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Q&A with Matt John Wells of Fung Tu

Maggie Borden

July 07, 2015

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Photo by Todd Carroll

You won’t find chicken lo mein or chop suey at Fung Tu, the Chinese-American hot spot earning raves from the New York Times and Eater. Instead, chef Matt John Wells (alongside chef/owner Jonathan Wu) integrate the breadth of the American culinary spirit into the Chinese oeuvre, turning out inspired creations like “china-quiles,” which transforms ma po tofu into the classic Mexican brunch dish. Wells and Wu are bringing their elevated fusion fare to our upcoming Chefs & Champagne®. We sat down with Wells to get his take on his C&C debut, summer favorites, and what he thinks defines a chef’s personal cuisine.

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JBF: What is the inspiration behind your dish for Chefs & Champagne?

MJW: It was kind of on the fly! We had to present our dish several weeks in advance, and we happened to be working on a crab fried rice at the time, so I thought a nice spicy/numbing crab salad paired with a cool, clear gazpacho would be perfect. I can source everything locally and in season. It's what I would like to eat. Also it’ll be very easy to execute—I should've listed that first!

JBF: What about C&C are you most looking forward to?

MJW: There’s actually a chef that I met at culinary school that’s going to be there. I haven't seen her in years and it will be nice to reconnect. Events like these are always a blast—I looking forward to the food and the networking. I've never been to an event with an after party, so that’s going to be fun, too. Last, but certainly not least, I’m looking forward to getting out of the city for a service.

JBF: Fung Tu has helped to redefine what Americans call Chinese cooking. Is there a dish on your menu that you think best reflects the restaurant’s philosophy?

MJW: First of all, thank you. Secondly, maybe the egg roll? At Fung Tu, we like to use the "melting pot" idea of American cuisine in all aspects of our cooking. You can look at our menu and see influences from many cultures. With the egg roll we introduce olives, and a barbecue-rubbed pork belly, but then roll it in a thin egg crepe like Nom Wah [Tea Parlor] has done for 100 years. We will most likely never take it off the menu. This direction is how we approach every new idea and menu item. It allows us to use our personal background to introduce a new way of thinking about cuisine and culture. There should be something that speaks to everyone.

JBF: The menu seems to draw as much from New York City as it does from Chinese cuisine. How does sourcing ingredients and dining out in NYC influence your cooking?

MJW: I can't stress how much supporting the local industry means to me. If I can't get it from my local farm, I'm going to my local Chinatown market. Even supporting your local community is important. How many years have the shops on Grand Street supplied people with food? But if you have the chance to go to the Union Square Greenmarket, do it. One walk through there at the height of a season is enough to inspire. Strictly speaking for myself, it's very rare that I use dining out to influence my cooking. Ideas seem to come at more random times, like when I'm just waking up, or playing guitar, or sometimes in the shower. I've made it a point to find inspiration from things other than restaurants—it allows me to be myself. I believe one should look at their past experiences for influence, whether it be childhood memories, previous chefs they worked for, something a porter really loved for family meal, anything. Keep it personal and then you will have a cuisine to call your own, no matter how many restaurants there are. If you understand the seasons and cook enough to know how food reacts, the only thing that sets you apart is your presentation.

JBF: What’s your go-to dish for summer cookouts?

MJW: I like to make barbecue pulled pork sandwiches with slaw and marinated cucumbers, and grilled corn on the cob with butter. 

JBF: What was your favorite thing to eat as a kid during the summer?

JW: Easy. Watermelon with salt.

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The James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne will take place Saturday, July 25, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, New York. Learn more about the James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne.