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Though Josh Grinker isn’t Chinese, his Chinese food draws foodies — and Chinese expats looking for a taste of home — from all over New York City.
His restaurant, Kings County Imperial, has been awarded Bib-Gourmand status by Michelin. And the praise it’s received includes a USA Today review that says it offers possibly the best Chinese food in the whole city — which is high praise in a city packed with authentic Chinese restaurants.
Grinker and Jane Young, Kings County co-owner, have been lauded for leading a new approach to American-Chinese food. They provide authentic dishes selected from the local cuisines of different regions in China.
They use fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, and serve their food in an American atmosphere with an upscale ambience — with soy sauce on tap as well as beer.
In his first job out of culinary school, Grinker was mentored by one of the only Anglo chefs to have cooked for Chinese royalty at the Imperial Palace. In the late ’90s, Grinker and Young, who had met in culinary school, decided to embark on a tour of China. They worked as cooks in various kitchens across the country.
It was during this tour that they first tasted Chop Your Head Off soup. “I’ve seen old photographs of cooks making this soup,” says Grinker. “They hold a dough ball up by their forehead in one hand and with a cleaver in the other hand, rapidly slice off pieces of the dough into a large wok full of steaming broth.”
“The soup is thus named, either because if they miss the dough ball, they will chop their own head off, or because the dough represents a head, and they’re chopping it off into the soup. Either way, it’s a very cool name.”
It’s basically China’s equivalent of a chicken noodle soup — it’s comfort food, and it’s one of the dishes Grinker and Young have added to their menu. “One of our investors is native Chinese. When he first had that soup, he said he hadn’t tasted flavours like that since his mother made the soup for him 40 years ago, which was the biggest testimonial you could have,” Grinker says. “You want people to be reminded of home.”
Grinker says lumping cuisine from China together as “Chinese food” is as overly simplistic as labelling food from France, Italy, and Spain as “European food.”
“Great Chinese chefs often spend their entire careers trying to realize the fullest expression of their regional cuisine,” Grinker says. “We’re not bound by that. We don’t do any East-meets-West fusion, but we do a lot of intercontinental Chinese fusion.”
“If there’s one thing you take with you when you learn to cook Chinese, it’s that balance is hugely important,” he says. He notes that soy sauce, sugars, vinegars, as well as textures and mouthfeel, all need to work in harmony with each other. “Many Chinese dishes are very one-dimensional… [But] when balanced in harmony with other dishes on the table, it can be a really dynamic and cool experience,” he says. “In Western cuisine, the canvas is the plate… In Chinese food, the table is the canvas.”
Chop Your Head Off Soup
By Chef Josh Grinker
For the dough: 1 cup all-purpose flour / 4 tablespoons water
For the Chinese chicken broth: 2.5 pounds chicken parts (preferably backs and necks) or bones / 3 quarts cold water / 1 cup scallions, cut into thirds with bulbs included / ½ cup coarsely chopped ginger or ginger peels
For the soup: 1 teaspoon canola oil / 1 teaspoon chopped ginger / 1 teaspoon chopped garlic / 2 tablespoons chopped scallion (one for the wok and one for garnish) / 4 ounces (about ½ cup) ground pork
½ cup soy sauce / 2 cups shredded napa cabbage / 1 tablespoon sesame oil / ¼ cup cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
For the dough: Mix the flour and the water and knead for 5 minutes until smooth, then cover with plastic and set aside.
For the broth: Put all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 to 3 hours, then use a strainer to remove the solid ingredients.
For the soup: Add the canola oil to a hot wok, and working quickly, sauté the ginger, garlic, and scallion until fragrant. Add the ground pork. With your wok spoon, wok ladle, or a stiff spatula, break up the pork while cooking it. When the pork is well broken up and cooked through, pour off any excess fat.
Add the soy sauce and 3 cups of Chinese chicken broth to the wok. While broth is heating, slice off thin pieces of dough, like large coins, into the broth. (This is the part that gives the soup it’s name. A chef would traditionally hold the ball of dough up near his head and use a cleaver to chop off pieces of dough into the broth.)
Add the chopped cabbage. When the broth is boiling, stir the cornstarch-water mixture into the broth. Bring soup back to a boil. Turn off heat, and pour into bowls. Drizzle sesame oil on top and garnish with chopped scallion.