Securing one’s first job as an executive chef seems akin to acquiring a new lover: the constant buzz of euphoria surrounding each discovery of this uncharted territory, the delicious weight and freedom of a new role occurring simultaneously, like an expensive watch on a wrist, a solid presence, a ticking. The job is supernatural: the need for sleep falls away, the body responds to the slightest impulse, the fingers at their nimblest, nerve endings at attention.
And as in the love struck eyes of Cupid’s prey, all things appear magnificent, each color and arc of curve becomes a fantastic angle of pure light. The recent lover is a mythic beast dragging its tongue across your life and wrenching the kingdom of the mundane from your experience. Detritus becomes the ingenue, like Lindsay Lohan, fresh faced and freckled. And as the new lover marches out of tangled sheets each morning or stumbles out of alleyways (whatever you prefer, girl; no judgement) surely this creature will eventually return to its status as a mere mortal. Time passes, and the heavy watch ticks on, and after six months, maybe one might want a day off. A long weekend in a cabin, fingertips trolling over each inch of the new digs.
Not Michael Hung. He drags himself out of bed to meet me one morning at a coffee house on the Folsom block of 24th Street by his apartment. The world is zipping around, wasted on Philz and Haus coffee, ready to get to their cubes in SOMA. The intersection, even at this hour, is rife with humanity. Maybe everything feels loud to an under-slept chef. God knows when the last time he slept more than four hours was. One might expect some kind of loopy space cadet staggering from the grind of it all, the pressure of heading up a whole new menu of an established and lauded restaurant, the demands of the staffing, the training, the invoices, the paperwork. THE COOKING! One might expect a man disheveled, just the tiniest bit crabby in spite of his good fortune, because how long can a person remain sunny with no days off? And what if “sunny” isn’t their gig to begin with?
Regardless, I am met by a man with perfectly fitted jeans, rolled cuffs, and jaunty crocodile loafers, the picture of professionalism, topped with a mohawk. Which is also perfect, not a spiky hair out of place. You’d think a man in this position would barely make time to find his closet, let alone these shoes. But somehow, he does, appearing at the end of a counter rising up from the horizon like a mirage. And in fact, you overachievers in the audience, this is not the half of it. While he works seven days a week at San Francisco’s celebrated, and gorgeous, Bushi-Tei as its new head honcho, he is also getting his Masters in Fiction writing at USF. AT THE SAME TIME. No big deal or anything. Except now he’s like my own Jodie Foster–like winning Oscars isn’t enough, the lady had to go to Yale as well. Plus, he’s a philosopher. He’s deep, man. Profundo!
His greeting is reserved but friendly and he’s ready to get to it. We walk back to his house and make our way upstairs to the back of a building away from the street mayhem. The wood hallways lead back and back into a corner. The door opens to a spartan collection of rooms, the loo as you walk in, studio/bed/living room to the left, and kitchen to the right. I want to go where the food magic happens and so we head to the kitchen. It’s about a five foot stroll. Over the threshold to the destination there’s a sink with a few cabinets over it on the left, a stove on the right, then the refrigerator, a bookcase shorty after that on the left and then a desk tucked into the back corner crowned by a pushpin gallery of family photos and keepsakes.
And guess what happens when you open the cabinets? That’s right: Nothing. His cupboards are bare. The stove doesn’t even work. It has a gas leak and Chef Michael hasn’t had time to call the landlord.
There’s little reason really, since the kitchen has become more of a writing office and the cooking happens at the restaurant. Mr. Hung approximates, “About 85% of my take home income goes to eating out.” So he takes it home, then takes it out on the town to see what other chefs and cooks are doing.
He loves to eat. He learned early. He grew up in New Jersey, the home of big hair and showy shoes and thick, detailed coats. It got so cold in the winter that these were the things you actually saw. Under the New Jersey beacon of abrasive wit, Michael took in everything. He watched. He noted, and he made meaning.
He grew up in an Asian home, 1/2 Filipino and 1/2 Chinese. He had an Uncle Henry who came round with old world foods for the kids in the family, sitting them down to sample delicacies. There was a food knowledge that came with the dinners.
“In Asia, you go to restaurants and it’s not like here where they serve sushi and noodles and dumplings. You go to one place and they do one thing and they do it well. There’s something to be learned from that. the way you pare down to the essence of a thing. To its essentialness. In the US there’s no real fixed cultural standard. If you make it in America, it’s American.”
So even when you read fantastic reviews of the new Michael Hung helmed Bushi-Tei, you’ll find the words French, Asian, Korean, Japanese, California, Fusion and on and on. From Michael you will hear: American. In fact, before this turn, he had spent exactly two evenings preparing Japanese themed fare in his whole career. Two. But when you look at the menu, you may find that rather than making you simply long for food, in a more complex fashion, it may make you long, period. The food is emotional. Its intention is to take you on a voyage that means something, from there chef’s deep ponderings over the fate of fish to his love of language, you feel like every moment has been curated not just for the sense of taste, but to evoke that thing we have all lived for and lived through: the rise and fall of a heart not quite broken, and a genuine desire to move the diner to great heights of actual FEELING.
Michael Hung does not make food to be eaten. He makes food to be experienced, from the tongue all the way to the marrow. Every dish is like an Alice Munro story, who he says is “capable of rendering swaths of a character’s life and psychology in just a few evocative lines.” It feels as if this is where something on a physical plane manifests meaning for him. And then at home in the kitchen corner, under the halo of family, the rest of it demands to be heard in writing.
This is an interesting moment to meet a man. He is on a precipice or a fulcrum, depending on the light. “I love to cook. I love sharp knives. I love my cooks. But the thing is, the further you go in your career as a chef, the less you cook. It’s so physical the way the body reacts and moves in a kitchen. And as you progress as a chef, you sort of digress as a cook. But at the same time, as your body may lose a bit of touch, your mind sharpens. A young cook has aggression and uses that every day but doesn’t have the overall knowledge.”
I am lucky. I meet this man as he stands on a bridge. It is a bridge of the body and the mind. Of writing and cooking. Wanting to be in the kitchen but being robbed, time stolen to go to a meeting. Working a story out in his head, rolling it around, but missing class because his arms are working pans, being burned coming out of an oven. The bridge is maybe a little bit lonely, but goddamn, if the view isn’t exquisite.
All of this means much of the chef’s time is spent in uniform, sweaty and alight in motion. No time for social life or events. Dinners out are part necessity, part study, and part first love. What they don’t seem to be is a call to arms in the closet. Like the restaurants he visited in Asia, his style has made the choices to pick a few things and do them right. As you’ve seen, hair tops the list. then come the jackets.
After talking, I had the opportunity to reflect on our meeting and write to our busy hero. I was struck by the detailing of the jackets and a stark contrast to his assertion that morning that he, “didn’t care much about clothes, really. As long as the hair feels right, the shoes are good and I feel great about my jacket, things are good. I like jackets.”
The interesting thing for me was that he couldn’t exactly tell me why. He talked about the rules of physics, how science confirms belief. he chatted about craft, fundamentals, learning all the rules in order to break them well. We even ventured into the new land of what kind of management style was going to assert itself in his kitchen. (He brought his staff in. One sous chef, one line cook, and two prep cooks. That’s it. Four people and Michael, forty tables, seven nights a week.) But the jackets, well they seemed like a mystery to him, even as he held them out to me, one after another, elongating the shoulders of the things and showing off the innards like a nice curve on a lady, seemingly puzzled by what moved him to get either this one or that. I mean, look at that hidden red piping up there. Or what about this:
The nice people at kroon have basically hidden a classy Easter picnic in the sleeves and pocket of this coat. No one knows this but you, the proud owner. You might even forget it yourself over the course of an afternoon, and hang your coat up at some point absentmindedly, maybe at a business meeting over the back of your chair. Then you go to grab it, triumphantly through a tough negotiation, and your untwirl it from the back of your chair only to have have the stripes catch your attention as they sail up into the air. Like a long-married man who sees his partner emerge from a door across a room and, for a split second, doesn’t recognize the figure. Maybe the hair has a new part or the trousers are a new cut and, for a moment, there is that smack of astounding, only to give way to the realization that this vision has been his spouse all along, a hidden striped lining declaring itself gorgeous to everyone.
“The gut instinct (from the kitchen) follows me into the world. I am not a slave to it, but it does influence, for example, something I might purchase. Like a nice jacket. I buy a jacket that feels right. I’m not sure why, but when you looked at my outerwear, you noticed the detail inside, the stitching, etc . . . those were things of quality that I don’t consciously notice but I still am drawn to.” But in the writing and in the cooking he notices everything. From font to finance to discipline to watermelon. Everything. What I notice the most, is these pair of Steve Madden loafers.
You’ll remember that our first Chef, Traci Des Jardins also had a pair of white loafers I felt pretty strongly about. Now, oddly enough, she happens to be a huge player in Michael’s career. He did two different stints under her at San Francisco’s beloved Jardiniere, the last one as head sous chef. He learned from her to finish the food so it’s true. To be a good teacher but strict. Erica Holland-Toll at Lark Creek Inn taught him about people, to be the great communicator he saw her as. But who wouldn’t want to make you happy in shoes like these?
I guess I’m telling you more about me than Michael here. In fact, I remember the writer Eileen Myles sporting a pair of white loafers on occasion that I loved. It’s a white loafer trifecta really. Eileen’s lyricism, Traci’s empiric confidence, and Michael Hung’s commitment to truth and beauty. Even at its most arresting. Moral here being, if you see a person in white loafers, give them a second to shine, as surely they will.
I have, until now, only had the pleasure of reading Michael’s menus, and not tasting his food. But I have read two of his essays in the Chronicle. One you’ll find a link to above regarding fish, and another forthcoming bounces between a man in a chef’s window cooking and ruminating quietly on the execution of Troy Davis, checking the live feed from Georgia, struggling to keep his work honest and focused, cooking with the sensuality of these feelings. The essay moves onto a ride home, pensive, darkness, a taxi, a cat, mortality, visions of hanging on in stark contrast to the pretty wrapped packages of clean meat that arrive in his kitchen.
Bushi-Tei offers an elegant experience of food to delight, but what no one is able to name in any review is the depth and grace of its chef, the quiet power of a man in the moment, courageous enough to be offering up himself to you each night, making actual meaning from the entire journey; making life on your plate. Because in Michael Hung’s world, everything counts.