At the start of a new year, many people at
least think about change. That's why, in January, gyms are bursting with folks
in shiny, new running shoes (check back in March and see how many are still
there). Time to redo the living room, sign up for that class or ban junk food
from the pantry.
But most annual resolution makers and
breakers know little of truly diving into new directions, of taking risks for a
dream. Chef David Mao can teach something about that and serve a great plate of
dumplings at the same time.
Mao's life of change has gotten him where he
wanted to be when he came to Raleigh 30 years ago. His Asian bistro, The Duck
& Dumpling, in downtown Raleigh has collected a string of good reviews
since it opened in November 2002, most recently a mention in Southern Living.
If you missed the article, it's blown up to
banner size and posted on the wall behind the bar. It makes a fitting, if
large, addition to the timeline of Mao's life and career represented by the two
framed pictures beside it. One, taken in the 1960s, is a photograph of Mao in
his early 20s, one of his older brothers and his father in the brother's Saigon
restaurant. Beside them is the actor Glenn Ford.
Nearby is a small card from the old Seth
Jones French restaurant in Raleigh, which announces an "Oriental
dinner" prepared by Mao.
One giant chunk of the chef's history is
missing from the little display, however: Mandarin House Chinese restaurant in
Cameron Village, which Mao started and operated for 25 years.
Mandarin House served stereotypical
American-style Chinese food -- sweet and sour pork, deep-fried egg rolls and so
forth -- in a stereotypical, faux-Chinese dining room. Nevertheless, it offered
good versions of that kind of food and gained a following. Also, that was the
kind of Asian food that Raleigh was ready for in 1976, and even later.
The first time I ate at The Duck &
Dumpling, I couldn't believe that the silken dumplings and steamed sea bass
were prepared by the same chef who had churned out moo goo gai pan in a
shopping center. Even Mao's occasional versions of Chinese classics are far
beyond takeout, as in moo shu made with smoked duck and homemade pancakes.
The decor looked as though it belonged in New
York or Washington, D.C. Not a dragon or lantern in sight, but sophisticated
paintings and hints of black and red, as in the red ceiling lights glowing
through opaque, curved plastic panels. (The interior is the work of Ted Van
Dyke of New City Design.)
The distance between the two restaurants
can't be measured in miles, nor even with a straight line. It's more like a
circle, because Mao, 61, says that this is the kind of food he wanted to offer
25 years ago.
His story also reflects the changes in the
city's dining scene over the last quarter-century. Raleigh eaters are more open
now, he believes, but a restaurant like this is still a risk here.
What's life without risk?
Mao was waiting tables and cooking in his
brother's restaurant, which catered to American officers and other luminaries
during the Vietnam War, when he met Hal Hopfenberg, now an N.C. State
University professor. Hopfenberg loved Mao's food, so much so that Mao traded
him meals for math tutoring.
After Hopfenberg finished his duty overseas
and returned home, he offered to sponsor Mao to come to the United States.
"He asked me to come over in '67,"
says Mao, who still speaks in heavily accented English. "I'm not ready
then. I wait till '72; then I'm ready."
Mao lived in Hopfenberg's home for about
three years, working at area restaurants.
"When I work in my brother's restaurant,
I dream of my own restaurant," Mao says. "Then, the chance
He thought of the fresh, unusual ingredients
at his brother's restaurant back in Vietnam. But this was Raleigh in 1976. He
even rejected his friend Hopfenberg's suggestion to name the restaurant,
fearing people wouldn't get it. Mao held on to the name, though: The Duck &
It doesn't matter if you serve the best food
on Earth if your potential customers aren't ready for it. So, Mao went with the
kind of Chinese food familiar to his diners. His parents were from northern
China, so he knew that style of cooking.
Mandarin House it was. Life proceeded well.
Over time, Mao operated and closed two other Chinese restaurants, one downtown
and another in Mini City. There was a son, now 26. In 1980, he bought a house
next door to his old friend Hopfenberg. Mao brought his Auntie, who raised him
after his mother died when he was 1, to live with him. Many of Mao's 11
brothers and sisters moved to the United States.
In 2001, Mao says, rising rent at Cameron
Village forced him to close Mandarin House.
The old dream came back. And, this time,
Raleigh was ready ... maybe.
Raleigh's dining scene has changed slowly but
surely in the past decade, and the level of sophistication in both chefs and
diners has risen. The ethnic influence has grown, and residents have become
more accustomed to encountering unfamiliar ingredients. Food fans are educating
themselves about cuisine.
Mao agrees that there have been changes --
"I try to serve this food 30 years ago, I wouldn't have lasted" --
but sees Raleigh as a still conservative environment, food-wise. For example,
he has learned that despite the ideas he has for Asian-style preparations of
whole fish, he will sell very few at his restaurant because many people don't
want to see a fish head on their plates.
But if he wants to offer a dish like that, he
"Anything is a risk in business,"
Mao says, with the smile that seems never to leave his face. "This is the
kind of place I always wanted to have."
At some point, everyone has to make a leap
into the life they've always wanted.
"In this country, things change so
fast," he says. "But that is what has kept this country so powerful,
on top, because we always try the new thing here."
Here's a belated, but still bubbly, glass of
new year's champagne to Mao's delicious new thing, and to whatever may be yours
in the coming year.
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