Long Xiang could barely cook — until he opened his own restaurant
By Yuqi Zha
One year ago, Long Xiang, 22, was a junior Business Engineering major at Drexel University, and was a really bad cook.
Today, he is the owner of About Hotpot, the most popular Chinese hotpot restaurant in Philadelphia at 125 Sansom Walkway, and spends hours in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Hotpot is a traditional Chinese dish that uses a stove to keep a soup base boiling in the pot, which is where the name “hotpot” comes from. Raw meat and vegetable are placed into the pot and cooked at the table. The key element that determines the success of a hotpot is the soup base, which often takes hours and several complicated steps to make.
“Believe it or not, I couldn’t even make tomato fried egg,” said Xiang while preparing the secret weapon that makes About Hotpot so irresistible, the beef-tallow hotpot soup base, made from beef fat and various kinds of spices.
Tomato fried egg is a traditional Chinese dish that almost every Chinese learns to cook as teenagers.
Xiang stood in front of a huge pot of boiling beef-tallow with a large silver soup ladle, wearing a pair of long cooking gloves that go all the way to his shoulders. The brown scorch marks on the blue gloves tell the difficulty of this process.
“It’s hot,” said Xiang. “By ‘hot’ I mean 170 °C (338 °F) to 200 °C (392 °F).”
He constantly paid careful attention to the heat while talking, added more than 10 different spices in the designated order and kept stirring with the soup ladle.
“This is a really painstaking process,” said Xiang. “…Sometimes I stopped stirring for only 15 seconds to answer a phone call. When I come back, the spices were charred. Boom! Everything is over.”
The spices are the soul of the beef-tallow hotpot soup base, which give it the desired color, smell and taste, said Xiang. Only a special kind of each spice works for the recipe, which must be airlifted to the U.S. from Szechuan, China, the origin of beef-tallow hotpot.
“For example, Mexican chili doesn’t work,” said Xiang while adding the dried chilis to the tallow. “It is spicy enough, but it can’t give the soup base the same tempting smell as the chili we use.”
It was not surprising that half an hour later, when finally there was a free cook staff to take over the work, Xiang took off the gloves and poured sweat like running water out of them.
“The whole process takes three hours,” said Xiang before he went to change the clothes, “We only have 12 staff. Four of them are cooks. So I have to help with the kitchen a lot.”
When I asked about how he became an expert on cooking who designs many of the popular dishes of About Hotpot in one year, Xiang laughed and sighed, “There is no shortcut—practice and time.”
When Xiang appeared at a dining table outside the kitchen a couple minutes later, he had changed to a black sweater, a pair of jeans and a pair of white sneakers, looking just like any ordinary college senior. You would not expect him to be the owner of the most popular hotpot restaurant in Philadelphia. Yet he is different—confident, eloquent, with the astuteness of a businessman in his eyes.
Xiang was born in Shanghai, China, and grew up in China until he came to Michigan for high school. He then came to Philadelphia to go to Drexel University in 2013. Although he has spent 9 years in the U.S., he is still a Chinese citizen.
About Hotpot is not the first business Xiang has owned. Xiang was interested in IT when he entered the college. In 2013, he opened a business with his friends, providing technology services like designing a computer server architecture. He even gapped for a year to run this business.
In 2015, Xiang thought he had accumulated enough resources and network in this field to set up an internet cafe in Chinatown, Philadelphia. It was a high-end internet gaming cafe: Intel launched their newest version of server architecture in his cafe and Razor provided all the gaming devices. However, the internet cafe was closed in 2016, due to “internal conflict,” as Xiang described it..
“The failure beat me really hard,” said Xiang, “I became a joke and I was desperate to prove myself.”
During summer vacation of 2016, after the internet cafe was closed, Xiang met with his friends at his house, discussing what they could do next. One of his friends brought a pack of beef-tallow hotpot seasoning from his hometown, so they decided to have some hotpot while thinking. It was Xiang’s first time he ate beef-tallow hotpot.
“This is damn good!” said Xiang. “What about a hotpot restaurant?”
This was the birth of About Hotpot.
However, neither Xiang nor his friends had any previous experience about running a restaurant. Xiang was grateful that people he got to know during his work at the Chinese Student and Scholars Association at Drexel University provided a great amount of help.
“Network and connections make a whole difference,” said Xiang. “You can’t open a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia without a good relationship with those elders in Chinatown.”
Xiang spent much time entertaining those predecessors of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia to build his connections. Because of the excessive drinking culture of Chinese networking, Xiang gained about 50 pounds in this process, which he described as “an industrial injury”.
On the website of About Hotpot, it says, “We aim to bring you the most fresh ingredient. That’s why we work so hard to source locally.”
The fresh ingredient is “the core competence of About Hotpot”, as Xiang put it. Xiang has to drive about 500 miles for more than 15 hours per week, visiting a couple of markets in New York, New Jersey and around Philadelphia to get the ingredients of the best quality.
He used to be fond of driving ,but now, he said with a wry smile, “A job kills a hobbit.”
“Most customers may not be able to tell the difference between different levels of beef, but I do,” said Xiang. “Because this restaurant carries my ideas and faith, it’s worth those efforts.”
On February 10, 2017, 10 days after About Hotpot opened, the after-party for Philadelphia Four College Spring Festival Gala Show was held in it. Xiang was exhausted that night. But when he watched 120 people fill up the restaurant, celebrating and cheering, he finally felt, “I did it.”
Now every weekend night, About Hotpot serves 300 people on average. You may need to wait more than one hour for a seat during the peak hours, from 7 pm to 10 pm.
“All the toughness I’ve been through made me who I am,” Xiang looked around his restaurant and said proudly. “About Hotpot is not about money or career. It is about youth and dream.”