Next time you tuck into a container of General Tso's chicken, order a classic like crispy sea bass or even sample a more modern creation – the lettuce wrap (made mainstream by a certain popular restaurant chain) – give an appreciative nod to Michael Tong, whose midtown Manhattan restaurant, Shun Lee Palace, has been hailed as "a New York institution" by The New York Times. Such praise is no exaggeration – Tong estimates that, every day, the Shun Lee restaurants serve more than 900 meals and prep hundreds more for take-out. Even on Christmas Day.
A superstar on Manhattan's restaurant scene for more than 40 years, Tong divides his time between Manhattan and Old Tappan as the owner of the celebrated Shun Lee Palace and its sister restaurant, Shun Lee West. Though he estimates that the Shun Lee restaurants have served more than 10 million people over the past four decades, he most enjoys "seeing my regular customers coming back. Generation after generation, they come in with their sons and grandsons. That's what keeps me inspired."
Tong's hands-on approach and easy affability might explain why he is "the only restaurateur in Manhattan with eight stars," he says with a smile. He's referencing Craig Claiborne's four-star rating of Shun Lee Palace's predecessor, Shun Lee Dynasty, in The New York Times and Hunan's four-star review in The New York Times in 1972 by Raymond Sokolov. The reviews "legitimized Chinese cooking for New Yorkers," Tong says.
Tong's influence on modern Chinese cooking in the U.S. cannot be overestimated. He is credited with introducing American diners to authentic Sichuan, Hunan and Mandarin cooking in the 1960s – dishes that are now found on menus in thousands of Chinese restaurants across the country.
"Crispy orange beef, Lake Tung Ting prawns, crispy sea bass – they all originated at Shun Lee," he writes in his acclaimed The Shun Lee Cookbook, published by HarperCollins in 2007.
In 2001, Tong was one of a handful of prominent Chinese men and women honored by the China Institute of America at its 75th anniversary gala benefit. The event recognized contributions in introducing China and Chinese culture into mainstream American life. Likewise, Tong was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2006. The award acknowledges "American citizens of diverse origins for their outstanding contributions to their own ethnic groups, their ancestral countries and to the United States."
Beyond his cultural contributions, Tong is credited with creating thousands of jobs for Chinese immigrants in New York City. In fact, one day he hopes to open a cooking school offering formal culinary training to Chinese immigrants and social and financial support as they adjust to life in America.
He is also considering a follow-up cookbook, this time focusing on healthy Chinese cooking.
"People think there is too much sodium, but there is another side to Chinese cooking," he explains. "We always have lighter dishes, and many dishes can be prepared without sodium, sugar and gluten. Sometimes people are surprised to find lamb, swordfish or sweetbreads on the menu – these are not necessarily Chinese foods – but we use what is on the market and make it work in Chinese cooking."
When Tong came to the United States in 1963, the only Chinese food readily available was a Westernized version of Cantonese. He studied engineering at the University of Southern California and, later, Oklahoma State University. But he spent summers working in Chinese restaurants.
"In China, your parents always want you to become an engineer," he says. "But I always liked cooking."
One summer, an uncle took him to eat at New Shun Lee at 91st and Broadway. At that time, Tong writes in his cookbook's introduction, the most authentic (non-Cantonese) cuisine was being prepared by newly arrived Chinese immigrant chefs who set up storefront restaurants in low-rent areas like Harlem.
"Here were the dishes that my mother and grandmother cooked – recipes from all corners of China, but especially Shanghai and Sichuan," he says.
There, he met chef Tsung Ting Wang, who had previously been the chef to the Chinese ambassador to the United States.
The meeting proved fortuitous. When Wang opened his own restaurant, Shun Lee Dynasty, in midtown Manhattan in 1967, Tong joined him as maitre d'. The restaurant was "an immediate success [and] had a revolutionary impact on Chinese restaurants throughout the United States," Claiborne of The New York Times once wrote.
"New Yorkers were entranced by dishes that were enlivened by the exciting, aromatic flavor of Sichuan peppercorns and whole chili peppers," Tong says.
Later the pair became business partners and opened Shun Lee Palace, Shun Lee West and Hunan, the first restaurant to introduce Hunanese cooking to New York.
Though his primary passion is greeting generations of returning customers, Tong pursues other interests with equal enthusiasm. He is a collector of rare Chinese recipes and cookbooks, as well as antique porcelain sniff bottles (his collection exceeds 100), Chinese paintings and other antiques. He travels to China annually and is deeply appreciative of "each region's ability to maintain its own cooking style." He is also vice-chairman of the China AIDS Fund Inc.
"Thank God I'm in this business," Tong says. "The restaurant business is a service business, and you have to love doing it."
Despite his passion for it, he did earn that prized degree in civil engineering.
"That was for my father," he says.