Photo by Michael Ventura
Peter Chang is unpacking crates of outdoor furniture on the patio of his new restaurant. Inside, furniture imported from China, including elm dining tables and chairs upholstered in taupe or jade leather, is in place throughout the 5,000-square-foot dining room, which seats 160. (The outside dining area accommodates 40.) Two enormous white Plexiglas LED chandeliers hang from the 25-foot ceiling. The walls, painted in soft gray and awaiting the delivery of commissioned artwork, are outlined with panels of intricately carved woodwork in rectangular patterns. Chinese red is confined to the entrance doors and small foyer. There, the large Chinese characters for qi and jian (“flag” and “ship”) hang on the wall, raised and backlit to command the customers’ attention as they cross the threshold. There are no dragons anywhere in Q by Peter Chang, by design.
In the 3,000-square-foot kitchen, cooks are toiling away. The opening had been scheduled for June 2, but once the restaurant passed inspection, Chang decided to put out the word on social media that Q would “soft open” on the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, a notoriously busy and stressful time for restaurants, at 11 a.m. The restaurant served 355 meals on the first day and well over 200 the next.
It didn’t go smoothly. Initial Yelp reviews were mixed, and many diners complained about small portions and big prices. Regulars from Peter Chang Rockville compared Q to what they knew. Could they have been expected to know that the scallops Chang was using at Q were fresh, not frozen, and much more expensive? That the tenderloin cost Chang $18 a pound? Did it make a difference to them that meals were served in specially designed plates and bowls imported from China, or that there were 20 cooks to pay in the kitchen, or that the build-out cost more than $1 million?
Early on the Friday morning after the opening, Chang sits in the Q dining room, something clearly weighing on his mind. Of course he’s not happy with the Yelp comments, he says. No chef likes to read that customers are disappointed.
“French food, Italian food, they have even smaller portions and are charging more,” he says. “The red snapper—I cook it myself. I worked hard to cook that, and it takes a long time and comes with a lifetime of experience. Should that cost $20? This is not just about portions. Every dish is like a project. How to make the Mao pork more tender and have the right color. It’s not just braised pork belly. People say, ‘You have 10 restaurants. You should just have the same restaurant here as in Rockville and you’ll make a lot of money.’ Do you know how that makes me feel?”
He’s also distracted by something else. He says something to Sammi Li, the restaurant’s public relations and marketing director, who’s translating for him. She lets out a gasp. “[His daughter], Lydia, was in a car accident this morning," Li explains. “That’s all he knows. He’s waiting to hear something about her.”
With that, Chang starts to cry.
“My family and I have suffered so much for the last 16 years. I can’t go to my motherland. I could live a good life without suffering now. I’m fine. Finer than most people. Why am I putting myself through this like this again? To be judged? We have been working so hard. I can’t go home to see my family, my friends. All that for what? That I should have a flagship and keep the same menu and the same prices? That is not possible.” He stares out the window for a few seconds and pulls himself together. “Maybe I am a very selfish man, putting my family through this and my colleagues and followers because Q is different and this is my dream. I am sorry about that, but I’m not going to stop.”
The phone rings with news about Lydia, 29, who had been hit by a car while out for a morning run near her Tenleytown apartment. She’s on her way to Sibley Memorial Hospital. Chang and his wife, Lisa, go there in his black Mercedes-Benz ML350 SUV. They find out she’s badly shaken and bruised, but her injuries aren’t serious, and she’ll be able to return to work at the restaurant in a couple of days.
It was Lydia, his only child, who first encouraged Chang to take a leap of faith and create a restaurant different from his others. “We’re going to build this place from scratch,” she told her father. Q could be his masterpiece, she said.