A chef's identity trapped in a Chinese takeout box

Oct 02, 2018

This is a review of Lillian Li’s debut novel “Number One Chinese Restaurant.”

To the people of Rockville, Maryland, the Beijing Duck House is a community institution, but for Jimmy Han, it’s a prison.

Inherited from his deceased father, the restaurant includes the secret recipe for perfectly crackly roast duck, an ensemble of loyal waitstaff and heavy debts, both financial and personal. It’s also the only thing standing in the way of Jimmy’s own aspirations to open his own place, one that’s less old-fashioned and more distinguishable from the mass of Chinese-American restaurants whose menus are pretty much the same as the Duck House’s.

It’s the perfect setting for Lillian Li’s debut novel, “Number One Chinese Restaurant,” which compassionately explores the hidden drama and heartbreak inside the establishments that many Americans take for granted. If you have any curiosity about the inner workings of restaurants and the people who make a living in them, this book will satisfy your hunger.

Cover of "Number One Chinese Restaurant"
Cover of "Number One Chinese Restaurant" / Photo: Henry Holt and Company

In the United States, Chinese restaurants all follow a similar recipe. They are family-owned businesses that operate in small towns, big cities and everywhere in between—and they often have the same menu of Americanized Cantonese dishes. Most early Chinese immigrants to the United States came from Guangdong, so that particular province has had a large influence on what Americans have come to think of as “Chinese” cuisine.

But it’s a bizarre mirror version of that food. It’s blander and sweeter, with a bigger emphasis on deep-frying as a technique. Because of that sameness, Chinese restaurants in the United States have that feeling of interchangeability to them, almost like McDonald’s. Most of us don’t take the time to discern between them, and even fewer think about the stories of the people who work in these restaurants.

(Read more: The not-so-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken)

In an email, Li, who used to work as a waitress at a restaurant very similar to the Duck House, reflected on the question of whether or not restaurant workers would enjoy her book. “I’ve gotten that question a few times, actually, of whether or not I think my co-workers would read this book, and each time I’ve said no, in part because of the response I’ve gotten from former restaurant workers, which is that the book really brought them back to their time in service—the stress, the pain, the loneliness. I don’t think I could have read this book while I was waiting tables. It would have just reminded me of my daily reality, when all I wanted was to escape.”

Lillian Li worked at a restaurant very similar to the Duck House. “I don’t think I could have read this book while I was waiting tables,” she says
Lillian Li worked at a restaurant very similar to the Duck House. “I don’t think I could have read this book while I was waiting tables,” she says / Photo: Margarita Corporan

In the small town in Iowa where I went to college, I frequented the local Chinese restaurant for its crispy fried tofu and the calming sensation of being around fellow Asians for a blessed hour of my day. The experience of being the only Chinese family in town—the tension between parents creating a life in America and their children who only want to escape, all while making food for a small community of farmers and academics—is so singular and interesting, but I’d never seen anything like it represented in any meaningful way until “Number One Chinese Restaurant.” The characters in the book all have different attitudes toward the restaurant, and the narrative spends a lot of time reflecting on each person when disaster strikes and they’re scattered to the wind.

“[H]is father has been blocked in by his own golden bricks, his dreams compressed like watermelon grown in a cinder block. Jimmy had different plans. He was not going to be so obsessed with monthly returns; he was going to focus on the big picture. He was finally going to get his hands on the status that had eluded his family, rich as they were, or had been. He was going to grow that intangible capital that reached where money couldn’t go.”

“All the Duck House did, surrounded by the same dirty establishments and rushing traffic, was to remind him that the Glory was only another cage, slightly larger, slightly fancier, but not so different, after all, from his father’s glory.”

Excerpt from “Number One Chinese Restaurant”

To shed the weight of his family’s restaurant, Jimmy opens a new spot, the Beijing Glory, in a trendy neighborhood in nearby Washington, D.C. Instead of the Cantonese-inflected, genericized cuisine of the Duck House, the menu features a bit of clever play on the part of the author. It serves another kind of fusion food: kimchi nachos, bulgogi burgers and miso-wasabi frog legs. But in an ironic and painful twist, all of his patrons ask for lo mein, fried rice and kung pao shrimp, dishes that might have been served at the Duck House.

I felt so much for Jimmy as I read the novel. When I opened a restaurant with my mother in Mexico, I had similar ambitions. I would serve the locals Asian cuisine that most people had only read about online or in food magazines, something fresh and new. We would make Vietnamese street food, ambitious cocktails and spicy fermented fish dishes.

Most people dug it, but some would occasionally ask us why we weren’t serving sushi. One group even went so far as to bring a whole, dead fish into the restaurant and demand that our cooks cut it up and serve it to them. My heart would scrunch into itself a little every time someone pushed back against my menu, and, of course, I would fixate on the betrayal I felt. What was I missing? Why couldn’t they understand? What could I do next?

Some would occasionally ask us why we weren’t serving sushi.

That sense of ambiguity is key to this novel, which concludes with a set of similar questions. Toward the end, Jimmy is reminded of his mother’s words of caution: “You are the stories people tell of you.” He is doomed to disagree fundamentally with her philosophy, to struggle against it and hurl himself against the iron bars of her words again and again. It’s a perfect summation of this novel, that feeling of being trapped in whatever box other people put you in, of being underestimated. It is a constant struggle for the characters. How do we step outside of a box that constrains us without losing our mooring? And how do we know our motivations are secure enough to deliver us to stable ground?

Chinese-AmericansChinese immigrantsFamily-owned businessChinese cuisineBook Review