When Brandon Jew remembers spending time with his grandmother as a child, the first thing that comes to mind is that she was a very, very finicky shopper.
“We would go on these long trips on the bus, all over San Francisco, to get everything she needed for dinner,” he recalls. “We had seven stops: lap cheong from down the street, a live fish from Stockton Street, the produce market. A lot of times, she was battling other grandmas to get the very best!”
There’s little chance he could have imagined how much those memories would shape him as an adult. Today, the second-generation San Francisco-born Chinese-American is reinterpreting his family’s culinary traditions at Mister Jiu’s, his acclaimed restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown. There, he’s clearing the path for a new kind of Chinese-American cuisine.
Recently, we stopped into the restaurant to shadow the Williams Sonoma Chefs’ Collective member and see how he prepares his updated version of a personal childhood favorite, sizzling rice soup. The kitchen was calm and orderly; there was no trace of the fact that the night before, the restaurant had held a one-year anniversary celebration, which Gwyneth Paltrow and her crew attended. After wrapping up a meeting with the kitchen to talk about that night’s dinner service, the chef approached us with a tilt of the head, a warm grin and a soft hello before changing into his chef’s whites to cut fresh water chestnuts for the sizzling rice soup.
“This dish is the one that I remember always wanting to order when we went out to eat,” he says of the soup, which traditionally involves dropping a cluster of cooked rice that’s been dehydrated and deep-fried into chicken broth, shrimp, mushrooms and water chestnuts to create a symphony of sound and smoke tableside. “The waiter would come out with soup bowls lined up and this big pot. He would put one hand behind their back and ladle out the soup. With the sizzling rice soup, he came out with a plate of rice cakes that seemed unassuming, but once he dropped them in, it was very dramatic: Pssshhht!”
At first glance, sizzling rice soup, a staple on the Mister Jiu’s menu every spring, seems simple enough. But despite its minimal appearance, the soup has a surprisingly deep, layered flavor. “It looks really light, but it has that rich feeling,” Brandon says. In fact, the soup contains multiple components—confit shrimp, chicken consommé—that take hours to prepare. At dinner service, the soup is served tableside with young spring vegetables, cured ham, flash-fried dehydrated rice, chive flowers, and green garlic schmaltz each playing a small but important role. “Each bite should almost be a little bit different,” Brandon says, “to keep your palate from getting fatigued.”
The soup, whose understated appearance belies its nuanced complexity and saturated flavors, is not unlike the chef: Beneath Brandon’s soft-spoken demeanor and gentle disposition is a very clear point of view. “What we’re cooking is Chinese-American regional cuisine,” he explains. “We want to create an expression of the Bay Area. I want to bring the nostalgic memories that I and other Chinese-Americans have with what farmers are growing here now.”
As certain as he is now, Brandon’s point of view wasn’t always so clearly defined. In fact, one could argue that he fell into cooking entirely on accident. As a student at UC Irvine, he took a job at a local restaurant and bar to help pay for rent. “One of the cooks didn’t come to work one day, and the chef needed an extra hand, so I wound up in the kitchen,” he recalls.
By the time he finished school, he was cooking at one of Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurants. He eventually returned to Northern California, working his way up the ranks at Zuni Café and Quince, two of San Francisco’s most nationally recognized restaurants.
He began contemplating a departure from the Bay Area’s signature Cal-Italian and Mediterranean cuisines. “I got to a point where I wondered how far a Chinese-American cook could get with Italian cooking,” he says frankly. Meanwhile, outside of those professional kitchens, he’d made a decision to try to preserve his family’s food heritage. He sought out family recipes for the dishes he fondly remembered eating when he was a kid. His grandmother passed away before he could record them all.
His grandmother’s death struck a chord, and he moved to Shanghai for nine months to learn more about Chinese cuisine. When he returned, he envisioned a place where he could marry his love of traditional Chinese food (and not-so-traditional Americanized Chinese food) with a regional Northern California sensibility.
It took Brandon years to get funding for the restaurant, and once he did, three more years to get the restaurant off the ground, but it is finally a vision that’s been realized. “At Mister Jiu’s, we’re trying to be a representation of San Francisco Chinese food and Chinatown,” he says.
Much of his life has come full circle. He now lives in his grandmother’s old home, the house where he spent so much of his childhood. Every morning, he heads over to the calm yet lived-in block of Waverly Place in Chinatown, where his restaurant sits.
“[My family] is really proud,” he says. “That pride is what I wanted. This is a place where we can express our experience of being Chinese, but also American. For him, this means not just cooking with a nod to the Chinese-American food of the past, but also blazing the trail for the restaurants of Chinatowns to come. He adds: “In the next five to ten years, chefs all around the United States will be re-creating the idea of what Chinese-American food is.”
All photos by Kassie Borreson.