Waiting outside of Lair, the hot, new night spot in SoHo – so exclusive that you have to be on the guest list to even get in, I look over the unassuming exterior. It is a plain building with no confirmable evidence that this is Lair. Chris pulls up to the curb, parks his car, and greets me, and is all smiles.
As we enter Lair, the venue is dimly lit, but still bright enough to distinguish the posh interior and the equally posh service staff. Chris tells me to wait a moment while he goes to check the kitchen. Chris Cheung is the executive chef at Lair, and he is currently working on another project in Midtown, Wall-E with Wally Chin of Chin-Chin. Wall-E’s menu will focus a lot on Chinese barbecue, something Chris has been perfecting last summer. On a different note, Lair has a limited but exquisite pan-Asian menu designed by Chris and focuses on 4 to 5 dishes.
With the ability to be flexible and having a global palate, he has helped many restaurants in the New York area start and succeed. His family was one of the original Hong Kong Cantonese families to establish Manhattan’s Chinatown. His earliest memory of truly enjoying food was the he fen or chow fun at this one restaurant near his grandfather’s shop.
To this day he continues to search for that perfect bite of wide, chewy rice noodle, beef, and leafy greens. Chris has worked with notable chef such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne, Daniel Angerer, and Morimoto. After graduating the now defunct New York Restaurant Academy, he made his way up the cooking ladder starting as a line chef to sous chef at such notorious NYC staples as Nobu, Ruby Foo’s, Monkey Bar, Almond Flour Bakery, and China 1, eventually making it to his current role as Executive Chef consulting all over New York City.
When Chris and I sat down, we discussed travel because I had just returned from a trip to Taiwan. We indulged ourselves in discussing night market foods, especially food on a stick, grilled over hot charcoals. He told me about his recent trip to Shanghai and the surrounding villages he visited to learn how to make noodles by hand in the Lanzhou style, hand-shaved by knife and hand-pulled. One of the best meals Chris has ever had was during one of these village visits where the chicken was so fresh that he had just seen it pecking in the yard mere minutes before the feast.
Traveling for fogap from cheap take-out to an elegant evening such as Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and Cuban, America has always seen Chinese-American food as cheap and filling. With thousands of years of cultured civilization and recipes that reach back just as far to the royal courts, Chinese food still struggles to become an elegant addition to fine dining culture, not just a cure for a drunken night out.