At Chi — pronounced “chee,” for the Mandarin word for chess — two chefs, both named Tom, run the show.
Executive chef Tom Lei, also of Spy C in Forest Hills, Queens, and “chef Dr.” Tom Lo, a chef-turned-anesthesiologist, together opened Chi in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in November 2022.
“In the U.S., people see Chinese food, and to the majority of the people in the U.S., they think of wonton soup, beef and broccoli, lo mein, General Tso’s chicken,” says Lo. “And they’re fantastic; I love them. But there’s so much more to Chinese cuisine than General Tso’s chicken.”
The concept behind the restaurant is twofold. First, it’s about showcasing China’s many regional cuisines. While Szechuan cuisine is at the forefront, the menu also encompasses Cantonese, Hunanese, and Beijing-style culinary dishes. Second, it’s about bringing in ingredients and techniques far beyond China to create a menu that’s really one-of-a-kind, and inspired by their fellow chefs.
“Our friends are some of the best chefs in different cuisines — French, Italian, Peruvian, Greek, you name it,” says Lo, a Queens native. “As chefs, we all enjoy food: We go out to eat, we come to each other’s restaurants, and we cook together. When you get all these chefs together, there’s an exchange of ideas and techniques.”
In Lo’s words, here are five dishes that define Chi’s uniquely global perspective on Chinese cuisine.
1. Cucumber Salad
“This is how chef Tom Lei and I met. I was working a 24-hour shift at the hospital, and got off at 10 in the morning, having worked all night taking care of patients. I went into Spy C and tried this cucumber salad. I did a double take: It was the best cucumber salad I’d ever had. I’ve had dozens throughout Flushing and Chinatown. I said, ‘I have to talk to the chef.’ That’s how I met chef Lei. We became best friends and I partnered up with him at Spy C. This cucumber salad is how our friendship and how this partnership started … This dish is what put us in The New York Times.
“Szechuan peppercorn oil gives the dish a good dose of mala, the spicy-numbing flavor that’s a signature of Szechuan cuisine. It’s not spicy, but gives a numbness. The chile oil is combined with a splash of rice vinegar and garlic. It’s perfectly balanced so you get a bite of cucumber that’s spicy, it has a nice acidity to it, and it gives this little numbing sensation. It’s the perfect appetizer to start with.”
2. Steamed Pork Belly with Preserved Cabbage and Castelvetrano Olives
“This is an example of one of our collaborative dishes. I had taken chef Lei to eat at [Bryan Noury’s] Madre in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. One of the appetizers was these Castelvetrano olives [traditional Sicilian olives not typically seen in Chinese cuisine].
“What chefs do, is we eat, we critique and think about how these dishes are created, and how to incorporate them in our cuisines. We thought they were incredible, and they would pair well with traditional pork belly.
“The dish starts with pork belly, steamed until it’s very soft and rich and it gets paired with olives Castelvetrano olives that we cure in-house. It takes two weeks to cure, [providing this] great briny acidity that cuts through the richness of pork belly and pairs perfectly.
“The pork belly is sliced and fitted into a pyramid. Inside the pyramid is the preserved cabbage. It’s a stunning presentation.”
3. Minced Crabmeat with Bamboo Fungus Stewed Tofu
“This is one of my favorites. It’s a pretty unique dish that comes from Shanghai, and the key ingredient is a sauce made with salted duck egg yolks. It’s a common ingredient in China, but you don’t see it very often in New York. It’s one of my favorite flavors. We want to introduce it to the American palate.
“The bamboo fungus is hard to describe. It has a crispy and soft texture at the same time. The tofu is so soft and just melts in your mouth. This dish goes perfectly with a bowl of steamed white rice. It’s soft, silky and savory. [Guests] just need to try it. It’s delicious.”
4. Beef Tendon with Caviar
“Beef tendons are very common in Chinese cuisine, but we do something different here: The beef tendon is cooked for hours, then sliced thin and dehydrated, then fried up until it looks like a super crispy potato chip, perfect for piling caviar on top. It’s a perfect appetizer. Nothing beats starting off your meal with a little caviar, you get that nice salinity and brine from the caviar, and crispness from the beef tendon.
“We learned [how to do this] from Wylie Dufresne, the godfather of molecular gastronomy. In December 2019, he was doing an event with Mark Ladner at the South Street Seaport. They invited chef Tom Lei and me and Spy C to do one hors d’oeuvre for the pop-up, and he showed us this incredible technique.”
5. The Cajun Jumbo Shrimp with Abalone
“The way this dish originated is I introduced chef Lei to a Cajun seafood boil. We were in Astoria, Queens, at a place called Sugar Freak. They do these Cajun seafood boils. We were just going out to eat, and chef Lei grew up in Beijing. He’s never experienced any other food outside of Chinese food. Part of my goal was to introduce him to as many different cuisines as New York had to offer.
“This is chef Lei’s reinterpretation of Cajun shrimp, adding ma la via Szechuan peppercorn oil and doubanjiang, a spicy, fermented chile paste, and gilding the shrimp with abalone, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. Abalone is a sign of fortune and prosperity. It’s only served at luxury hotels in China. In America, people don’t really understand abalone. It sounded like a perfect pairing. It’s like a flavor bomb.”