Chefs are, arguably, masters of their culinary craft, but few call themselves specialists. Over the course of a career, a chef will often prepare a multitude of dishes and cuisines. At least that’s the case in the United States. In China, it’s a very different story.
“As teenagers, they start in the kitchen and all their life, all their career, has been one specific area. That’s how these chefs are really good at their station or a specific technique,” says Vincent Lawrence, partner and CEO of Imperial Lamian. Located in Chicago’s busy River North neighborhood, the restaurant boasts four kitchens—three of which are on display for diners. “Each has different profiles, different sauces, different techniques. What makes it unique are the people,” Lawrence adds.
While dim sum and wok-prepared dishes have become mainstays at many restaurants, lamian noodles remain something of a rarity beyond Asia. Originating in the far-inland city of Lanzhou, lamian noodles are China’s answer to Japan’s ramen. Before the advent of mass production, these noodles were hand-pulled—and that’s exactly how they’re prepared at Imperial Lamian.
Lawrence wanted to showcase those traditional techniques in his first U.S. venture. (His restaurant company Imperial Group has more than 40 locations across eight brands in his native Indonesia.) He brought Chinese master chefs to Chicago, including Executive Sous Chef Victor Chong, who specializes in wok dishes, and Chef Lim Kee Tiong, who creates authentic dim sum fare. Chef Wang Jun, who honed his skills at the “noodle institute” in Lanzhou, heads up the restaurant’s lamian program.
In January, Imperial Lamian celebrated its first anniversary, and so far the chefs have enjoyed their experience abroad—although Chef Chong admits he’s not always a fan of Chicago’s frigid weather. Lawrence hints at plans for another restaurant in the near future and hopes the promise of a fresh challenge will keep his chefs in the States. “Chefs are like artists; they want to keep growing; they want to keep making new dishes. My job is to provide that opportunity,” he says.
For his part, Chef Chong says the language barrier is the biggest hurdle. He is more fluent in English than many of his fellow chefs, but it's still an obstacle in the high-stress environment of a fine-dining kitchen.
“It can be frustrating at times, especially when you’re very busy, you’ve had 600 guests for the day, everyone is tired, and yet you still need to tell someone this needs to be done,” Lawrence says. “The chefs are still learning English, and then we have some cooks and sous chefs who only speak Spanish, so it’s very challenging—it’s a multilingual kitchen.”