Philip Chiang brings America’s favourite Chinese chain to Bahrain
Time Out Bahrain staff
PF Chang’s China Bistro made its Bahrain debut in May and we caught up with co-founder Philip Chiang to get the lowdown on one of America’s favourite Chinese eateries.
You’ve got restaurants all over the world, what number will Bahrain be?
PF Chang’s Bahrain will be the 238th restaurant globally and the seventh in the Middle East (four in Dubai, two in Kuwait, one in Bahrain).
What made you decide to bring PF Chang’s to the island?
PF Chang’s has been very well received internationally and, especially within the Middle East region, consumers have a strong affinity with our brand; thus, coming to Bahrain was a natural step for us and we hope the local community will enjoy our food, service and ambience.
Please tell us a bit about how the brand got started? Back in the mid 1980s I owned two restaurants in the Los Angeles area. The Mandarin was conceived by my mother (Cecilia Chiang) in San Francisco in the early 60s and became a ground-breaking Chinese restaurant serving a style of Chinese cuisine unseen before in the US. She missed the aristocratic foods she grew up with in Beijing and decided to open a restaurant outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown serving the many regional cuisines she was accustomed to eating in Beijing.
The main regional Chinese cuisine represented in the US back then was Cantonese. She changed all that and after the success of the first The Mandarin in San Francisco, she opened a second one in Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills neighbourhood in 1975 where I was living and practising graphic design.
I had gone to study design at The Art Center in LA and, after graduating, started to work in a firm designing record jackets and various graphics for the record industry. It just so happened the record companies started to cut back on outsourced designs during a downturn in their business and, at the same time, my mother decided to visit her family in China when it opened up in the late 70s and she asked me to keep an eye on The Mandarin in Beverly Hills while she was gone for several months.
Being a struggling designer I obliged thinking that I would go back to my visual arts at some point soon. Soon, turned into over 20 years and during those years I opened an off shoot of The Mandarin in LA called Mandarette in 1984. Mandarette was an informal ‘artistic’ Chinese café serving street-food-inspired recipes mainly from my visit to Taiwan. A lot of the dishes were small plates which I called small tastes and the media called ‘grazing style’.
Mandarette attracted an eclectic crowd which attracted an alternative Hollywood crowd and among my customers was Paul Fleming (the PF in PF Chang’s) who had opened his first steak restaurant in Beverly Hills. He became a regular and he eventually moved to Phoenix, Arizona to open more steak restaurants, but whenever he was in LA he would pop in.
I eventually sold Mandarette and took the concept and many of the dishes to The Mandarin. Paul kept showing up at The Mandarin after I sold Mandarette and he liked the food. In 1992 he asked me to help him open a Chinese restaurant in Phoenix as a consultant and the rest is history. We opened the first PF Chang’s China Bistro in July 1993 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Your website mentions Barbara Tropp as a menu consultant but were you also involved in developing the menu? Barbara Tropp was a well-known chef in San Francisco where she owned a restaurant serving her brand of Chinese cuisine and had written a recipe book based on her knowledge of the Chinese gastronomy she learned while living in Taiwan. I developed the first menu and we brought in outside consultants from time to time, such as Barbara, to help inspire some new ideas.
And you’ve said that these days you only visit the development kitchen occasionally, so who’s in charge of making sure your dishes stay fresh and interesting? PF Chang’s has a talented culinary team that oversees the day to day operations. I still occasionally dabble with the menu, but the majority of the work is done by the team within the framework that was initially set up by me and refined over the 20 years that we have been in operation. I also take our culinary team for eating tours to various cities and to Asia as well, where much of the inspiration comes from.
What can your guests in Bahrain expect from PF Chang’s, what sets the brand aside from other Chinese restaurants? PF Chang’s offers Chinese food from the various regions of China and of Southeast Asia, sometimes with a modern touch, with an unending attention to detail and preparation.
We cook our dishes to order in traditional woks and almost all our food is prepped with traditional Chinese cleavers. We ‘prep’ daily to ensure freshness and use the best ingredients available to meet the high standards that have been passed down from day one.
Members of the kitchen staff go through months of intense training (some of them even in the US) in order to maintain the consistency that we demand wherever you may be. The basic premise of our food is in its simplicity. We keep most dishes clean and simple with almost no extraneous ingredients.
We also don’t use MSG, we cook with less starch and oil and you won’t see too many dishes swimming in the typical brown gravy sauce you find in many Chinese restaurants.
On top of that, we take measures to give our customers a comfortable, sophisticated, contemporary environment to dine in with great music and, let’s not forget, great service.
Where will you source your ingredients? Our ingredients have to be compatible and consistent with the ingredients we use worldwide, although of course we also ensure we are compliant with local culture – halal ingredients being key in this region. All ingredients must meet our standards whether they are locally produced or not. We do import items that cannot be procured locally.
Is there a signature dish and if so what is it and what’s the story behind it? Throughout the world and ever since we started PF Chang’s the number one seller is the Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps. My mother first served it at The Mandarin as a special for VIPs and it was initially called minced squab, but as its popularity grew it was switched to chicken because there just wasn’t enough meat on a squab to meet the demand.
Anything else our readers should know? We are really excited about being in Bahrain.
We know that the consumers here have a sophisticated palate and we are confident that we will be able to surpass their expectations. We hope to see you here, very soon!