Showtime in Chinatown

For chef Joseph Poon cooking is a performance art

 By Quingyi Gong

It was a chilly Friday afternoon in November, six days before Thanksgiving. The leaves of trees on the other side of Vine Street Expressway had already turned into a bright red color. The winds were blowing vehemently and

Joseph Poon

Joseph Poon

three trucks rushed out from the firehouse located at North10th and Cherry Streets, their sirens ringing piercingly before the trucks disappeared at the corner of Market East Station.

The sky was bleak and gray. It might not be an ideal day in Chinatown for tourists, except some adventurous foodies, who might be lurking somewhere in restaurants, searching for authentic Asian food.

It was almost three o’clock. Chef Joseph Poon, 67, was waiting impatiently in an upstairs room at 1010 Cherry Street, a few steps away from the firehouse. The building lay in a quiet alley, facing Jiyuan Produce Market across the street. Outside the building, the signage read: Joseph Poon Chef Kitchen.

Walk past a glass door on the first floor, and a narrow, steeping staircase with plastic covers will lead visitors to the second floor, where Poon was pacing around. The room was cluttered with tables, chairs and shelves. Near the staircase, two metal tables were put together to form a long one. On the table were some cutting boards and knives. Further inside was a kitchen. Plates and cans were closely packed and a sink was churning hot foams up to the surface.

Poon wore a white shirt and a dark green sweater, which appeared even darker due to the dim light. He wore a pair of off-white pants and black work shoes. A pair of old-fashioned, shaded eyeglasses with round frames perched on his nose. Poon looked tough and had a weather-beaten face. A little bald, deep wrinkles spread on his forehead when he talked. Now he was talking with his assistant in Hong Kong dialect, in a thundering voice that made their conversations sound like a quarrel.

Suddenly, Poon paused and turned his head towards the staircase. “You are late. I’m gonna to punish that. You can go home, because you are late.” Poon’s voice was hoarse and uncompromising.

A group of young students had just come in the room. They were from Penn. Some were juniors and some were sophomores. They were going to hold a small party at Poon’s kitchen on the night to learn cooking Chinese dishes.

Music was turned on. Here were nine diners, along with Poon and the assistant. Poon stood at one end of the table and made a short greeting speech: “Thanksgiving is almost here. Number one, I didn’t know English. And now I teach students in English. So, if you didn’t know, you can learn it, right?”

Poon spoke English with heavy accent. But he was exuberant.

“And I teach, work and learn English. I didn’t know English. I graduated from college 35 years ago. And now I lead restaurant tours, international restaurant tours. And also I volunteer——300 to 500 hours of community


Poon talked about how different American and Asian cultures are. “The funny guys in China, when they make jokes in New Jersey, no one laughing. When Americans make jokes in China, nobody laugh in China. Different cultures.”

“Good morning, America!” he yelled suddenly.

The group burst into laughter.

“See, you guys know. But Chinese don’t know what I mean by “Good morning, America”. Completely different cultures. If I say “Good morning, America” in China or Hong Kong TV, nobody laughing, because they don’t see the movie ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’.”

This caused hearty chuckles in the group.

“You can see how difficult it is. So try to help each other and learn more.”

Poon then fetched a knife from the table, tore open bags of vegetables and poured them out. There were carrots, string beans, mushrooms, lotus roots, celery, black fungi and other kinds of veggies, all fresh. When he was cutting them, he took off his pair of eyeglasses and moved his knife gingerly.

He drew a cross with the knife on a mushroom, which fell apart immediately into four pieces. He halted the knife in midair, and let it slowly fall down on the smooth, jade-like surface of lotus roots, cutting them into fine slices.

“This one, I want you to cut this way. This is what we call Julienne cut.” He grabbed celery onto a cutting board, parted a celery stem into three parts, and then cut them into sections.

Poon let the group cut the rest of the vegetables. And then everyone was busy with their tasks. The knives clicked with the metal surface of the table with melodious sounds.

Poon watched the group and said: “Artisans become funny guys. Funny guys become chefs. Then chefs become masters. So you guys are unlimited. You are better than me. And you can beat me someday. You have time. So, energy!” Poon stamped his feet on the ground.

If people didn’t know Poon were a little wacky chef, they might have believed he was just mad, because he often gestured and screamed at the top of his lungs when he was speaking.

“Today I show you commercial cooking. It’s all commercial.” Poon announced when the group finished cutting. All the raw vegetables were placed on a large plate, ready to cook.

The first dish is Zhai, an all veggie Chinese dish.

“Before you put things in, you must know condiments,” said Poon.

“Sugar,” he dipped his thumb and forefinger into the sugar container and pinched some of those white granules into his mouth.  “Sodium, salty. Chicken powder, neutral.” Each time, he tasted the item.

Poon touched the stove’s switch with his knee to turn on it, and then used another leg to turn off the fire. He repeated the movements fast. It looked as if he was dancing.

He turned on the stove once again. The fire roared from the bottom of the pan. One person from the group volunteered to cook the Zhai dish.

Poon took a large spatula from the shelf and gave it to the volunteer. He stood aside, but commanded: “Two thirds of sugar. Half chicken powder. A quarter salt. And then, white pepper, a dash. Ginger, garlic, wine. Next, stir it. And then, boogie-woogie. Boogie-woogie.”

“And then, final touch. Put in some sesame oil. Done.” He handed the plate to the group and let them smell it. The assistant moved the plate to the outside table.

“Now, everybody go out and enjoy the dish!” Poon stamped his feet again in excitement.

The group of diners was apparently hungry. They finished the vegetables on their plates in whirlwinds and also filled their take-out boxes full.

10 minutes later, the group went back to the kitchen to learn cooking Singapore noodles. “The secret of cooking noodle dishes is: don’t cut the noodle. Why? In Chinese noodle, what does it mean? Longevity. And it’s like you cut your father’s head off! Are you crazy?” Poon prolonged the last word.

Poon was now finishing what he called the final touch on his noodles. The sauce sizzled in the pan, and the noodles changed to yellow brown. He took the sesame oil bottle and poured some oil into the pan. He then stir-fried the noodles, lifting the pan from the stove several times, shaking it, and making the noodles to mix evenly with the sauce. The noodles now looked shiny.

It was almost 7 p.m. And Poon was teaching the group of diners how to make sauces, which seemed to be a great joy for him. “Satay sauce, XO sauce, French and chicken garlic sauce,” he chanted them like rehearsing a tongue twister. The last dish for the class was making dumplings.

The diners went back to the table and talked merrily until everyone’s stomach was full and the party was over. Poon fetched a chunk of carrot from a bag and carved it into a flower. He poured water in a plastic box and sealed the flower inside it. He then gave the box to the diners.

“One more time,” he said, “thank you for coming. You have come from so far, Singapore, China, Malaysia … I hope this is a good Thanksgiving memory for you.”

Poon’s sweater was now stained with flour. And his arms and hands were red, because he rolled up his sleeves to work. Poon talked again: “I worked in factories. I worked in noodle shops. I did construction. I worked in Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Italian restaurants. I worked in hospital. I get so much experience. But to be a chef is not easy. You have to be above people. That’s why I never stop. Even if today I am better than the others, tomorrow they will be better than me. Always someone is better than you.”