The inspiration of Ching-He Huang

When I met Ching-He Huang, my first impression of her was the same as it was the first time I saw her Cooking Channel show, “Easy Chinese.” She is sweet, smiley, talented, petite, beautiful, and wields that sriracha bottle like a boss.

It’s been almost a year since I sampled her Pearly Pork Balls and spicy chicken pitas in the Food Network kitchens, and I’ve not only grown to admire Ching even more, I now consider her a friend.

But first impressions and friendship aside, I’m wondering if I’m ready for a side of Ching I’ve never seen before – the tougher side, the down-to-business side, the Ching who shows there’s more to Chinese women than big smiles and steamed dumplings. Ready or not, that’s what I’ll be seeing next week when her new show, “Restaurant Redemption,” premieres on Cooking Channel.

I talked with Ching earlier this week from her home in London about the new show, and what we can expect. Most restaurant-makeover shows feature guys like Robert Irvine and Gordon Ramsey shouting, swearing, and throwing things as they attempt to make often grievously thick-headed restaurant owners understand why their business is failing. Try as I might, I just can’t see Ching doing any of that.

“I’m not like Gordon – I don’t swear. Well, I do, but only when I’m stuck in traffic,” she joked. “But you will get to see a different side of me, the tough side.”

During the course of the season, Ching travels to Asian restaurants in eight different states and helps people who need it to not only turn their struggling restaurants around, but to understand how to keep the success going, and perhaps more importantly, how to be true to their culture.

“It’s been rather challenging because everyone is so different,” she said. “And what each restaurant is facing is different as well. Some of them are family businesses that are struggling, maybe a new manager has taken over but doesn’t know what to do, maybe they’re two months from closing down due to their finances.”

Her frustration shows itself when she sees people wasting the opportunities they have.

“Sometimes it’s hard because a lot of these people have been doing the same thing for years,” Ching said. “I come in with new eyes and I can see what they’re doing, and I can see what they’re capable of. I want to empower them. When I do get mad, it’s because I’m just so frustrated at seeing them stuck in their own negativity and contributing to their own demise.”

She tells them they need to really focus on what they’re good at. It sounds like a simple enough message but it’s one that many restaurateurs, believe it or not, are not quick to follow. Despite knowing their restaurant is anywhere from struggling to very shortly doomed, these chefs often hesitate to make the food they know best.

Ching not only recognizes this, she understands it, perhaps better than most. When I first met her, the Taiwan-born, England-raised chef told me about the struggle with her own cultural identity, from her younger years wishing she could be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Brit through finally embracing her Asian heritage and showcasing it in her food. Now when she sees restaurant owners putting aside the tastes of their own cultures in the name of trying to please American palates, it bothers her.

“I’ve come to realize that what we make as chefs and cooks is really a reflection of ourselves,” she said. “It’s a reflection of your inner being and what’s going on in there. It’s almost like a mirror. At a lot of the places I visited, I met restaurant owners who have been through their own cultural identity struggle. They are willing to do anything but put their culture on the plate. They only put out what they think customers want. Yes, to some degree you have to listen to your customers’ feedback, but you have to take pride in your heritage and culture. You have to believe in your ability to put out great food that’s reflective of that culture.”

To those Asian cooks who are unsure they want to offer their customers anything other than eggs rolls and General Tso’s Chicken, Ching challenges them to think outside the takeout box.

“Part of our job as cooks and chefs is to educate the public about the foods of our culture,” she said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to say this is a traditional dish, these are the ingredients we use, these are the spices. I think a lot of these people have faced prejudice, so now they shy away from putting their culture on the plate. They’re afraid to put the food they know best right there, front and center.”

Ching’s nurturing nature comes through when she’s discussing that cultural identity struggle, and her empathy makes her more determined to nudge them forward in their thinking, as well as in their cooking. “They just need someone, a coach or a cheerleader, to say ‘You can do this!’ or ‘Your knowledge of Laotian food is so amazing – why are you doing Japanese?’”

She thinks of herself as these restaurant owners’ friend and mentor.

“All of us need that sometimes in life,” she told me. “I’m really rooting for them. For me, everything we do on this show is about what’s best for them, what’s in their best interest, what’s best for their happiness and their creativity.”

Because cooking, like writing, is an art, Ching and I have found still more common ground. She believes in pushing herself, in trying everything from new dishes to new TV shows, in an attempt to see how high she can soar. We talk about the importance of moving into unfamiliar territory in our art, and the thrill of finding something new you’re good at. That’s the adventurous spirit Ching tries to impart to the restaurants she visits on the new show.

“It’s rewarding to see them reach the moment of ‘Aha! I am good at this! Of course I can do it!’ They turn around and start to believe in themselves again. It might be a dish, an ingredient, a story from their childhood, or it might be just that they’ve lightened the load by sharing a problem they’ve had for many years.”

The new show has been a tremendous learning experience for Ching as well.

“Every day I’m learning as an artist – that’s what I call myself now,” she said. “And this new show is really helping me learn and grow. And I’ve grown a lot. When Cooking Channel first asked me to do this, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I could. I’m confident in my own ability when I cook, but these were strangers, and I only got a small amount of time with them to try and make a big change. Plus there is a lot at stake. For some of these people, their whole livelihood depends on whether we succeeded. Now I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I said yes. I’ve noticed that what we think are challenges in the beginning really teach us about ourselves as we grow. It makes me feel really lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”

Ching asks about my writing and we compare notes from the front lines of our respective fields. She is encouraging, supportive, as excited about my new projects as I am about hers. We talk about weddings – she’s engaged to actor Jamie Cho – families, life, and art. In the end, they’re all connected. Our lives, with all their moving and interlocking parts, are what drive us forward every day.

“As humans, I really believe our potential is limitless,” Ching mused as we were wrapping up our conversation. “Is it because we’re greedy, we want to be good at this and that? I think it’s because we have unlimited potential – that’s why we always want to do more and achieve more. We want to enjoy the process of learning. We may not become the best chef or the best writer in the world, but whatever we learn along the way makes the whole trip worthwhile.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why I love Ching, and why I really want you to watch the premiere of “Restaurant Redemption” this Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on Cooking Channel. You can also read more about Ching on her website, www.chinghehuang.com.