decade history.
Authenticity is a concept that Panda Express has battled for its nearly four-decade history. Critics are quick to label it as inauthentic Chinese food because of its deep-fried, high-sugar offerings, but the restaurant group, technically speaking, is as Chinese as its roots can get.
(Read more: What do we mean when we call a dish ‘authentic’?)
Now, the second generation of Panda Express is focused on raising awareness of what it means to be Chinese, while keeping in mind the diversity of their massive audience.
Panda Express was started in 1983 by Cherng’s grandfather, Ming Tsai Cherng, who was born in Yangzhou, China, and trained at a Chinese culinary arts school in Taipei.
He later secured a job as a chef in Japan before moving to Los Angeles to start up the predecessor of Panda Express, Panda Inn, in the 1970s with his son, Andrew Cherng, and daughter-in-law Peggy Cherng.
The new wave of immigrants shepherded a higher standard of Chinese food.
At this time, the Los Angeles area was teeming with new Chinese immigrants, mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Changes to immigration law in 1965 inspired East Asians to move in droves to the San Gabriel Valley, a suburban enclave of Los Angeles now famous for its Chinese food.
(Read more: The not-so-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken)
The new wave of immigrants shepherded a higher standard of Chinese food because unlike previous waves, these expats were generally more educated and wealthy. The competition, as a result, became fierce.
The Cherng family was a part of this movement. However, their restaurant, located in Pasadena, just north of the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, was frequented mostly by non-Asian clientele. To survive, they had to adapt.
The rise of orange chicken
Andrew Cherng, Ming Tsai Cherng’s son, wasn’t a purist when it came to food. He was opportunistic and studied the competition. When he saw that lobster and steak dinners were popular, he worked with his father, the head chef, on introducing their own interpretation to their customers.
“In the beginning, everything was already being translated by master chef Ming Tsai Cherng,” Andrea Cherng says. “And the way that he cooked always had that Chinese heritage.”
Personal taste, no matter the distance, could not be completely altered by immigration.
Although they were adapting Chinese food for an American audience, the Cherngs were still influenced by the palate they developed in China. Personal taste, no matter the distance, could not be completely altered by immigration.
The 1970s and ’80s were instrumental in shaping the fabric of Chinese-American cuisine. General Tso’s chicken debuted in New York City in the ’70s, and orange chicken was launched by Panda Express’ executive chef, Andy Kao, in 1987.
They were survivalists’ dishes, plates that were crafted out of necessity in order to appeal to the non-Asian consumer.
“These were the things that paved the way for all the culinary originality that we enjoy today,” Andrea Cherng says. “It’s what made it possible for so many families here to become established and introduce a non-Chinese population to Chinese flavors.”
(Read more: How a deep-fried wonton became Australia’s national snack)
In many ways, the Cherngs’ ingenuity is a reflection of how Chinese food has evolved over time. After all, the phrase “Chinese food” is a nebulous catch-all for any food that Chinese people eat. Regional food in China, whether it’s in the north, south, east, or west, is shaped by local taste buds and ingredient availability. American Chinese cuisine is no exception.
Rooted in China
Today, Andrea Cherng ensures that every dish that Panda Express rolls out has a Chinese story with it. The people she hires are highly educated in the cuisine’s history and intricacies, but they’re also flexible in their approach to food.
“The American palate is much more diverse now,” says Jimmy Wang, the head chef at Panda Express. “Before, the mind-set was heavy, sweet, and saucy. That isn’t the case anymore.”
Born and raised in Taiwan, Wang moved to Los Angeles in his teens and went through classical training at the California School of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu). Later, he learned about the technicalities of Chinese cuisine from his Burmese-Chinese father-in-law.
“The first generation was about survival. The second generation is about heritage and individual expression.”
Both Wang and Cherng have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese cuisine, and they are no strangers to regional distinctions. They are as knowledgeable about the nuanced flavors of Sichuan cooking as they are about the historical origins of Jiangsu’s sugar-heavy dishes.
It’s from this awareness where new dishes have been born. In fact, orange chicken, invented 30 years ago, was a riff off a Sichuan dish that’s usually served with lemon peel and spice.
These subtleties might be lost to the average customer, but they’re still very much there, and that makes Panda Express a conscious ambassador of Chinese cuisine.
“The first generation was about survival,” Cherng says. “The second generation is about heritage and individual expression. Not only do we get to shape the dialogue around food, but now, we get to shape the dialogue around culture.”